Food: The Aroma of Gumbo

Chef Susan Spicer is a busy woman. Not only has she written an acclaimed cookbook (Crescent City Cooking) with some 170 recipes from traditional New Orleans food to her signature restaurant creations, she also runs two restaurants. Running one successful eatery is something of an achievement in a city where even mediocre ones are often miles ahead of what you’d find anywhere else.

Spicer’s best-known restaurant, Bayona, is among the city’s main culinary attractions, according to some pretty sophisticated palates—Mario Batali said of her, “Susan Spicer is one of my favorite chefs in my favorite dining city in the world.” The Zagat guide has featured Bayona in the top five for New Orleans since 1995—no small feat—and it’s currently ranked number one. Spicer was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in Food and Beverage in America in 2010, and won a James Beard Best Chef award in 1993.

It’s therefore a pretty safe bet to say that when Spicer visits UMass for a cooking demo and to oversee a dinner, the food will be rooted in New Orleans cuisine and spectacular to boot.

In a recent conversation, Spicer shared some of her plans for the demo: “I’m going to do a sort of universal dish, a goat cheese crouton with mushrooms and madeira cream.” She also plans to feature a savory take on a New Orleans specialty, the beignet (a fried pillow of dough, famously served coated in powdered sugar with a cup of chicory cafe au lait at the tourist stop Café du Monde). Spicer’s version pairs the beignet with that other venerable New Orleans favorite, crawfish.

“I’ll be working from my recipes in my book,” says Spicer, “and throwing in a couple of dishes from the restaurants.”

Though you’ll find plenty of traditional recipes in Crescent City Cooking, Spicer’s food is far broader in its influences. Bayona’s fare includes dishes that borrow elements from French and Italian traditions, among many others. Her creations wander far afield, and she explains the influence of traditional and regional dishes as something that has “as much as influence on what I do as anything else. My food in both restaurants is pretty eclectic.”

That only makes sense in a place as culturally distinct as New Orleans, full as it is of French, Spanish, Caribbean and Southern elements. For Spicer, it’s not the more cliched elements of New Orleans food that really define it. “It draws a lot of good things from a lot of different places,” she says. “It’s not necessarily hot and spicy—I think it’s the embracing of really bold flavors [that defines it]. We like our coffee strong and dark, and we really tend to like things not to be subtle.”

With that tradition as a starting point, Spicer, who’s been running restaurants in New Orleans for around three decades, likes to seek new territory, especially with the input of others. “I’m always trying to grow and I really enjoy the process of collaboration,” she says.” In bringing in my chef de cuisine and working with chefs and sous chefs, I try to keep the cuisine fresh. I try to keep the food vibrant, not do novelty for novelty’s sake.”

Spicer is a widely travelled chef (she even spent a year living in the wilds of Pelham), but attendees of her cooking demonstration should, nonetheless, expect a healthy dose of old-school Crescent City; for her, as for many New Orleanians, the true tastes of home can still be found in one of the mainstays. “I could eat gumbo every day,” she says. “There’s so many different kinds.

“When you’re smelling a dark roux and you throw in the peppers and onions and celery—it’s a unique aroma. There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. I think about that every time I do it.”

Cooking demo and four-course dinner with music by The Washboard Chaz Blues Trio and UMass Jazz Ensemble I: March 9, 6 p.m. doors, music 6:30 p.m., $65, Campus Center Auditorium, UMass-Amherst, (413) 545-2511.

Author: James Heflin

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