Remember that first wash of Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz? That’s what it’s like to step off the grayscale street and into Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou in Springfield.
This little New Orleans-style restaurant is stranded on a run-down industrial block of Liberty Street, but that hasn’t put a damper on the warm, welcoming vibe that Chef Wayne Hooker has curated. The place is dimly lit and cozy, decorated with colorful masks, murals, alligator art, and tribal statues wearing straw hats.
The waitresses call you “honey” and “darlin’.” A swingin’ blues soundtrack plays. It’s completely BYOB. Such quirks seem to charm hungover college kids, young families, quiet couples, and boisterous friends in equal measure.
When Chef Wayne finally steps out from the kitchen around 1 p.m., he sits for a few minutes at a table full of regulars. He makes himself a screwdriver from their store-bought vodka and orange juice. “It’s been good today. We had a good lunch today,” he says, smiling and nodding.
“Woo!” someone yells.
On Sunday mornings, Chef Wayne gets in at 7:30 a.m., and he has been on his feet nonstop since then, working hard alongside his two assistant cooks to crank out plate after plate of New Orleans eats for the Sunday brunch crowd. Since the place opened in 1996, his winking personality and zesty cuisine have turned hundreds of visitors into regulars.
“I’m thinking about easing my way out,” he says. “Not 100 percent. Maybe just down to like 35, 40 hours a week.”
It’s hard to begrudge him that. Chef Wayne has had two knee replacements, a gall bladder removed, and a minor stroke since he opened this joint.
And still he cooks and cooks. “I’m too old, man,” he says. “I’m 60. But hey, 60 is the new 37.”
Waitresses glide through the room carrying plates heaped with chicken and waffles, biscuits and gravy, shrimp and grits, and cornmeal coated catfish.
“Working here is the greatest thing ever,” says server Nikki Allen. “The vibe is homey, down-to-earth. People feel like they can kick back and relax.” Allen has worked here for eight years. Even now, she is the least-senior member of the four-person waitstaff. The restaurant seats about 40 customers.
“I couldn’t imagine Chef Wayne expanding anything,” says brunch guest Sylvia Humphrey-Spann. “If he did, he would lose the atmosphere. It’s nice to feel crowded. I like hearing voices all around me.”
Humphrey-Spann, a retired librarian at the Mason Square branch in Springfield, is here with her friend of 10 years Estelle Early, a retired Baystate nurse. They have just come from church at St. John’s Congregational.
“We came here to break bread and share the day with each other,” Early says. She ordered the peach bourbon French toast. Humphrey-Spann had the blackened salmon and cream cheese omelette. The verdict, in unison: “Tasty!”
At a nearby table, four-year-old Kennedy Johnson-Barnhart is absorbed in her meal. She chomps down on a big forkful of sweet potato waffle doused in butter and maple syrup, with a slice of spicy fried chicken on top.
“We come here all the time,” says her mother, Kayla Johnson, of Springfield. “We absolutely love the food. Nowhere else in town does this type of cooking.”•