A Big Easy Christmas
Star chef Susan Spicer comes from a strong European Christmas tradition. But in New Orleans, her holiday means palm trees, swimming pools and a magnificent Southern feast.
Susan Spicer's first food memories are Cajun and Creole, right? Wrong. Spicer may run Bayona, one of the finest restaurants in New Orleans' French Quarter, but her earliest culinary influence was Dutch. That's one reason the meals at Bayona have never been as identifiably Cajun or Creole as those of Spicer's Crescent City peers. Recently she put together a holiday dinner for friends, even though she's just embarked on a big new project: Herbsaint, a 100-seat bistro in the city's suddenly thriving Warehouse District. The newly opened restaurant features French-American cafe cuisine that's a bit less elaborate than the polished and eclectic food she's famous for.
"Herbsaint is an absinthe substitute they make in New Orleans," Spicer explains, "and it's something I use a lot in cooking. We're offering some dishes prepared with Herbsaint—I'm doing a shrimp-tomato bisque with it—and some cocktails, too." The restaurant stands on a corner, with large windows looking out on busy St. Charles Avenue; inside, the walls are green and gold, with a large black-and-white photograph of an absinthe spoon and glass as the dining room's centerpiece. Spicer isn't taking reservations at night, in the hope that Herbsaint will become a place where people drop in spontaneously for drinks or a casual dinner: "We want it to be really accessible."
Spicer, 47, has been garnering both local and national acclaim since 1986, when she began cooking cream of garlic soup and grilled duck breast with pepper jelly glaze at a tiny French Quarter restaurant called the Bistro at Maison de Ville. In 1989, FOOD & WINE declared her one of that year's Best New Chefs. The following year, she launched Bayona, a romantic 130-seat restaurant in an old French Quarter cottage, where the terra-cotta walls are hung with gauzy hand-colored infrared photographs of Italian gardens, and palmettos cast serrated shadows across the bricks of a voluptuous courtyard.
Spicer's training is French—she cooked at Restaurant Louis XVI in New Orleans, then apprenticed at the Sofitel Paris under Roland Durand, later learning Alsatian techniques at the former Restaurant Henri in New Orleans' Le Meridien Hotel. Yet her food is global; Mediterranean, Alsatian, Indonesian, Thai and Indian dishes show up on her menus, and she's also partial to Southwestern cooking—not to mention South Louisiana Cajun and New Orleans Creole. "It's pretty much a melting pot," she says, "but it's not really fused. I try not to mix things up too much. You have to respect the traditions you're going to mess with." Her plates are collages, carefully thought out; the elements don't run together.
Spicer's Christmas has almost as many sources as her food does, and few of them have anything to do with New Orleans. One of seven children, she was born in Florida and spent the formative years from age three to six in Holland. Her American father was a naval officer in the diplomatic corps; her Danish mother, a wonderful cook, helped him entertain. "We come from a strong European tradition," Spicer says, "so we celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. We ate foods from Denmark and Holland. My mother would also make Indonesian dishes that she had learned to cook in Holland. We had satays and bami goreng, a pork dish with noodles and cabbage; it's part of the rijsttafel tradition, where you have a couple of main dishes completely surrounded by sambals, relishes and chutneys."
Spicer's mother would decorate the tree with strings of tiny Danish flags, white crosses on red fields. The children wore velvets and wools; scents of pear and apple drifted through the house. Christmas Eve also happens to be Spicer's birthday—"so there was always a birthday cake as well. I felt like a little bit of the festivity was for me."
When she was six, the family moved to a naval base in New Orleans, where palm trees, mosquitoes and the occasional December swim add their surreal slant to the holidays. But the Spicer family Christmas retains its Danish/Dutch-Indonesian exoticism. This year, Spicer decided to add something new: She threw an additional holiday dinner party for a few friends, including her boyfriend, Ken Jackson, Herbsaint's business manager and wine buyer. "I've wanted to do this for a long time," she says. "Since I started cooking, 21 years ago, I haven't had much opportunity to entertain. I've been a terrible workaholic. Lately I've had the opportunity to spend a little more time with new friends, and I'm trying to nurture that."
Instead of a Dutch menu (or a turkey), Spicer drew on another part of the New Orleans culinary mix—Deep South cooking: She made a standing pork roast with Southern pear relish. "Pork is a great meat," she says, "and the pear relish harks back to my love of more exotic foods, chutneys and that kind of thing. I really like meats with sweet-tart condiments." On the side, she offered a shrimp and andouille stuffing, "a version of something that's fairly common in New Orleans, though not necessarily served with pork."
There were creamy oysters with leeks and bacon on toast, and a dish of smoky greens. Spicer also prepared her Wild and Dirty Rice. (Dirty rice, with ground chicken livers, onions and garlic, is a South Louisiana specialty.) "It's the best thing I can think of to do with chicken livers," Spicer says. "At Bayona, where we get whole rabbits twice a week, we do the same dish with rabbit livers. I love dirty rice, and the wild rice adds a seasonal touch, a nutty flavor, and dresses the dish up a bit."
Two very different desserts capped the meal. First there was a sweet-potato pie with praline sauce—"a classic combination," Spicer says, "since pecans and sweet potatoes are the quintessential regional ingredients." Balancing the rich and creamy pie was a fluffy semolina soufflé cake that Spicer served with a tart cherry sauce, and if nothing about it suggested Deep South culinary traditions, nobody seemed to mind.
Everyone ate too much, of course; that's one holiday tradition that knows no borders. But on a more local note, before the day was over, everyone wound up in the swimming pool. In New Orleans, the formal and the casual merge as easily as winter and summer.
Text by Mimi Read, who writes about food, design and travel. She lives in New Orleans.