Chef Susan Spicer talks with host Steve Curwood about reopening her New Orleans restaurant Bayona in time for the holidays, and what Christmas-time comfort food she’s going to be cooking up.
CURWOOD: We’re going to take a small diversion now, from music to food. Our guide to the cuisine of Louisiana is chef Susan Spicer – and yes, that is her real name. By Thanksgiving after Katrina she had re-opened her French Quarter restaurant, called “Bayona,” and she’s here to tell us what she’s cooking up for Christmas. Hi Susan, thanks for joining me.
SPICER: Nice to be here, thanks.
CURWOOD: Hey, Susan, what happened to you and your restaurants there in New Orleans?
SPICER: Well, what happened was the restaurants sustained very little damage because they were in the parts of New Orleans, you know, the French Quarter and the CBD that really didn’t get much flooding. But my home and the home of a number of other chefs, my partner Herb Saint, we lived in Lakeview so our homes were all flooded. I know about five or six chefs that lived in the same neighborhood that all lost their homes.
CURWOOD: When things are really rough like this, there’s nothing quite like comfort food to make us feel good.
CURWOOD: You must have thought it was really important to get the restaurant going again. How long did it take you to get opened up again? And how’s that going?
SPICER: We opened up the Friday before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was kind of a symbolic time for me to be open because we’d been open every year for Thanksgiving since we opened the restaurant in 1990. And I felt like even if we didn’t have any customers, even if it was just, you know, family and employees, I was gonna cook that darn turkey and serve it here.
And as it turns out, we probably could have sold the restaurant out two or three times from the number of calls we got. Because obviously there aren’t a lot of places, there weren’t a lot of restaurants open for Thanksgiving. And we had, the whole dining room was full of people that have been coming for years and years and years, and it was, for me, it was a very emotional, you know, good thing to get back open for that, and to cook the suckling pig and the roast turkeys and my mother’s stuffing and, you know, things like that. And my mother, of course, did come for Thanksgiving.
CURWOOD: What are you making at the restaurant at the holidays? I imagine you’re making your famous stuffing. What else?
SPICER: Well, something that always says holiday time in New Orleans, to me, is oysters. The weather is cool, they’re usually peak season, so I like to do a lot of different things with oysters. I do a sautéed oyster and spinach salad. But right now we’re doing sort of an oyster au gratin, with Italian sausage and bread crumbs with Parmesan cheese and béchamel and spinach.
CURWOOD: Ooh, I’m having trouble. I think my mouth is already starting to water.
[MUSIC: Michael Doucet & Beausoleil “Flammes D’Enfer” from ‘Bayou Deluxe: The Best Of…’ (Rhino – 1992)]
CURWOOD: Now you’re down in your kitchen, where you can make that wonderful oyster dish.
SPICER: Yep. I’m down here, I’ve got some oysters. I have oysters in the shell.
SPICER: And now I’ve got one open and I’m …
SPICER: That’s me sucking the oyster out of the shell.
CURWOOD: Right down the hatch, huh?
[CLANKING KITCHEN SOUNDS]
SPICER: Mmm-hmm. First we’re going to heat up the béchamel in a pot. You know, we’re gonna just take a little butter and flour and add some milk to it.
[WHISKING UP AND UNDER]
SPICER: Cook it for a minute without getting any color on it, and then add your milk a little at a time so it stays nice and smooth. You want to bring it up to a boil because that’s when it’s going to really get nice and thick, and you can sort of tell, you can adjust the consistency at that point. But it has to come up to the boil. You can add cheese right to this, or any kind of different flavoring. We’re going to put a little bit of Pernot, which is also kind of a traditional flavoring with oysters. It’s looking good. And a little salt and pepper, and a grating of fresh nutmeg, too.
CURWOOD: Alright, I’m ready for the next step.
SPICER: Next we’re heating up a little olive oil, and we’re going to wilt our spinach. Just add your garlic and shallot for just a minute…
[SIZZLING UP AND UNDER]
SPICER: And then throw in a good handful of that fresh spinach.
SPICER: You’re going to wilt it right down in the pan. You want to toss it and season it with just a little pinch of salt and pepper.
[CLATTER OF PLATES]
SPICER: So now we’re going to take the spinach and we’re just going to line our dish. Make a nice little green cushion. Alright, now I’m laying down these beautiful oysters. I have Italian sausage, which we’ve poached – you know, we poach it, take it out of the skin, and then kind of crumble it up. And then I’m going to drizzle the béchamel. And then I had these yummy nice moist bread crumbs. The reason why I add the butter and olive oil with the bread crumbs is if you just put them on there dry, they sort of, you know, they’re kind of like sawdust. They don’t have a really very nice…and they won’t brown as well. And that is the finished product there, getting ready to go into the hot oven.
CURWOOD: Mmmm, yes. How long does it stay in the oven now?
SPICER: Well, since it’s a fairly shallow individual little casserole dish, I would say five to seven minutes at about…it’s about 400 degrees. It’s a pretty good combination. Oysters and spinach are a very traditional combination, and there’s a lot of different ways you can do it. And actually right now the oysters are better than ever because the hurricane blew a lot of salt water into the oyster beds. Oysters are grown here in what they call brackish water, which is where the fresh water meets the salt water. And so, you know, sometimes, like if it’s rained a lot, it can be I guess a little bland. But with the infusion of a lot of the salt water from the Gulf they are just really delicious right now. So, okay, I think our gratin is ready.
CURWOOD: Alright, great. So why don’t you pull it out.
CURWOOD: Ohh. How soon can it be tasted?
SPICER: (Laughs) Well, it depends on if you want to burn the roof of your mouth or not.
SPICER: Pretty good, if I do say so myself. (Laughs)
CURWOOD: Susan Spicer is the chef of Bayona Restaurant in New Orleans. Thank you so much.
SPICER: And thank you, Steve, for visiting with me here at Bayona.
CURWOOD: Happy holidays.
SPICER: Same to you.
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