Susan Spicer: True to Herself
Sep 22 2020

Susan Spicer: True to Herself

By: Kim Ranjbar

Despite founding several successful restaurants, winning local and national awards, and making television appearances, Chef Susan Spicer remains down-to-earth, sincerely genial, and passionate about making great food.

Right up there with Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, Susan Spicer has earned her position as one of New Orleans's most notable chefs. Though she's been a part of the local restaurant scene since 1979, earning her chops while apprenticed to Chef Daniel Bonnet at the Louis XVI Restaurant and taking the helm at the intimate Bistro at Maison de Ville, her career started to soar in earnest when she partnered with Regina Keever to open Bayona inside a 200-year-old cottage during the spring of 1990. Only three years after opening her famous French Quarter restaurant, expanding diners' expectations and palates with creative, globally influenced cuisine, Spicer won the award for Best Chef Southeast from the James Beard Foundation.

While still heading the kitchen at Bayona, Spicer launched Spice, Inc., a specialty food market and artisan bakery that also offered cooking classes, a venture that morphed into WildFlour Breads. In 2000, Spicer joined forces with Chef Donald Link and two other partners to co-found the popular Warehouse District restaurant Herbsaint, an eatery which earned Link his own James Beard Award in 2007. In 2010, Spicer was not only inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America, she also opened Mondo in Lakeview, which remained a neighborhood favorite for almost a decade until it shuttered only late last year. A condensed version of Mondo was set to reopen in the brand-new Louis Armstrong International Airport, but COVID-19 and its effects on travel and tourism have temporarily put those plans on hold.

Most recently, in 2016, Spicer opened the casual neighborhood joint Rosedale inside a building that formerly housed the Third District Police station, which served Lakeview, West End, and Gentilly for over half a century. Though Bayona has been on hiatus since the shutdowns began in March of this year, Rosedale is still going strong, offering dine-in and takeout for both lunch and dinner.

With all of these achievements under her proverbial belt, including many other accolades and accomplishments not mentioned above, one might expect this chef's head to be a touch too big for her toque, but in fact, quite the opposite is true. Spicer is ever-ready with a laugh, open, and genuinely in love with food.

Growing up, Spicer was the second youngest in a family of seven children, "Navy brats" who were all born in different cities, ranging from Key West, Florida (Spicer's birthplace), to Newport, Rhode Island. The family even spent three years in a small village in the Netherlands before moving to their final destination in New Orleans in August of 1960. "We moved to the Westbank, near the Naval station over there," says Spicer. "I just remember all of us getting off the plane and getting smacked in the face with the heat. We were like 'Whoa, what is this?'"

Spicer's undeniable affection for food originated with her mother, a Danish woman who was an adventurous cook, trying her hand at the world's cuisines in her own kitchen. "We ate a lot of Indonesian food in Holland. They would have rijsttafel [lots of side dishes served with rice] delivered to the house," explains Spicer. "So, she learned to cook a lot of curries and things like that. She was always mixin' it up at home, cooking different things."

While her mother never offered step-by-step cooking instructions, Spicer would often sit on the kitchen counter and watch. "We all liked being in the kitchen with her and tasting things," says Spicer. "We're all food-lovers in my family."

Although all of her siblings share a love of good food, Spicer and her younger brother were the only ones to pursue a career in the industry. "He worked on a farm selling specialty produce to local restaurants and was a big player in the food scene in Dallas" says Spicer.

After graduating from high school and spending only one year in college at UNO, Spicer drifted around a bit, traveling to different parts of the country before coming back home to New Orleans. In the mid-70s, Spicer became friends with a woman who got her into the cooking groove. "She was a great cook, and we started doing dinner parties together—just cooking socially. Back then, you're smoking a lot of pot, and making food was a really great thing to do," says Spicer, laughing.

When her friend began cooking professionally, Spicer went along for the ride and found herself cooking at Louis XVI, and she stuck with it, even after her friend moved on. "I just never looked back," says Spicer. "[Cooking] is just satisfying to me on lots of different levels."

Though the Crescent City may not be her birthplace, Spicer has made it—and specifically the neighborhood of Lakeview—her home, and she's determined to stay. Like many New Orleanians, Spicer lost her home in the 2005 levee failures and rebuilt it again, but some may not know that she had also lost that same house to a fire that occurred eight years before in 1997. Spicer was having dinner at a small restaurant on a tiny island off the coast of Ireland when she got the call.

"It's a restaurant that you have to take a boat to. They only seat like 20 people," says Spicer. "We're having dinner when the phone rings off in the distance, and someone comes to the table and says, 'Are you Susan Spicer?' and all I could think was, 'Oh shit, this can't be good!'" As it turns out, Spicer's friend who was watching the house got a little too inebriated on the 4th of July, began cooking, and passed out. Luckily, both her friend and her cats made it out all right. "So it burnt down, and I rebuilt it, and then it flooded, and I rebuilt it again! I really like it," says Spicer with a laugh. "And it gets better every time."

These days, she spends half of her time at Rosedale and the other half enjoying time with husband and former chef William "Chip" Martinson. Spicer met Martinson through mutual friend and fellow chef Tenney Flynn. They became friends, but at the time, both Spicer and Martinson were in other relationships, and it wasn't until several years had passed that they finally got together. "He got divorced, and I broke up with yet another boyfriend, so we got together, and I said, 'You should marry me,' jokes Spicer. "Well, it was more that I just suggested that it was time for him to ask me."

The couple were married on an icy day in February of 2004 at the Elms Mansion on St. Charles Avenue. With her new husband, Spicer gained two stepchildren and a dog. "I never really thought about marriage," says Spicer. "I was always like Career-Girl Barbie instead of Wedding Day Barbie. But all it takes is the right person."

After getting married, Spicer and Martinson wondered how a couple who were both working in the restaurant industry would have time for two children who were five and seven at the time. "[My husband] was like, 'I've always wanted to try woodworking,'" says Spicer. "As it turns out, he's really good at it!"

Martinson opened his own furniture shop in the Bywater called Monkey Wid-a-Fez (NolaMonkey.com) and went on to not only create a lot of the furniture for both Rosedale and Mondo, but for many other New Orleans-area restaurants, such as Ancora, Elizabeth's, Station 6, Coquette, and Boucherie.

In the midst of the pandemic, Spicer's main focus is her work at Rosedale, the Lakeview restaurant that is off the beaten path, but once you get there, you'll always know how to get back. "Our motto is 'hard to find, easy to get to,'" she says, smiling.

A casual, family-style restaurant, Rosedale offers cuisine that possesses the same quality ingredients and skilled preparation found at her high-end French Quarter restaurant Bayona, but with a hefty dose of nonchalance. "It's the kind of food I tend to eat when I am cooking at home," says Spicer. "It's laid-back. That's what it's meant to be."

Though she tries to keep a Louisiana feel to her menu, it's often difficult for Spicer because her tastes run internationally, so lately, she's been riding on her whims. "Right now, I've been doing anything I want, anything I feel like doing," confides Spicer.

For example, this past 4th of July, Rosedale offered a takeout menu featuring elote, or Mexican street corn; Peruvian ceviche with aji-amarillo peppers and passionfruit juice; and beef, black bean, and cheese pupusas. But for those seeking her BBQ shrimp with a Leidenhemier pistolette or the cochon de lait po-boy, there's no need to fret—it's still on the menu.

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