Chef Susan Spicer is a mixture of surprises.

An exacting and award-winning chef, she never went to culinary school, but learned to cook in the restaurant kitchens of New Orleans and France. “The choices for culinary school were very limited,” Spicer recalls. “I was 26 years old. The idea of working and learning on the job appealed to me.”

Trained in French cuisine, she blends classical techniques with global flavors at Bayona, her French Quarter restaurant. “Our dry storage looks like an international grocery,” says the aptly named Spicer, who also owns Mondo, a café in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood.

A bona fide local celebrity (she’s the inspiration for a chef character on the HBO series “Tremé”), Spicer wears her renown lightly. “She has a real easy way about her, and that comes through in her dealings with people,” says Sandy Whann, president of New Orleans’s Leidenheimer Baking Co. and Spicer’s business partner in Wild Flour Breads, a wholesale artisan bakery. “She’s not really caught up in her local celebrity status. She’s just very down to earth. But she’s also a perfectionist, and she marries those two disparate traits.”

That mix has served Spicer well. A self-described late bloomer, she began cooking professionally in her mid-twenties under French chef Daniel Bonnot. She landed her first chef job a few years later, at age 29. “It was a terrifying experience,” she recalls, laughing. “I thought that everyone I interviewed knew more than I did.”

She was wrong. “I finally figured out what made me different and what I had to offer: the idea that it was important to achieve a certain level of excellence, and I was willing to do it,” Spicer says. “I think that’s what sets people apart.”

That happens at Bayona and Mondo alike, where she and her staffs value local ingredients and traditional New Orleans flavors. “Our clientele at Mondo includes older New Orleans residents, who all have their ideas about what gumbo should be,” Spicer says. “It’s important to make an authentic seafood gumbo and have them say, ‘This reminds me of my mama.’”

Of course, being a successful restaurateur in the Big Easy requires more than great recipes. You also need to be able to survive hurricanes, flooding, oil spills and more. “Resilience is the hallmark of any New Orleans businessperson, and [Susan] definitely has that,” says Whann, who is the fourth generation to run his family’s bakery, which was founded in New Orleans in 1896. “These little things that crop up are the price we pay for living in paradise.”

After Katrina, which left her house flooded, Spicer says she and her husband did consider leaving New Orleans, where she’s lived since the 1960s. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if this happened again? Where would we go?’”

Their answer: Back to New Orleans. “People’s impression of New Orleans before Katrina was that it’s a great town to go and party, but you wouldn’t want to live there — there’s the crooked politicians, the crime, the terrible schools — but it’s more complicated than that. There’s the culture, the joie de vivre, the sense that family is very important …,” Spicer says. “I love being in a city where people are resilient and hang together. I think we tend to not let the bad times get us down because there’s just this feeling that we can take it. We’ve got our music, and we’ve got our food.”


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  • Susan Spicer

    Who: Chef and owner of restaurants Bayona (430 Dauphine St., New Orleans) and Mondo (900 Harrison Ave., New Orleans)

    Notable: Partner in Wild Flour Breads; author of Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes From Susan Spicer’s New Orleans (Knopf, 2007); recipient of James Beard Award for Best Chef (Southeast Region) in 1993; consultant to HBO series “Tremé.”