Wednesday, December 28: I dice avocado. I rough-chop scallions. “Did you save the white part?” Susan Spicer asks. I grind basil with salt and a bit of garlic in a mortar. “Pick up the pestle,” she says, correcting my technique. I julienne onions. “Do you know how to pull pin bones out of salmon?” I do that. I refill the squeeze bottles with olive oil. I make croutons. And then I organize Bayona’s dry storage. Organizing the dry storage is my own idea. It hasn’t been done since the prep guys left, and the chef is too busy to delegate me more tasks; she’s working sauté for lunch. There are thirteen tickets on the board. Thirteen, then twelve, then thirteen again. Ginger Havard, Susan’s office assistant, is suited up and expediting. Meghan Roen, the pastry chef, is pitching in on pantry, dishing desserts on top of designing them. Thomas Batiste is calmly making salads. Hall Ford is on grill. He spreads pepper jelly and cashew butter for that famous smoked duck sandwich. He says, “I have nothing else left to cook but sandwiches.” The lunch crowd is wiping out the food. They do 105 daytime covers. How many covers do they normally do? The chef says, “There kinda is no ‘normally’ anymore.”
Susan sautés me sweetbreads. I clean my plate. “I like cooking. It’s what I do. It’s not torture,” she says. “But I’m not just a line cook. I can’t just think about my station. I gotta make a menu, get ordering done.” Before the storm, it was charity work, PR, press stuff, special menus, special recipes, out-of-town events, correspondence, collaborating with her chef de cuisine. Right now, she’d be happy to “plan further than one shift ahead”, “add one more element or texture to the plates” or diversify the vegetables, for pete’s sake, “instead of green beans with 60% of the dishes.” We’re sitting in the courtyard. A customer approaches. He hugs her. “You’re still cooking five days straight?” he asks her. “You gotta stop that.” He hugs her some more.
The chef worries about being obligated to serve more meals a week. She worries about not being able to be at Bayona for every shift. She worries about putting too much on Hall’s shoulders. She worries about being understaffing; then she worries about overstaffing and payroll and overtime and balancing the books. She worries about the upcoming James Beard Awards. The 2006 theme is New Orleans, she’s coordinating things, and it’s right after JazzFest. She worries that all that cooking will be too hard on the city’s chefs. She worries about the city’s chefs, and she worries about the city. She worries about everything, it seems, but herself. At week’s end when she commutes back to her family in Jackson, she says, “I don’t look so good.” She shrugs. “Stamina is my best quality.”
I think about René Bajeaux. Earlier in the day, I visited with him in the construction zone that once was – and will be again -- his restaurant, René Bistrot. He had evacuated New Orleans under harrowing circumstances: rising waters, armed looters, an imperiled wife and children, a cop who handed him a gun. His house had been trashed. He hadn’t wanted to come back. “But my heart took over my brain,” he told me. “‘Let’s try it,’ I said. ‘If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But I have to try.’ I was the little engine that could.”
Susan Spicer has a cookbook coming out in spring of 2007. “I’ll be touring with that then. But I’ve got a full two years to devote to the kitchen. I’ll be 55 in two years, which is a nice time to back off a bit. And I may have a chef de cuisine then.” But back off altogether, hurricanes or no? She rises from her chair to expedite the next meal. “I haven’t been here for almost 16 years just so I could flee.”