At 68, he’s the oldest cook in the kitchen by a good decade, maybe two. Gray hair mushrooms from beneath his gold-crested captain’s hat. A mottled patchwork of scars blankets the underside of his forearms. By all rights he shouldn’t be here five nights a week, perched over a sputtering vat of peanut oil in Jacques-Imo’s, the shabby-chic New Orleans restaurant of the moment. Few customers recognize him; the ones who do shake their heads in wonder. Some even go so far as to ask their waitress, just how did the grand old man of Creole cuisine end up working the fryer for an elfin New York émigré prone to plying customers with kamikaze shots?
Austin Leslie was once the most celebrated Creole-Soul cook in New Orleans. Among the cognoscenti of the Crescent City, his fried chicken and stuffed bell peppers, seafood-sausage gumbo, and rum-gilded, pineapple-studded bread pudding were considered definitive dishes in the native culinary lexicon.
For much of the 1970s and ’80s, his corner barroom-cum-restaurant, Chez Helene, drew Garden District swells and Nikon-necklaced tourists alike. Emboldened by rave reviews in the press and a two-page photo spread in the Time-Life Foods of the World volume American Cooking: Creole and Acadian, they crossed the proverbial tracks to North Robertson Street in the Treme neighborhood for a taste of the city’s best back-of-town pot foods.
Leslie was an unlikely media darling. Born to a mother who worked as a domestic and a father who gambled, he took to the streets at an early age, earning his keep doing odd jobs. “By the time I was around eight or so, I was working for this lady,” he recalls, seated at an oilcloth-clad table at Jacques-Imo’s, sampling a piece of his own handiwork, a chicken drumstick sheathed in a ruddy mantle of crust and crowned with a confetti of chopped garlic and parsley. “She grew different herbs in her yard and I’d sell them for her. I made something like two or three cents off a bunch.”
While he was in middle school, Leslie pedaled a bike as a delivery boy for Portia’s, on South Rampart Street. “Back then, that was the black Bourbon Street,” explains Leslie. “They were always telling me I was too little to work Rampart, but I proved myself. The owner, Bill Turner, he looked after me; he educated me on how restaurants worked. That’s where I picked up a lot of what I know about fried chicken, where I learned how to season it right.”
After high school came a tour of duty in Korea, a turn in his aunt Helen DeJean Pollock’s restaurant, and a brief stint as a sheet-metal worker. In 1959, Leslie finally hit his stride, winning a job as an assistant chef at the restaurant in the D.H. Holmes department store on Canal Street. “I had grown up walking by there, hearing the dishes clatter and smelling the food,” he says with a weary smile. “And then all of a sudden I was working in that big kitchen. I learned how to make oysters Rockefeller and shrimp rémoulade. And I learned that there wasn’t much of a difference between what the restaurant called a Swiss steak and what us black folks knew as a big ole hamburger patty smothered in gravy. It got me to thinking.”
In 1964, Helen Pollock moved her establishment to new quarters on North Robertson Street, added an e to her name for a touch of class, and dubbed the little café Chez Helene. Her nephew soon followed. “I brought in the dishes I learned at Holmes, the trout meunière and oysters Bienville,” recalls Leslie. “It was kind of like integration: a little bit of theirs, a little bit of ours. My aunt already had the greens and yams and jambalaya.”
When Pollock retired in 1975, Leslie bought her out. In time, all of New Orleans was abuzz with tales of the little neighborhood restaurant where they served tin pie plates of oysters enrobed in a velveteen Rockefeller sauce and chipped white platters piled high with the best fried chicken known to man.
As America woke up to the possibilities of marketing regional cuisine, Leslie became a hot property. By the mid-’80s, rumor had it that he was being groomed as the black Creole analog to white Cajun cooking’s Paul Prudhomme. It helped that Leslie—his smiling face framed by a swooping pair of muttonchops, a diamond-encrusted crab pendant around his neck—knew he was selling more than food. “Yeah, I could talk,” he says. “When folks wanted to talk about New Orleans food, I was the man. Difference was, I could cook, too, and a lot of those other people couldn’t. I could back up my arrogance.”
Business partnership offers poured in. Plans were drawn up for a chain of fried chicken restaurants. Upscale branch locations of Chez Helene opened, first in the French Quarter, later in Chicago. “Seems like every other day somebody was wanting to talk with me about some kind of great deal,” recalls Leslie. “Seems like everybody wanted to use my name to sell this, my face to sell that. I made the mistake of listening.”
In March of 1987, Hollywood came calling when actor Tim Reid and producer Hugh Wilson stopped in for dinner and left a few hours later, convinced that they had found the restaurant—and the cook—to build a hit television show around. The story line was this: Upon the death of his estranged father, Frank Parish (played by Reid), a professor of Italian Renaissance history in Boston, inherits the family business, a corner bar and restaurant in New Orleans called Chez Louisiane, thus initiating a rediscovery of his cultural and culinary heritage.