Food: Gumbo Zerbes And All That Jazz

Not to be confused with Cajun, Creole is the true cuisine of New Orleans. And next week one of the city's top restaurateurs will be cooking it in London. Michael Bateman meets this champion of the south
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The Independent Culture
ON 4 JULY Independence Day will be marked in London by the presence of one of America's top cooks. For one week Susan Spicer will be cooking at the Lanesborough in Knightsbridge, bringing us the taste of new New Orleans cooking. If people think that means Cajun, they are seriously mistaken. For Ms Spicer will also be marking her own independence from expectations placed on New Orleans cooks.

New Orleans is famous, wrongly, for its Cajun cooking of which the spherical, fiercely-bearded Paul Prudhomme is the world-renown practitioner. We have seen him promoting his gumbos, his jambalayas, his blackened red-fish and his personal line of "secret" spices which are sure to contain sassafras (a bitter leaf like bay, not available in the UK, used for flavour and thickening).

Over to Susan Spicer. "Until Paul Prudhomme came along in the mid-Seventies no one in New Orleans knew Cajun cooking. Cajun is basically country cooking from the west of Louisiana. New Orleans food is quite different, it's Creole, a sophisticated mix of French, Spanish and Caribbean cooking."

New Orleans has many bests. Mardi Gras is best carnival, perhaps. Best jazz (the whole month of April is one long festival). It has what some guides regard as the best hotel in the US, Windsor Court, which draws inspiration from the lifestyle of the British Royal Family in the days of the Empire. New Orleans has one of the world's finest new aquariums, built on many storeys, and a glass arcade where the sharks swim around you. And New Orleans also has probably the newest gambling casino in the US, which is cunningly disguised as a city hall (is that how they got planning permission from the city fathers?)

And at the heart of New Orleans, one of the world's great tourist draws, the 200-year-old French quarter. This is a grid of some seven streets by 12, with low, wooden houses decorated with wrought-iron balconies. Now it abounds with boutiques and shops (majoring on food items), restaurants, cafes, bars, beer halls, and alleys from which strains of jazz curl tantalisingly.

And plumb in the centre, another best, Susan Spicer's celebrated restaurant, Bayona, named after the street on the corner, echoing a brief period of Spanish rule in the 1790s.

From the day she opened Bayona, in 1989, Susan Spicer has been garlanded with praise. In her first year the demanding French Gault-Millau guide rated it one of the best 40 restaurants in the US, and the best in New Orleans, giving it a sensational rating of 16 toques out of a maximum 20. Their criterion is the food itself rather than the ambience or reputation of the restaurant - New Orleans has some magnificent restaurants which hit the Richter Scale on the second score, the Commander's Palace and Antoine's, for example.

Bon Appetit magazine acclaimed Bayona in 1994, and in 1996 Gourmet chose it as best restaurant in New Orleans and one of the top tables in the country.

What sort of a nerve has Susan Spicer hit? Two hours before dinner (the early sitting is at 6pm, American fashion) you can smell Bayona a block away, an inviting, savoury smell of a good sauce simmering with onions, shallots and garlic.

The restaurant is a petite, pretty Creole house, with a high-walled courtyard at the back, banana fronds, cheese plants, and palms, providing a jungle effect, and taking the sting out of the blazing New Orleans sun. Closer now, the smells from the kitchen are confusing, some vanilla sweet, some chilli sharp; it's like an orchestra tuning up.

Inside, the three small dining rooms are enlarged two or three times over by great mirrors on the walls. They also manage to pull in the reflected greenery, giving a conservatory effect. Walls are painted a muted terracotta. This is a very comfortable, relaxing place and, appropriately, gentle jazz murmurs from the music system.

Before I've eaten a single mouthful of what turns out to be a remarkable reward for my taste buds, I'm sitting in the courtyard with her, an intelligent and attractive woman in her early 40s. She's torn between courtesy to me and crisis in the kitchen - a sous-chef has left, and suddenly she has only three cooks for main courses, and one each for salads and desserts.

As we speak, another crisis materialises, cooks and waiters lining outside the staff door. "A member of staff is about to receive a leaving present," explains Susan.

How charming. "No. The leaving present is a bucket of iced water. I wish they wouldn't do this. Mind you, in France it's much worse, they drop you in a bin of rendered fat and scraps." But the victim has got wind of the "present" and isn't coming out. Relief all round.

So what was this new New Orleans food, I asked? Well, it was cooking which had opened up to the global influences of the modern world. People travel more, so they are affected by what happens in California and the Mediterranean.

That would explain her thinking. But the Spicer element, invention allied to discipline, is unique, born of passion and a determination to experience a demanding professional training.

She did not become a professional cook until she was 26, she says. In fact, her father, a naval officer, felt that she should pursue academic goals. She trained as graphic designer and surfaced as a paste-up artist. "My mother is Danish, a good cook, and she loved to entertain, so I must have learnt something by osmosis from her."

Susan was born in the Netherlands when her father was stationed there, and she has memories of eating nasi goreng, one of the Indonesian spicy fried rice dishes that features in a Dutch rijstafel (rice table). Her mother also cooked a good beef curry with bell peppers, satay sauce, and toasted coconut.

When Susan was five they moved to New Orleans, but as a family (there were seven children) they didn't eat out. She didn't really get to know local dishes, such as jambalayas and po'boys (the poor boy is a sandwich of French bread stuffed with deep- fried oysters in mayonnaise).

It was while working as a waitress as a student that she developed a taste for the restaurant world. "I realised that food was a medium in which I felt natural. I felt very comfortable in the work. It wasn't as intimidating as say, being a musician or a pianist." Well, she'd thought getting into rock music might be fun, but her father had other ideas.

Susan managed to get an apprenticeship with New Orleans' top French chef, Daniel Bonnot, at the Louis XVI. Working hard, reading all the cookery books she could get hold of, she impressed him with her application. She also found that she was blessed with a very strong memory bank. One of the first things that astonished her was that very few professional chefs actually taste the food they cook. "Very few."

After three years she then did a three-month "stage", in the Paris Sofitel, returning to New Orleans as executive chef of a new restaurant, Savoir Faire, establishing both administrative as well as cooking skills.

After another three year-spell she took time off to explore the food scene in Europe and California, returning for the opening of bistro, Maison de Ville. She began to spread her wings, creating some of the dishes which she is now renowned for, such as her creamy roast garlic soup. Four years later she was ready to open her own place - Bayona was born.

Duty calls - hers to the stove and mine to the table. You fill with confident anticipation at once. It is the precise attention to detail that contributes to an increasing feeling of well-being. Why can't every restaurant take the trouble to supply bread rolls that are so spot-on, crispy, crunchy crusts caramelised to a certain sweetness. You're served a superior green, fruity virgin olive oil for dipping, top of the range.

To offer a plate of crudites is hardly original. But hers include vegetables such as celeriac, cauliflower and carrots which have each been pickled in its own marinade, the carrots with ginger and chilli, for example.

A first course included two toasts, one spread with an intense tapenade of black olives and aubergine puree, the other with crabmeat in mayonnaise with avocado and green flat-leafed parsley. Using crisp sourbread toast for the tapenades and toasted sweet brioche for the soft crab, she's created a little anthology of contrasting flavours, colours and textures.

The main course was a perfect example of Susan's imaginative approach, held in check by a disciplined execution. The quail had been part-boned, the legs left intact, and the inside filled with a savoury stuffing of sweet potato and brioche. The quail was roasted to a crisp on the outside and served with a rich madeira sauce with shiitake and oyster mushrooms. The garnish was deep fried sage leaves, with shards of deep-fried sweet potato.

To conclude, strawberry shortcake, an American classic rigorously interpreted. She's quite happy to interleave classics and innovative dishes.

The menu listed a dozen of her signature dishes, such as sauteed salmon with choucroute and gewurztraminer sauce, seared jumbo shrimp with sweet and hot chilli tamarind sauce, rabbit loin with cabbage, sweetbreads with sherry mustard, grilled duck breast with pepper jelly glaze.

Susan hadn't decided on her menu for London, though she was toying with the idea of a gumbo zerbes (as they call a gumbo aux herbes in New Orleans). Her gumbo zerbes has seven different vegetables in it, mustard leaves, collard greens, kale, spinach, turnip tops, escarole (bitter lettuce) and okra.

As we talk, we are suddenly interrupted by screams from the street - it was the departing chef. The clever mouse thought she had slipped away, but the watchful cats surprised her as she left the building, iced water was thrown and she had evidently been drenched. "Oh, no," says Susan.

Susan Spicer will be cooking lunch and dinner in the Conservatory restaurant of the Lanesborough from Friday 3 July to Saturday 11 July. Call 0171 259 5599 for reservations