Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award: Susan Spicer

It was just another ordinary day when Susan Spicer was coordinating a photo shoot at Rosedale. She didn’t think much about it, although the photographer seemed to be encountering an unusual number of time-consuming “technical issues.” Then she heard the trumpet.

“Hmm, that’s kind of loud for our sound system,” was Spicer’s first thought, when suddenly a second line paraded into the downstairs dining room. “I was like, what the hell?!” Spicer said as Ti Martin, Donald Link, Spicer’s family and a wide cast of others came marching in. Then she was presented with the New Orleans Food and Wine Experience’s 2023 Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award and it all made sense. “They totally surprised me,” Spicer laughed.

But selecting Spicer for this year’s award was really no surprise at all, per NOWFE Executive Director Aimee Brown. “She has been entrenched in the New Orleans community for decades now and has served as a mentor to many up-and-coming chefs,” Brown said. When Spicer’s colleague and friend Donald Link first heard about the award, his reply was, ‘Wait, she hadn’t gotten that yet?” He just assumed he had missed it. “Susan is so great – she taught me about patience and the bigger picture and not just being some hot-headed line cook.”

Susan’s career is remarkable in many ways. She blazed a trail for other women chefs in a time when such things were far less common. She came to her career relatively late, at the age of 26, but once she got started she was driven to make up for lost time. She hasn’t stopped since, as her portfolio attests. With outposts in the French Quarter, Navarre neighborhood, Louis Armstrong International Airport along with a wholesale bread baking partnership, her establishments underpin a wide slice of the local hospitality industry. 

A Navy brat who has lived everywhere from Key West to the Netherlands, Susan had wanderlust from an early age, a passion that is reflected in the famously global reach of her compositions. “My mom is Danish; the European and Scandinavian influences come from her,” Spicer explains. Her father instilled in her a strong sense of fiduciary responsibility, traits that served her well in a trade with whisper-thin margins where one misstep can be the difference between making it or shutting the doors. She began her career in New Orleans at the Louis XVI restaurant in the early 1970s. Trips to California and Europe – particularly a stint at the Hotel Sofitel in Paris with the Michelin-starred Chef Roland Durand — expanded her repertoire. In 1986 she put it all together and made name for herself with the Bistro at Maison de Ville. Time spent there laid the foundations of her future businesses, introducing her to a network of key individuals with the eye for talent and the means to back her as well as the back of house staff critical for successful operations. Four years later in a partnership with Regina Keever she opened Bayona in the French Quarter, whose lush courtyard and intimate rooms timelessly frame one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants. 

Spicer is synonymous with an era of fine dining in the 1990s when New Orleans was emerging from a localized Creole/Cajun mindset to compete more directly with the contemporary sensibilities of major cities like New York. Part of the reason New Orleans punches above its weight nationally is because of the multinational influence chefs like Spicer injected into the DNA at this pivotal time. Peruse any of her menus and you will see it there: Scandinavian, Indonesian, U.S. South and other flourishes comfortably coexist.

But what you hear most from others when talking about Spicer is how much she loves the people who’ve worked with her and how much they care about her as well. Employees will tell you about the family-style get-togethers she throws at her Lakeview home. The personal care she takes with her staff makes a real impact in a trade marred by high turnover under grinding conditions. It’s a credit to Spicer how long many of her key staff have remained with her. Many have gone on to make names for themselves afterwards. Organizations such as Share our Strength and the hunger-relief charity Taste of the NFL, as well as conservation efforts with Gulf Coast fisheries, are just a few of the causes to which she lends her time and effort. 

These days you will most likely find Spicer at Rosedale, her warm and welcoming outpost in the Navarre neighborhood that is at once eclectic (it is the site of a former jailhouse – visit the restrooms) and intimate, with its sun-splashed dining room and verdant patio. While a visit to any of her restaurants will show you the world, it is at Rosedale where you will find this year’s NOWFE award winner most at home.