In the 30-year-old photo from Time-Life's volume on Creole and Acadian cooking, the staff of Chez Helene crowds together behind a kitchen worktable. It's a group portrait, but my eyes were immediately drawn to owner Helen DeJean Pollock's nephew -- Austin Leslie. The handsome young man stands a little taller than everyone else. A brighter light shines on his face. Even before he became famous, a spotlight seemed to seek him out.
Four years after the Time-Life photo appeared, Leslie bought the Creole restaurant on North Robertson Street from Pollock. New branches of Chez Helene soon opened -- one in the French Quarter and one in Chicago. There was talk of a restaurant chain serving his signature fried chicken. CBS briefly ran a sitcom, Frank's Place, based loosely on Chez Helene. By 1989, however, Leslie was forced to declare bankruptcy and, in 1994, he closed Chez Helene for good.
I recently saw another photograph of Austin Leslie in the ads for Pampy's, the Seventh Ward establishment where Leslie has taken over the kitchen after tending the deep fryer at Jacques-Imo's Cafe for five years. In this photo, Leslie is a commanding presence with a black iron skillet in his hand. He looks like a Creole Iron Chef. After several meals at Pampy's, I'd place my money on Leslie in a culinary grudge match against any young celebrity chef.
At lunch, Leslie perches at the bar, his chef's white jacket spotless and the familiar captain's hat on his head. Pampy's has always been an afternoon power scene for African-American business leaders and politicos, but when Leslie is in the dining room half the customers at Pampy's are clearly more interested in seeing the legendary chef than being seen. Leslie greets everyone as they enter. People run out to their cars and grab their cameras. I've seen Leslie take a seat with fans and scribble his signature on their tablecloth.
One afternoon I sat at Pampy's watching the scene and waiting for my plate of dark-meat fried chicken. The man may be a legend, but at that moment I was more concerned about lunch. You could pick Leslie's chicken out of a lineup, with its dill pickle slices and bright green confetti of chopped raw garlic and parsley. If that fried chicken is Leslie's signature dish, then the sprinkle of parsley decorating nearly every plate -- from the buttery corn bread to the rim of the bowl of shrimp Creole--is how he signs his name on the dishes coming out of Pampy's kitchen. One bite into the fried chicken confirms that the man is a master. The meat is moist; that's a given. The crust, though, is sweet like a loaf of good French bread.
Leslie's fried chicken stands midway between fine dining and picnic fare. Every Sunday there must be hundreds of families sitting on blankets and eating yellow mustard potato salad and a pile of iceberg lettuce dressed with mayo just like the sides on Leslie's fried chicken platter. The parsley, raw garlic and dill pickles slices, however, are innovations few homecooks would consider.
Leslie is more than a master of the deep fryer. His expert hand with spices and seasonings makes every entree and side dish distinct. A halo of heat surrounds the bright orange, deep-fried Buffalo shrimp, and my mouth felt the burn even before I took a bite. With the first taste, a flush of fire washed over my face but then quickly subsided. A subtle spiciness hid behind the bright tomato taste of the shrimp Creole's broth. A side of greens left a mellow, rounded saltiness on the tongue.
Not every dish succeeded. The macaroni and cheese, a compact block of long noodles, was oddly bland. The brown butter sauce on the trout meuniere was more sweet than savory. An appetizer of fried eggplant was coated in a batter reminiscent of a cake doughnut. The crawfish in the cream sauce topping the eggplant were small and watery, even though it was the middle of crawfish season. The same puny crawfish made the crawfish etouffee a disappointment.
Yet I never left Pampy's unsatisfied. Every meal included well-executed classics. The pungent turtle soup was built with a dark roux, lemon and, as a friend noted, enough sherry to get you drunk. Plump oysters were hidden under a thick layer of Bienville sauce. A deep-fried Cornish game hen was a tad dry, but that only gave me extra incentive to drench each bite in the delicious butter and garlic sauce. At night, Pampy's feels more elegant than energetic. With fewer people to watch, the photos of New Orleans cityscapes and Mardi Gras Indians capture the eye. Windows run along both sides of the triangular building, and an occasional splash of light crossed the room as a car passed outside. Without Austin Leslie holding court, our brusquely gregarious waiter ably took on the job of making us feel welcome. Even if the chef was relaxing at home that night, when our food arrived, Austin Leslie again took center stage.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Patrons at PAMPY'S CREOLE KITCHEN treat Chef Austin Leslie (left, opposite Sellars Johnson) like a rock star, taking his picture and asking for his autograph.