Last night’s episode of Tremé added to the respect I have for the chefs and restauranteurs who returned to New Orleans after Katrina, not to mention the everyday people. New Orleanians are made from a special, super-resiliant, gumbo-infused stock (full-disclosure: yours truly was born and spent the first nine years of her life and her college career in the N.O.). From what I can tell, it was difficult enough for any business to reopen, but for those who had to rebuild their shops, restaurants and homes on top of that, it seems like an endless fight on a long road home.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a real-life restaurant located in the Tremé, was rebuilt in the months after the storm. Thanks to the persistence of the restaurant’s namesake, Willie Mae Seaton, her great-granddaughter and now head cook Kerry Seaton, and the Southern Foodways Alliance, Willie Mae’s Scotch House is still cooking up batches of America’s Best Fried Chicken (Food Network, 2007) from the corner of St. Ann and Conti.
In 2008, I interviewed Kerry Seaton for a “Trials & Triumphs” piece that ran in Black Enterprise magazine (see below). Though reluctant to reopen at first, once Kerry was at the helm of Willie Mae’s, she proved passionate, hard-working and focused on keeping the family business humming.
Keeping it in the Family: Great-granddaughter maintains award winning legacy
As a teenager, Kerry Seaton didn’t immediately realize that her great-grandmother Willie Mae Seaton was grooming her to take over the family restaurant, Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. Even when 93-year-old Willie Mae’s fatigue brought Kerry back into the kitchen, Kerry still hadn’t quite caught on.
“She was so cunning,” recalls Kerry. “She would say, ‘You don’t want to work here. Nobody wants to do this hard work.’ And I would say, ‘It’s not that bad.'”
Willie Mae’s training and reverse psychology worked. In 2007, Kerry successfully took over operations at the famed 51-year-old establishment.
“The financial responsibilities, the management of the business, as well as preparing the food, I do everything but wait tables,” she says.
And “everything” is hard work, the 28-year-old admits. She reports to the restaurant around 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday to prep the Creole and soul food dishes. Once a little-known local lunch joint, Willie Mae’s Scotch House has see its signature dish—fried chicken—propel it to a must-visit destination attracting tourists and foodies. In 2005, The James Beard Foundation awarded the restaurant its America’s Classics designation.
While more and more patrons walk through Willie Mae’s door, in recent years it’s been a challenge keeping it open. Kerry has helped see the restaurant through three reopenings in the past four years. The first came back in October 2003 after her great-grandparents recovered from illnesses that kept the restaurant closed for months. The second came nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina. The restaurant and adjoining house where Kerry’s great-grandparents lived were uninhabitable. The family had no flood insurance (Kerry says only the hole in the restaurant’s roof was covered).
The Southern Foodways Alliance stepped in. SFA, which chronicles Southern food culture, raised about $200,000 and restored the building over the course of the year. With the help of many, Willie Mae’s reopened in April 2007, but after just two days, the venerable restauranteur decided she was “too old to continue working.”
Shortly thereafter, the Food Network contacted Kerry, saying that Willie Mae’s signature dish would be named America’s Best Fried Chicken, but the restaurant had to be open to qualify for the honor. At the time, Kerry was studying for the Law School Admission Test, after earning a degree in political science from Southern University in Baton Rouge. So she was faced with a choice. The restaurant reopened on a Wednesday and the television crew arrived that Friday. And with Kerry now at the helm, the doors remain open consistently.
To appeal to the diverse clientele, Kerry has added new menu items, such as vegetarian red beans and rice. Of course, Kerry insists that her great-grandmother’s legacy isn’t lost on her.
“You have to have an absolute love and passion for this,” says Kerry. “If something goes wrong, people will look to me. You take that as motivation and encouragement to strive for excellence. Every plate has to be perfect.”
*All photos are courtesy of Southern Foodways Alliance and Pableaux Johnson