When Austin Leslie was in grammar school he would make his way through his 7th Ward neighborhood’s neutral grounds plucking wild herbs like pepper grass to sell door-to-door from a pull-along wagon.
“I worked very early to get money. A lady in the next block grew thyme and other herbs, and we washed it and sold it as seasoning bunches.”
He was nine years old.
The price? Two or three cents apiece, recalls Mr Leslie.
It was the 1940s, and a black child growing up in New Orleans Lafitte Projects was already trying to make his way in the world.
“I was always in the kitchen, always jiving them (female relatives) and always asking them is it ready yet.”
Leslie’s mom Ruby DeJean Leslie Johnson taught him how to make bread pudding, and the treasured “the older the bread the better” trick
Leslie got his first cooking-job at Portia’s Fountain on South Rampart Street where owner Bill Turner taught the teen how to fry chicken between the youngster’s bicycle deliveries. It would be a skill that would carry him across the globe, and lead to glory, and riches.
The first time I cut up a chicken I was working at Portia’s. The chef there, Bill Turner, asked me where I learned how to do it. I said I learned from my mother at home…I learned all about fried chicken from Bill Turner, too. It’s the easiest job in the kitchen. You can tell by the sound when fried chicken is done. If you listen to it, you can hear how the sound of the grease crackling in the fryer changes. Then you know it’s time to bring it up. I never cook it well done; I never cook any meat well done. What I do is take the blood out of it first—while the chicken is frying take a pair of tongs and squeeze each piece. Squeeze it till it bursts to let the blood out…
Like most young men of his era, Austin did a tour of duty on the battlegrounds of Korea before a brief stint attending business college in Washington D.C where he worked part-time as a busboy at the Hot Shoppe restaurant chain.
In 1959, Leslie migrated back to New Orleans, and D.H Holmes, the elegant old department store on Canal Street. He took the position of assistant chef in the concern’s restaurant
I had grown up walking by there, hearing the dishes clatter and smelling the food – and then all of a sudden I was working in that big kitchen. I learned how to make oysters Rockefeller and shrimp rémoulade.
“I really got into the thick of it there. It was a hell of a restaurant”
His aunt, Helen Howard moved her Howard’s Eatery diner to N. Robertson Street in the 7th Ward in 1964. Leslie quit D.H. Holmes and went to work in the kitchen with Helen’s brother Sidney DeJean. The business was renamed, and Helen tacked an ‘e’ on the end of the operation’s name to class it up a bit.
Miss Helen retired in 1975 after a 34 year career as restaurant owner. Her nephew stepped into the breech.
The godmother of Creole cuisine Leah Chase would say:
It was just good old Creole food, good old-time New Orleans food, and he was good, damn good. You couldn’t fry a chicken better than Austin. You couldn’t stuff a pepper better than Austin Leslie.
Visiting New Orleans during this era always meant taking the time to wend your way through the back-a-town til you found the little yellow brick building that hosted Chez Helene. I was a naive teenager, and the neighborhood seemed a little shady but the minute you swung the door open the aroma coming from the kitchen made the sense of danger worthwhile.
And the minute you bit into that sublime, deep-fried chicken festooned with garlic persillade a side-street shootout would’ve been considered fair trade.
For the first time in his life Austin Leslie was a bonafide restaurateur.
A decade passed, and celebrities were regularly spotted at 1540 N. Robertson: Madonna, Mitzi Gaynor, Ramsay Lewis, Lou Rawls, Carol Channing, and Lena Horn came to eat at Leslie’s Creole soul food table.
Hollywood bigwigs, Tim Reid and Hugh Wilson dined at Chez Helene one night in the mid-eighties, and were instantly spellbound. ‘Frank’s Place’ a TV show loosely-based on Chef Leslie’s restaurant would debut on CBS in 1987. In spite of winning an Emmy award it only lasted a year.
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.
A Chez Helene “for the tourists” opened in the French Quarter followed by one in Chicago, and a chain of fried chicken restaurants was discussed but never materialized.
Meanwhile the neighborhood where the mothership was located started to decline, and the cabbies at United and Veteran’s began refusing to carry tourists to the Chez Helene doorstep.
A year after the cancellation of Frank’s Place, fortune had dramatically shifted for the old soul food cook. The French Quarter and Chicago branches of his would-be empire had closed, and Mr Austin had to file for bankruptcy.
Leslie would say:
I knew I could ride it out, that it all would pass – I still had my little restaurant. The real problem was that I was sitting on dynamite. The dope fiends and pushers were moving into the neighborhood. Now don’t get me wrong, I know the streets. I’ve lived my whole life around pimps and whores. They’ve got a job to do same as me. But this was something completely different.
In 1994, two decades into his run as Creole boss of his own restaurant, Austin Leslie had to shutter his beloved Chez Helene. Following the closure, the old 7th Ward-er settled into the life of itinerant chef, traveling to a little town near Copenhagen, Denmark where he briefly lived the life of ex-pat cook.
Once again success came to the chef but he wasn’t satisfied. Less than a year into his stay in the frozen north he got on a big jet airplane and came home to New Orleans where he took on a new job at Jacques-Imo’s restaurant in Uptown. He had responded to a newspaper ad calling for a Cajun/Creole cook.
After departing Jacques-Imo’s in late 2004, Mr Austin landed at Pampy’s Creole Kitchen in the 7th Ward. When Hurricane Katrina came calling nine months later, floodwaters trapped Leslie and his wife in the attic of their home. Rescuers plucked them from the roof, and after a brief stay at the horrific Superdome the pair were whisked away to Atlanta.
But the chef had fallen ill with a fever. He died of a heart attack after a brief stay in an Atlanta hospital. Leslie was 71 years old.
On a Sunday afternoon in early October, 2005 the city of New Orleans gathered at Pampy’s on Broad Street for Mr Leslie’s memorial second line. Restaurant owner Stan ‘Pampy’ Barre said the crowd was “going to march into New Orleans and dance him into heaven.”Hot 8 Brass Band performed ‘A Closer Walk With Thee’ as the crowd danced towards the Mississippi, pausing briefly at the weed-choked corner lot where Chez Helene formerly reigned as one of the great dining rooms of the South.
Austin Leslie was born in New Orleans on July 02, 1934
He died in Atlanta on September 29th, 2005
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