It’s no secret that New Orleans’ culinary scene is unmatched, and a huge part of that is due to the women who have pioneered and continue to reinvent that scene until this very day. They are artists and entrepreneurs, civil rights advocates and restaurateurs, authors and immigrants. These women are incredibly talented and integral to the future of food in New Orleans. Below are just a few of our favorite female chefs whose work reaches far beyond the kitchen.
Chef Leah Chase - Dooky Chase
Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Chef Leah Chase will forever be a culinary, community and cultural legend in New Orleans and beyond. Until her passing in 2019, Chef Chase remained the head chef and matriarch of one of the best-known and most culturally significant restaurants in New Orleans, Dooky Chase. Thanks to the vision, skill and dedication of Mrs. Chase, Dooky Chase would become one of the first fine-dining establishments for African Americans in the U.S. Beyond her famous cooking, Chef Chase also created a space where civil rights activists and leaders would secretly meet, where African American art hung on the walls and working-class Africans Americans could have checks cashed due to the lack of African American banks.
“"To be a woman, you have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog,”” — New Orleanian Chef and Entrepreneur, Mrs. Leah Chase.
Chef Chase earned countless awards due to her devout work in the culinary arts and as an activist. She was a recipient of the 2016 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, the NAACP Human Understanding and A.P. Tureaud Awards, the Times-Picayune Loving Cup, multiple honorary degrees from a number of local and national universities, and many other awards and honors. Chef Chase has proven extraordinary in the kitchen and beyond.
Cynthia Vu Tran - Cafe Minh
A pioneer for modern fusion cuisine in New Orleans, Chef Cynthia Vu Tran uses her Vietnamese heritage to make masterpieces at Mid-City based restaurant, Cafe Minh. Its menu features a selection of sophisticated Vietnamese, French and New Orleans-inspired fare.
Vu Tran’s love for cooking began under the influence of her mother. After escaping Vietnam with her family in 1979, Chef Vu Tran relocated to New Orleans East where she began working in restaurants to support herself and her family. Overcoming language and cultural barriers all while juggling work and school were difficult, but she persevered. She would continue on to graduate from Johnson & Wales culinary program and return to New Orleans.
In 2017, Tran opened Cafe Minh, which gained a 5-star rating from Zagat and was named a Top-Rated Restaurant in New Orleans. She continues to combine her roots as a Vietnamese immigrant and her culinary training and skill to reinvent Cafe Minh’s menu and keep its patrons satisfied.
Chef Susan Spicer - Bayona Restaurant + Rosedale
She’s tackled the kitchen - and Hollywood - and has proven brilliant with both. Chef Susan Spicer is one of New Orleans' most beloved and popular chefs. Her childhood hobby of cooking blossomed into a lifelong passion. Spicer was awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast Region, was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who in Food & Beverage,” and was placed in the Culinary Hall of Fame in 2012.
Beyond her award-winning skills in the kitchen, Spicer is also familiar with the camera. She competed in Bravo’s hit cooking competition, Top Chef, played herself on NCIS: New Orleans and even had a character inspired by her on HBO’s Treme. A published author, Chef Spicer invites readers to indulge in some of her signature dishes at home with her cookbook Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer’s New Orleans. Chef Spicer now devotes her time and talents to her two local restaurants, Bayona and Rosedale.
Chef Sue Zemanick - Zasu
A three-time James Beard Award nominee all before the age of 30, Chef Sue Zemanick has received culinary fame at an early age and shows no signs of slowing down. Now the owner and head chef at Zasu, Zemanick’s journey has been filled with some of the best in New Orleans’ culinary scene. Upon graduating from culinary school, her career kicked off at Commander's Palace, followed by her promotion as executive chef at Gautreau’s Restaurant. Her new gig began just a week before the city of New Orleans was dealt a devastating blow with Hurricane Katrina. For over a year, the restaurant had to undergo repairs and renovations before Chef Zemanick was able to officially make her mark. She would continue to lead the restaurant for 12 years before moving on to focus on her family and future culinary endeavors. The years in between Geautreau’s and Zasu were filled with Indonesian pop-ups across the city. It was in January 2019 that she opened Zasu, meaning “once again,” in Slovak - paying homage to her Czech heritage.
Chef Nina Compton - Bywater American Bistro + Compere Lapin
As a native of St. Lucia, Chef Nina Compton is well versed in Caribbean, Italian and French Cuisine. It is with her unique background and thorough training from the Culinary Institute of America that Chef Compton has been able to leave her mark on New Orleans’ culinary scene. Her first restaurant, Compere Lapin, offers menu items inspired by her childhood home of St. Lucia. Her second restaurant, Bywater American Bistro, is a casual eatery with New Orleans fare made with local ingredients and Caribbean twists.
Compton is well-known for her time spent on “Top Chef: New Orleans,” where she was voted a fan favorite and won runner-up. She is also a recipient of the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South.
Chef Melissa Araujo - Alma + Saveur Catering
Growing up in both La Ceiba - a small beach town off the Atlantic Coast of Honduras, and New Orleans, Chef Araujo’s passion for cooking came from summers spent with her grandmother and night shifts at local restaurants. Just like her childhood, Chef Melissa Araujo’s culinary career has brought her all around the world. She spent four years in Mexico and 10 years in Italy working and cooking under an extraordinary line up of chefs.
While New Orleans is home, Araujo has been extremely vocal and intentional about incorporating her Honduran roots into all of her work. Local restaurants like Mondo, Restaurant R'evolution and Doris Metropolitan are all part of Araujo’s resume. Her first solo venture, Alma, was housed at the Central City-based food incubator, Roux Carre, and is now its own restaurant in the Bywater. Araujo also dedicates her time and energy to her boutique catering company, Saveur Catering.
Chef Lenora Chong - Morrow’s
Morrow’s has added an additional buzz to the Marigny and the leading lady behind the buzz is Chef Lenora Chong. Using her Korean heritage, Chef Chong had created a fusion menu that features lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch favorites. Classic New Orleans dishes with Korean twists include Korean BBQ, Grilled Salmon with a signature teriyaki glaze, her namesake Pasta Lenora and much more.
Chef Chong is no stranger to the hustle and bustle of restaurant ownership or life. She was the owner and chef of Lenora’s Grill before taking on this new endeavor with her son, Larry Morrow.
Chef Kelly Fields - Willa Jean
If you’ve ever indulged in one (or two) of Willa Jean’s famous chocolate chip cookies, then chances are you’re familiar with the work of Chef Kelly Fields. Since her childhood in South Carolina, Chef Fields discovered her love for cooking, and more importantly, baking, at a young age. During her time at Johnson & Wales, Chef Fields had the opportunity to cook for the iconic Chef Susan Spicer - from then on her sail was set for New Orleans. Once in the Crescent City, Fields began working as a pastry chef at Restaurant August. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Fields was able to travel the world with stops including the Middle East, Europe, the Asian Pacific and San Francisco. Her work in culinary arts has led to Fields being named one of the Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America by Dessert Professional Magazine, most influential people in the South by Garden & Gun, Outstanding Pastry Chef nominee by James Beard and many others.
Her work has culminated in a recently-published cookbook, The Good Book of Southern Baking.
Outside of the kitchen, Chef Fields is passionate about mentoring the next generation of young women chefs. She’s worked closely with a number of John Besh Foundation Scholarship recipients and in 2017, she launched her own mentorship program, “Yes Ma’am.”
Chef Christina Balzebre - Levee Baking Co.
Miami native, Chef Christina Balzebre, made her way to New Orleans to pursue a degree in Sociology at Loyola University and found her calling as a pastry chef in the Crescent City. While Chef Balzebre knew from childhood that she enjoyed cooking, her culinary journey has taken a unique path. After receiving her degree in sociology, Balzebre stayed in New Orleans working at local restaurants. Starting as a juicer, then a line cook, and finally she was introduced to the world of baking.
Still very young in her career, Chef Balzebre has been named A Chef to Watch by Louisiana Cookin’. She spearheads Levee Baking Co., a bakery now with its own brick-and-mortar location just off Magazine Street. Her past experiences included work at Willa Jean and Satsuma Cafe.
Chef Megan Bickford – Commander's Palace
Native to the region and its Creole and Cajun cuisines, Chef Meg Bickford assumed the role of Executive Chef at Commander’s Palace in October 2020. Bickford graduated from the John Folse Culinary Institute and was subsequently hired by Commander’s, where she went on to serve as Executive Chef of Café Adelaide. In her time at Café Adelaide, Bickford was chosen as one of FSR Magazine’s “Rising Stars” and one of Louisiana Cookin’s “Chefs to Watch.” After 12 years with the Commander’s Palace Family of Restaurants, Bickford is eager to keep the traditions of Commander’s alive while adding innovative (and delicious) items to the menu.
Chef Martha Wiggins – Café Reconcile
Café Reconcile is a special place in New Orleans; founded in 1996, it’s dedicated to transforming the lives of at-risk youth ages 16-24 through workforce development programs, providing job training, mentorship and the opportunity to learn life skills. Chef Martha Wiggins is now at the helm of Café Reconcile as Executive Chef. She previously served as Executive Chef of Sylvain, where she was honored on The Times-Picayune’s list of Chefs to Watch 2015, Gambit’s 2015 Emerging Chefs list and semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Award (2017) and Best Chef South (2018). Additionally, Wiggins joined the team for the opening of the Elysian Bar in Hotel Peter & Paul. Now, as Executive Chef at Café Reconcile, Wiggins is mentoring the next generation of chefs.
Chef Ashley Jonique
Known as Let Dat Girl Cook on Instagram, Chef Ashley Jonique knows how to throw it down when it comes to soul food. Local ingredients are at the center of her Insta-worthy meal creations, and vegetables often add for a colorful, well-balanced plate. Stay tuned to her Instagram for the latest on where to taste her next meal or how to book one of her cooking classes.
Joy the Baker
When it comes to cookies, cakes and other pastries, Joy the Baker is your go-to for Insta-worthy inspiration. Joy is a baker, photographer, cookbook author and teacher with a massive Internet following. Recipes, both sweet and savory, are available on her website, but for the full experience, head on over to her @joythebaker and @drakeoncake Instagram accounts. Joy also frequently hosts baking classes for those looking to recreate the magic.
This is just a short list of a few of New Orleans’ phenomenal female chefs and entrepreneurs. Browse our list of women-owned businesses here in the Crescent City and see exactly why girls run the world!