It’s no secret that New Orleans’ culinary scene is undefeated. Lesser known are the women who pioneered and continue to reinvent that scene until this very day. They are artists and entrepreneurs, civil rights advocates and restaurateurs, they are authors and they are immigrants, and they 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 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.
Her devout work in the culinary arts and as an activist has lead to the countless amount of awards Chef Chase has earned. 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.
Chef Kristen Essig - Coquette
Chef Kristen Essig’s long list of culinary accomplishments make her a phenomenal chef, but it is her work outside of the kitchen that makes her a phenomenal woman and individual. A graduate of the Johnson & Wales Culinary School, Essig began her culinary career in New Orleans with Chef Emeril Lagasse. She would continue on to work as the Market Manager for Crescent City Farmers Market, building strong relationships with local farmers, vendors and producers. Her accolades and awards include Louisiana Cookin’ Magazine’s “Chef to Watch” (2005), Food & Wine Magazine’s “The People’s Best New Chef” nominee (2015) and Coastal Living Magazines “5 Coastal Chefs to Watch” (2015).
Outside of the kitchen, Essig is a founding member of the New Orleans chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry. Additionally, Chef Essig has been a vocal advocate against sexual harassment in the kitchen. She was a guest columnist on NOLA.com with her opinion piece, What are we willing to do to shut down a toxic culture? Today, Chef Essig is co-owner and chef at the Garden District-based restaurant, Coquette.
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, 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 20017, 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 + Mondo
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, 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 Mondo.
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 a 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 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
Although she is 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 - 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. Araujo now dedicates most of 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 include 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.
Today, Chef Fields divides much of her time between owning and operating the Central Business District-based Willa Jean and working on her coming cookbook.
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 path 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 the Levee Baking Co., a pop-up baking shop specializing in handmade bread and pastries. Her past experiences included work at Willa Jean and Satsuma Cafe. The young chef is on her way, selling out of her baked goods at Crescent City Farmers Market every Wednesday and Thursday and through a variety of coffee shops including Mammoth Espresso, Cafe Bon Ami, and Congregation Coffee.
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!.