Creole Chefs that cook Good Creole Food.. Louisiana Style


The Creole Kings






For nearly 60 years, the Baquet family has fed generations of New Orleanians from Creole culinary temples such as Eddie's and Zachary's. Now, with the sale of Zachary's, New Orleans is without a Baquet-run restaurant for the first time since just after World War II.

Wayne Baquet was sitting at Robin's on Canal Street, washing back eggs and sausage with a cup of decaf and talking about his family's life in restaurants.

"Our first restaurant was in the '40s. It was called Paul Gross Chicken Coop, on the corner of Bienville and Roman in the 6th Ward, right around here, not that far. Twenty-four-hour restaurant. My dad Eddie was a mail carrier who always wanted to operate his own restaurant, so he went to work with his aunt, who ran the place. Her name was Ada Baquet Gross."

Baquet brought his son, Wayne Jr., to the breakfast interview to help him sort through his memories. There are a lot of them.


Ada was the first Baquet to go into the restaurant business. Along with her husband, Paul, she opened the Chicken Coop in the mid-'40s, just a few years after Dooky Chase, and both Wayne, 57, and his son, 36, figure it was among the first African-American-owned restaurants in the city. It planted the seed for a string of others, all of them owned and operated by the Baquets, most of them by Wayne and his wife, Janet.

The last in that string was Zachary's, the restaurant that Wayne named after his grandson (Wayne Jr.'s oldest boy), and owned until last month. The sale of the place ended his, and the Baquets', reign in the New Orleans restaurant business.

African-Americans play a crucial role in every aspect of New Orleans culinary history, yet relatively few became prominent restaurant owners. For nearly 60 years, the Baquets were among the few exceptions. Wayne Sr. had become the caretaker of that legacy, and the shiver his retirement sent across the family tree was evident at a Baquet family party thrown in his honor last month.

"There were 40-some people there," said Wayne the elder, "and Wayne (Jr.) said, 'How many y'all worked for my dad over the years?' Just about everybody raised their hand."
The Baquets couldn't help but be tightknit. In 1966, Wayne's father, Eddie, and his mother, Myrtle, sold the family house in order to buy a property at 2119 Law St. in the 7th Ward. That became Eddie's. It also became home.

"We lived in the back, and we operated the restaurant in the front," Wayne Sr. explained. "Five kids, and my older brother was married (with a child), and he had one of the little rooms in back. Me and all of my little younger brothers like Dean and Terry and Rudolph, we had another little room in the back. My mom and dad had a little room in the back."
Once Wayne Sr. was married, he and Janet got "a little cubicle" of their own. Not long after, they were joined by newborn Wayne Jr.

"It wasn't like the Ewings," Jr. laughed, responding to his father's descriptions of the close quarters.

Eddie's in the early days was a bar that served food, most famously po-boys and fried chicken. A cigar box sufficed as a cash register. Many mornings the family would eat fresh, homemade cracklins prepared by one of the many cooks.






"The way it evolved was, I ran the front of the house, and my dad ran the back of the house with my mom (Myrtle) and my aunt (Anna Gibson) and my grandmother (Eva Romano), who were the first real cooks," Wayne Sr. said. "The way the operation ran, we had no employees. It was just us. (The women) cooked all the food. My dad was the butcher. He would order a half a cow, do everything to it."

By the time Wayne Sr. was 21, he and his family had had enough of the "cubicle" and the low pay at Eddie's -- "I was working for food and rent" -- so he went out and got a job at Woolco, a division of F.W. Woolworth Co. He rose to division manager in a couple of years. When his older brother, Eddie Jr., lured him back to the family restaurant in 1976, Wayne brought with him a polished approach to business.

Wayne made the decision to; as he put it, "flip" Eddie's. The bar area, which was always the largest part of Eddie's, became the main dining room; the small, three-table area that had been the restaurant became the bar. Wayne persuaded his father, who struggled to cut meat by hand every time someone ordered a po-boy, to purchase a slicer and do things such as peel shrimp and cut apart chickens ahead of time. Gumbo and red beans became permanent menu items. The cigar box was retired.

"The business doubled in a week," Wayne said proudly.

"At that time, in the late '70s, is when Eddie's made its name as a Creole restaurant," said Wayne Jr. "They added stuff like shrimp remoulade, trout Baquet, trout with crabmeat. It kind of got fancy, but it was still the same neighborhood place."

People outside the neighborhood took notice.

While the Baquets said that Eddie's always had white followers, it drew an increasingly integrated crowd to its predominantly black neighborhood as its audience grew. The restaurant has considerable posthumous appeal. At Robin's, Wayne Sr. noticed a cop he recognized at a nearby table listening in on his oral history. "Ask him," Wayne said, gesturing to the smiling officer. "He knows how it was."

On "The Tonight Show," Bill Cosby heralded Eddie's as his favorite place to eat. In 1977, the restaurant critic Richard Collin praised the restaurant in the States-Item. He singled out "the brilliant and imaginative kitchen" and "magnificent" gumbo and oyster loaves while cautioning readers that the surroundings were less than genteel. "(Y)ou may even doubt that there is a restaurant behind that Falstaff sign," Collin wrote.

Wayne Jr., who started working in the restaurant peeling potatoes at 9, compared the popularity of Eddie's in its heyday to that of Uglesich's today. "Eddie's was just poppin'," he said. "Jazzfest, Mardi Gras, you couldn't get in there. It was unreal." Its success prompted expansion.

"We opened up a place called Eddie's Fried Chicken and Hot Sausage," said Wayne Sr.
"We wanted to take advantage of the takeout business," Jr. added.

"And it worked," said Sr. "For the first two weeks, it beat Eddie's. It was on Paris Avenue. I said, 'Look, let's open up five more of these places.' (The rest of the family was) like pulling me back, saying, 'Stop, please. You're going too fast.' "

The Baquets' emergence as restaurateurs might have created some friction in the family, but it helped African-Americans stake their rightful claim to the Creole culinary tradition. Wayne Sr. rejects the "Creole-soul" label often affixed to his restaurants over the years. "Creole is soul," he said. "Creole food in New Orleans is cooked by the people in New Orleans who are Creole."

The Baquets certainly qualify. The family's New Orleans roots go back two centuries. Ancestors include George and Achille Baquet, both jazz progenitors and accomplished clarinetists. George played with the likes of Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, while Achille, who played with Jimmy Durante, moved to California, where Wayne Sr. said he passed for white.

"You'd never find chitlins in one of Wayne Baquet's restaurants," said Wayne Sr. "Creole food is crawfish bisque, crawfish pie, red beans, jambalaya, gumbo."

In 1979, the Baquets attempted to go toe-to-toe with New Orleans' white-owned, establishment Creole restaurants with the opening of Eddie Baquet's at North Claiborne and Esplanade avenues. Wayne Sr. described the place as "the first white tablecloth service, really, really, nice, nice restaurant in the black community that wasn't completely in the 'hood."
Disagreements as to how Eddie Baquet's should be run caused Wayne Sr. to split with his father and Eddie Jr.

Eddie Baquet's closed after two years, but Wayne Sr. and Janet went on to open a series of restaurants on their own. There was Cafe Baquet on Washington Avenue and another on Foy Street. He also directed the cafeteria at Southern University at New Orleans and opened Eddie's at Krauss in the Canal Street department store.

By the time Wayne Sr.'s parents lured him back to the original Eddie's in the mid-'80s, Eddie Jr. had quit the restaurant business and moved to Houston while the rest of his siblings were pursuing other careers. Two of his brothers, Terry, Page 1 editor at The Times-Picayune, and Dean, managing editor of The Los Angeles Times, are journalists. Eddie Jr. and Sr. both died in the early '90s.

Wayne Jr. has helped his father over the years, but he's a certified public accountant. Knowing firsthand the strenuous work involved, he has never aspired to be a restaurateur. He was involved in finalizing the sale of Zachary's, a restaurant both father and son feel filled the upscale potential that eluded Eddie Baquet's. It was the last restaurant standing after the original Eddie's and an offshoot at the Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall fell victim to the declining fortunes of their respective neighborhoods in the late '90s.

Wayne Sr. said the 11-year-old Zachary's will continue with the same menu under new owners Stephanie and Margo Newman. He will continue to operate his popular fried chicken stand at the Essence Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and he may pick up some restaurant consulting work. He's not ruling out getting back into restaurants, but Janet is "fully retired," and for the time being he plans to spend his free time with family.
What will he miss the most?

"Seeing people really happy because you are operating a good operation," Baquet said as his son nodded in agreement. "Seeing people walk out and say, 'Ah, that's the best I ever had.' It happened often."

Courtesy of The Times Picayune July 20, 2004

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