Downtown: 1540 N. Robertson St.
In the early 1970s, when Richard Collin encouraged a lot of white people to go to black-owned restaurants for the first time in their lives, Chez Helene was one of the three great New Orleans soul food restaurants. (The other two were Buster Holmes and Dooky Chase.) Its chef Austin Leslie was an icon of Creole cooking until his life ended in September, 2005, in one of the worst Hurricane Katrina tragedies in the culinary world.
Chez Helene’s roots go back to 1942. Austin’s aunt Helen Pollock began a café in the CBD called Howard’s Eatery. From the time he was a very young man, Austin helped his aunt, then began cooking full-time. His first job supplied him with the secret of great fried chicken. Chef Bill Turner taught him that at a restaurant called Portia’s (it was on the corner of Lafayette and S. Rampart, and was terrific until it closed in the 1980s). He also worked in the kitchen at D.H. Holmes department store, which had a major restaurant operation on Canal Street.
Austin’s Aunt Helen shut down Howard’s Eatery and opened Chez Helene in 1964. She brought Austin in as the chef, and from that moment on it was essentially his restaurant. He bought it outright when his aunt retired in 1975.
By then, Chez Helene’s clientele had grown far beyond the African-American community, and even New Orleans. People came from all over the world to eat there. Food writers also gave it a lot of glowing attention. In 1987, Chez Helene became the model for the network television comedy Frank’s Place.
The food lived up to Chef Helene’s fame. The menu was large, and many of the dishes on it seemed more appropriate for a gourmet French-Creole establishment in the Quarter than the neighborhood place that Chez Helene was. You could start with gumbo, or you could have oysters Rockefeller and Bienville. The main course could be (and probably was) the famous fried chicken or trout Marguery. Austin really could cook all of that, and sometimes he did it better than the fancy places.
Back to the fried chicken. Chez Helene’s style was set before the time when crispy coatings came into vogue for fried chicken. Chez Helene’s chicken was greaseless and far from soggy, but the crust was light and thin, never crunchy. What made the chicken good was the flavor of the seasonings in the coating, which was both spicy and herbals.
Chez Helene also predated the advent of Popeyes and its much spicier chicken. The balance was just right.
The classic Chez Helene chicken platter included a stuffed pepper and potato salad. My own preference was for the chicken and the equally good red beans, a perfect combination.
They also fried and broiled excellent fish, oysters, and shrimp. The menu was a catalog of New Orleans everyday dishes, made better than anywhere except your own mother’s kitchen (if you were lucky). All of this was abetted by the personality of Austin Leslie, who in his captain’s cap and with his mutton-chop sideburns became a familiar and friendly face.
All this great food and widespread fame were not enough to overcome the decline in the neighborhood. When cab drivers refused to go to Chez Helene, the place found it hard to make ends meet. Austin closed Chez Helene in 1995, and tried reopening in a couple of other locations, none of which worked. He became an itinerant freelance chef, making particular marks in the early days of Jacques-Imo’s (his fried chicken recipe lives on there) and on frequent tours to Europe, especially Denmark. He was the chef at Pampy’s in Gentilly when the hurricane hit.
Austin was trapped in the attic of his house during the floods following Katrina. The temperature rose to 120 degrees. He was in bad shape when rescuers pulled him out. A month later, he died in a hospital in Atlanta. He was 72.