58. In a city with a culinary history and reputation completely disproportional to its size, Austin Leslie (1934-2005) stood out as one of the iconic chefs of New Orleans in the late 20th century. Many claimed that he made the best fried chicken in the city.
He born in New Orleans, and lived almost all of his life there. He was the son of Glenn and Ruby (DeJean) Leslie, and grew up living at 704. N. Miro. Starting in middle school, he delivered fried chicken by bicycle for Portia’s Chicken Shack, on S. Rampart, in the French Quarter. The owner, Bill Turner, also taught young Austin about restaurants, and especially about seasoning, and frying chicken. (Turner also owned Portia’s Fountain & Grill, on Louisiana). In the 1952 City Directory, he’s listed as working at “Portise Poultry” (sic).
After a stint in the Army, which took him to Korea, Austin returned to New Orleans, and tried business school (in the 1954 City Directory, he’s listed as a “student”), and then worked in an assortment of jobs, including in sheet metal. Then in 1959, he got a job as an assistant chef in the popular restaurant at the D.H. Holmes Department Store, on Canal St.
The D.H.Holmes Dept. Store, in the early 1960s, around the time that Austin Leslie was an assistant chef there. The clock over the front door (between the L and the M) was a downtown landmark
At Holmes, Austin learned haute cuisine, preparing classic Creole dishes such as oysters Rockefeller and shrimp remoulade. In 1964, Austin’s aunt, Helen DeJean Pollock, moved her Howard’s Eatery restaurant to a new place in the Seventh Ward, and rechristened it Chez Helene. Austin soon joined her there. He incorporated some dishes he’d learned at D.H. Holmes to go along with Helen’s standard fare, and created what some have called “Creole Soul.”
Leslie’s signature dish was a simple but excellently-executed fried chicken, sprinkled with a garlic-parsley persillade and dill pickles
Unlike many soul food chefs, who can be very secretive, Austin wasn’t opposed to sharing his recipe. On the other hand, it appears that there are at least five different recipes floating around. James Cullen, chef at Trèo, has made an entertaining video showing his attempt to re-create the recipe. Leah Chase characterized Austin’s food this way: “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.”
Austin Leslie, working on some turkeys.
When Helen retired in 1975, Austin bought Chez Helene, and his reputation continued to grow. But even a fictional TV show based on Chez Helene (see part 2, coming soon!) couldn’t save the little restaurant from the economic realities of trying to survive in a neighborhood white folks might describe as “sketchy” neighborhood. In 1989, Austin went bankrupt. The restaurant closed for good in 1994, and burned shortly thereafter. The concrete base can still be seen on the corner of what was 1540 N. Robertson–
The concrete base of Chez Helene can still be seen on the corner of what was 1540 N. Robertson
After that, Austin’s career took a lot of twists and turns. He worked at several restaurants, including the Basin Street Club.
At the Basin Street Club, with daughter Tracey
He also signed on as “fry cook” at Jack Leonardi’s Jacques-Imo’s. Jack became a disciple, and has continued to make Austin’s chicken.
Along the way, Austin opened a restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, where New Orleans cuisine was popular. Austin was back home working at Pampy’s in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. Like thousands of others, when the levees broke on August 29, Austin was unable to leave his house, and was trapped in his attic for two days. The humid heat was stifling, estimated between 98º to 120º. He was rescued, and taken to the Convention Center. He became ill with a high fever, and was taken to a hospital in Atlanta, but died there on September 29.
On October 9, Austin was given the first post-Katrina jazz funeral, which led a march through the streets (and past considerable rubble) from Pampy’s, past the empty lot of Chez Helene, and ending at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood. Many saw it as a sign of hope in the wake of the disaster.
There’s a lot more to Austin Leslie’s story, and we’ll take it up in our next post.