R.I.P. Chef Austin Leslie

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**Update 11/07/2005** For more on Austin Leslie see our Great Chefs of New Orleans Tribute to Austin Leslie.

Bad news for fans of New Orleans Food, Soul Food, and Food in general, Chef Austin Leslie has passed away in Atlanta, Georgia, while on refuge from Hurricane Katrina. This sad loss is made worse knowing that Chef Leslie died when his home town of New Orleans was in such peril, and unable to do what he loved most, and did best; cook.
Chef Austin Leslie’s career was at its pinnacle when he was at Chez H&#233l&#232ne in the 1980’s, in fact, he and Chez H&#233l&#232ne were the inspiration for the sitcom Frank’s Place during the same era.
After reading the sad news I opened my copy of Creole Feast to the chapter on Chef Leslie, pictured confident, and smiling brightly in his younger years, in the midst of deboning a chicken, no doubt readying it for the fryer which he knew so well.
Sorry to share more bad New Orleans news, lord knows there has been enough lately. Fried Chicken for me tomorrow. Here are some notes from the late, great Chef Austin Leslie on Frying Chicken from the book Creole Feast:

The first time I cut up a chicken I was working at Portia’s. The chef there , Bill Turner, asked me where I learned how to do it. I said I learned from my mother at home. He taught me how to get twelve pieces from a whole chicken; my mother was able to get thirteen pieces from the same chicken because she broke the back into two parts. I learned all about fried chicken from Bill Turner, too. It’s the easiest job in the kitchen. You can tell by the sound when fried chicken is done. If you listen to it, you can hear how the sound of the grease crackling in the fryer changes. Then you know it’s time to bring it up. I never cook it well done; I never cook any meat well done. What I do is take the blood out of it first-while the chicken is frying, take a pair of tongs and squeeze each piece. Squeeze it till it bursts to let the blood out. You can look right down there by the bone and see if there is any blood there. When it’s ready the chicken will float to the top, a part of it will stick up. Then you take it and check it over. If you cook it properly you can keep your guests or customers from ever seeing any blood. That’s what they object to, when they prefer well-done meat-not the taste, but the blood.

Rest in Peace Chef Leslie, you’ll always be in our hearts.

My good friend, Texas Chef Bill Moran and I have been planning to colaborate on a Great Chefs of New Orleans piece once a month or more, Chef Leslie was definately on the list and still is. We want to concentrate on some of the Chefs from the past, that were busting out phenomenal food before Chefs were famous like rock stars. Great Chefs like Austin Leslie, Louis Evans, Warren Leruth, and Leah Chase, as well as many, many others. We will do a bio and a recipe that each Chef is most famous for, for instance, Chef Leruth’s Oyster Artichoke Soup, and Chef Leslie’s Fried Chicken. We’re really looking forward to it.

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5 thoughts on “R.I.P. Chef Austin Leslie”

  1. That’s a great idea working with Bill M. Be sure to include some interesting historical notes. I think that understanding the intent of food is as important as being able to follow a recipe. Just reading this website, I have a hankering for boiled peanuts in the shell!
    Best regards, Bill.

  2. Bill – Yeah Bill Moran is a great guy with a lot of food knowledge, we have great conversations via email. I agree that learning about the intent and history of food is very important. I’ve said it in the past that I really dislike cookbooks with just recipes, I enjoy some insight into each dish.

  3. My family has known Mr. Leslie for as long as I can remember. Chez Helene was on the corner from my house when growing up in New Orleans on Robertson Street. Mr. Leslie gave me my first job as a teenager busting tables at Chez Helene. It was a great place to work and the staff had some of the craziest people I’ve ever met in my life. Working there was such great fun. Mr. Leslie was a down to earth kind of boss. You’d always hear him talking, joking and laughing aloud with the customers in the background somewhere in the restaurant. And when it’s time for your break he’d ask you what you wanted and stack your plate enough for four people to eat off of, and breakfast was heaven(I used to wait tables on Sat. and Sun. mornings), my choice liver onions and grits with Mr. Leslie’s wonderful biscuits. No matter how I tried I could never get a clear view of him making those biscuits, I so wanted to make them myself. If you came to work hungry you left full.

    Each year we would attend his daughter’s Birthday Party and each year was a different theme. His family are very, very nice and generous people and his wife is a very patient woman to be able to deal with all of those kids every year. I can relate now that I’m 35 with kids of my own.

    My condolences to the family.

    We really will miss you Austin
    Love Bridgette, Nina, Tonia, and A.Z.

  4. Can anyone tell me where to purchase Chef Austin little red recipe book? I lost mine due to Katrina and can’t find another.


  5. I knew Chef Austin Leslie all of my life. He was like a father to me. His son Gary and I are best friends so Austin was always kept abreast of our shinanigins (and they were considerable).

    When Gary called to tell me that Austin has passed, somehow the Earth seemed lighter like something special was missing. It was Austin. Chef Austin Leslie was missing from our presence and somehow I believe all the people of the Earth knew in some way. He was a Titan. A man among men with such gentleness in his heart.

    I used to always bring my show business friends over to Chez Helene to eat. I’d rather bring them to Chez Helene than Brennans. Not that Brennans isn’t fine food, it is. But Brennans was missing the characters and THE character of Austin Leslie. God only makes one of each and we were the people fortunate enough to get Austin Leslie.

    If Austin had been born in Atlanta, he would have been making that flour and water they call gravy. But God in His infinite wisdome knew to send him to New Orleans where we believe in flavor. Flavor in our food, Flavor in our music, Flavor in our people. And Chef Austin Leslie was a rare world delacacy.

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