Farewell, Willie Mae

John Besh and other chefs bid farewell to Willie Mae Seaton

Last weekend, the culinary world lost a giant: Willie Mae Seaton. The longtime cook and owner of Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans passed away at 99, just a month after the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed her home and restaurant next door. It's hard to explain the impact this petite woman had on the city's food scene. Pastry chef Kelly Fields puts it this way: "I don't know a chef or a cook in New Orleans who could say they haven't been touched by her, inspired to contribute to the community around them as she did."

Photo: Courtesy of John Currence

Willie Mae's cooking career started in 1957 when she turned her beauty shop into a bar, serving a mixed drink with milk and Scotch. Her customers urged her to open a restaurant, so she did, serving pork chops, collards, beans and what would become her famous wet-batter fried chicken. "The fried chicken I think is the best fried chicken," New Orleans chef and restaurateur John Besh tells the The Times-Picayune. "But it was really the way she made us all feel. She brought people together through food. She didn't care who you were."

That sentiment drove a group of chefs and volunteers organized by John Currence and the Southern Foodways Alliance to help rebuild her restaurant after the storm. Willie Mae sadly wasn't able to run the restaurant when it reopened in April of 2007, but her legacy has lived on at the rebuilt destination, which is now run by her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton-Stewart.

When news spread of Willie Mae's passing, numerous New Orleans chefs posted memorials to her online. We reached out to a few to share their memories.

John Besh, Chef and Owner of Numerous New Orleans Restaurants

Willie Mae Seaton was a beautiful soul who welcomed us all into her home, where she personified hospitality. Her generous spirit would allow her time for a seat and a chat, no matter how busy she was. As if I walked into my very own grandmother's home, Willie Mae would generously force the most delicious greens, corn bread, white beans and rice, smothered green beans and crispy fried chicken thighs in front of me to eat. She saw no race but the human race and treated all who graced her Scotch House with dignity, even those who could not afford the price. People will forever associate Willie Mae with fried chicken, but I'd rather think of her using fried chicken to humbly serve and thus teach us virtues that seem all but forgotten.

John Currence, Chef and Owner of City Grocery Restaurant Group

I am blessed to have had the countless hours in those four walls in the months after the storm with Willie Mae. Understanding the importance of that otherwise-unknown little point completely opened my eyes to the irreplaceable importance of minimalism, place and authenticity. Willie Mae is a monument to humility, perseverance, grace and gentility, qualities all too easily discarded in our industry these days in lieu of recognition, prosperity and success.

As grateful as I am for having had her in my life, I am equally enriched by the hundreds of people who ventured . . . to give of themselves [to the rebuilding] for no other reason than to simply enrich themselves by being part of a little something that might help heal the most culturally and historically significant city in our country.

We lost a special woman on Saturday night. Willie Mae Seaton was, without exception, a categorically unique individual.

Kelly Fields, Executive Pastry Chef of the Besh Restaurant Group

As someone who is still pretty new and young in the New Orleans restaurant scene, I hold Willie Mae close to my heart. She created an environment in her restaurant and with her cooking that blurred all the lines of class, gender and spirituality by leveling the field and making everyone feel at home and equally nourished along the way. What's so remarkable is that she did this genuinely, just by being herself—being humble, simple and putting her heart and passion into what she did every day.

I don't know a chef or a cook in New Orleans who could say they haven't been touched by her, inspired to contribute to the community around them as she did. To bring people together through food is the simplest and most profound goal I have as a cook. Who better to have set the example than Willie Mae Seaton?