November 29, 2004
In the era of celebrity chefs, Kay Roussell (UC '89, SW '94) keeps it simple. She likes to cook, and she's good at it. And for much of her adult life she's made a living in front of stove and oven, cooking for the pleasure of former presidents and common laborers, selecting the menus for private dinners and the most public of events, and working in such an extraordinary variety of kitchens and with such a diversity of purpose that only the most simple of generalizations can sum up her career: She likes to cook. Have skillet, will travel.
Roussell is a kind of journeyman who has lived the rugged fantasy of being paid to cook in one of the world's culinary capitals and making her mark in a profession traditionally dominated by men. So you can't escape the irony when Roussell says that while growing up in the small Louisiana town of Bogalusa, she was determined to avoid the traditional, housebound role toward which many of her friends were headed.
"I was the only girl in my class who made it through high school without taking Home Ec," she says. "I refused to cook or do any of that." But then Roussell grew up, escaped Bogalusa, moved to the New Orleans area, got married, worked in an office, learned to cook, learned to like it and, in her early 30s, did something a bit unusual. "I saw where Chef Paul Prudhomme [then at Commander's] was trying to get this apprenticeship program off the ground," she says, "so I went over and talked to him."
The legendary Prudhomme took Roussell on board at Commander's and then brought her to K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen when he opened it a few month later. Roussell thrived in her first professional kitchen gig, moving from the pantry, where she cleaned lettuce, to eventually operating every station in the house. "I blackened redfish," she says. "I think I'm still the only female who worked the stove at K-Paul's."
For this she gives a nod to a measure of perseverance and a helping of good fortune. "I kept saying, 'Can I do this? Can I do that?' And I was lucky there was a man in charge of the kitchen who let me do a lot." Perseverance, good luck--and a certain amount of restlessness--have marked Roussell's career. Leaving K-Paul's she got a job catering a lawsuit, which is probably not what they're teaching at Le Cordon Bleu, but it's good money.
"These lawyers came down from Washington every week and they would go to court all day and wanted to come back and have a working lunch, so I would cook for about 30 people and deliver every day. It was very lucrative. I loved it." But even complex litigation doesn't last forever, and Roussell soon found herself working in the kitchen at Flagon's and enduring a short stint as a manager at Copeland's.
"Fast food management was not for me," she says. That's when she saw a classified ad announcing the position of executive chef for No. 2 Audubon, the home of the president of Tulane University. "I got an interview, so I baked a pie and went to the house on Friday afternoon. They called me Saturday morning." For eight years, Roussell worked full time for then-president Eamon Kelly and his wife, Margaret, and their family of sons, cooking lunch and dinner, planning menus for parties and watching the family grow.
"The first day I I was given a list of the things the boys wouldn't eat. One wouldn't eat anything green." Outside of that, Roussell had a free hand. "It was basic home cooking at a higher level," she says. "Everything from scratch." Roussell remembers the Kellys as both gracious and appreciative. One night, after a party for visiting dignitaries, the couple surprised Roussell in the kitchen by introducing her to two of the evening's guests, Jimmy Carter and Jessie Jackson. They wanted to compliment her on their meal.
While at Tulane, Roussell enrolled in University College and earned a degree in sociology in 1989. She left her full-time position with the Kellys in 1990, but continued to orchestrate meals for their dinner parties. She also continued her education, enrolling in Tulane's School of Social Work and earning a master's degree. Roussell has cooked for some of New Orleans' most food-conscious institutions. She's the food heritage coordinator for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, overseeing the Food Heritage Stage and Cajun Cabin, where local chefs provide ongoing cooking demonstrations.
For five years, she managed the Crescent City Farmer's Market, an enterprise that showcases locally grown and cooked foods. Today, along with her Jazz Fest seasonal work, Roussell cooks lunch four days a week for 30 employees of a seafood processing plant. "They love meat and gravy and rice," she says. "I make a killer gravy." Roussell is also launching the Mardi Gras World School of Cooking. All in all, a fair career for a woman who once thought her place was anywhere but the kitchen. "I just like to cook. I'm not a person who has to cook only my kind of food. I am not a prima donna. I like to see people happy."
Favorite comfort food?
Chicken and andouille gumbo.
Greatest food fear?
Having my food make somebody sick.
Susan Spicer, proprietor/ chef of Bayona.
Who would you like to have enjoy your food?
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org