Behind the Scenes at Bayona

While James Beard-award winning chef Susan Spicer is the face of her famous French Quarter restaurant, her chef de cuisine Christiane Engeran keeps the fires burning.

The first time she met Chef Susan Spicer, Christiane “Christy” Engeran was poly-sci student at Southeastern Louisiana University working at one of Hammond’s few fine-dining destinations, Jacmel Inn. “My sister Julie was a server [at Jacmel Inn],” says Engeran. “She said ‘We need a dishwasher and you need a job.’ She’s an older sister, right?”

One evening Spicer and Tim Eihausen, the head chef of Nuvolari’s in Mandeville, were cheffing a wine dinner at the inn. Energan had worked her way up the line to prep cook and “as the story goes” Spicer took note of her hustle. “I was there, making salads, making desserts, washing dishes, being a prep cook, you know, just running all over the kitchen, and Susan says ‘If that girl decides to work in the city, I want to hire her.’”

It wasn’t long until Engeran decided to take Spicer up on her word. Disillusioned with her plans to become a public defender, Engeran dropped out of school and moved in with her grandmother in Metairie. “I basically begged Susan for a job,” says Engeran. “She [Spicer] was just opening Bayona, so it was perfect timing.”

At 19, Engeran was still pretty green when she started with Bayona’s opening crew over 30 years ago. “There was so much I didn’t know, so many ingredients I’d never seen.” After a few months Engeran quickly realized her co-workers, many of whom were of the same age, had already graduated from culinary school and she felt behind the gun. “I was like, I’m gonna go. I have to go,” explained Engeran.

She quickly enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute, a prestigious culinary school now defunct. Engeran spent a year in Vermont “catching up” and when she returned home to New Olreans, she apprenticed for another year at Bayona. Before she left, Engeran was making salads and doing general prep work at Bayona, but when she came back, she was right there on the line working next to Spicer. “She had such a wonderful crew, I was still learning so much everyday,” says Engeran. After her apprenticeship at Bayona ended, Engeran returned to Vermont and graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in 1992.

Quite some time passed before Engeran returned to Spicer’s French Quarter gem. After graduating, she helped some friends open a Caribbean-inspired restaurant in Long Island called Cayenne, and when she came home to New Orleans, she immediately applied to work at Chez Daniel, a restaurant in Metairie helmed by one of our city’s finest French chefs, Daniel Bonnot. “It was a scratch kitchen, we did everything!” says Engeran.

Something of a unicorn in the U.S. during the mid-90s, a scratch kitchen makes everything in house, from doing their own butchering to baking their own bread. “Daniel would always push you,” says Engeran. “Everything you did had to be done fast and it had to be perfect.” Engeran worked for Bonnot for several years, learning from the master, and she even traveled overseas one summer during her tenure to train with one of Bonnot’s former sous chefs at an auberge in Cabourg, France. “We worked doubles everyday, I loved it!”

In 1998, she and her sister bought Chez Daniel from Bonnot and opened their own restaurant called Deville Bistro, but the restaurant only lasted a couple of years. “Having my own restaurant was really hard,” admits Engeran. “I felt like I was being pulled in too many directions.”

After going through a rough divorce and losing her restaurant, Engeran dropped out of the kitchen. “I kind of decided, I didn’t want to cook anymore.”

She spent over a decade working locally for Whole Foods, and later Rouses Markets until the pandemic hit. “ I had that existential crisis, I’m sure everybody did, where it’s like oh my gosh, what am I doing with my life?” Then, about a year later Engeran heard Bayona was looking for a new chef de cuisine.

Just this past April, right before Jazz Fest, Engeran returned to Bayona again, but this time, the kitchen was hers.

After Spicer launched Rosedale in 2016, and then later re-launched another rendition of her old Metairie restaurant Mondo inside the new Louis Armstrong International Airport, the busy chef pulled away from the day-to-day at Bayona.

Engeran has embraced her new position whole-heartedly and, with full support from both Spicer and Bayona’s co-owner Regina Cheever, creating some of her own dishes for Bayona’s constantly changing menu. While several of Spicer’s signature dishes remain, such as her Goat Cheese Crouton with mushrooms and Madeira cream or eggplant caviar, Engeran has some of her own tricks under her toque.

A current dinner entree dubbed “Rabbit in the Garden” features rabbit prepared three ways served with a reduction of game stock and carrot juice and lots of roasted vegetables. “The inspiration is everything a rabbit eats in the garden, it’s really a sweet little dish.” says Engeran. Another entree features pan-seared scallops with an herbaceous celery root puree and crispy Gaufrette potatoes.

Perhaps one day Engeran will become the executive chef at Bayona, or somewhere else, but she certainly seems happy right now with the way things are. “I’m just trying to have fun in the kitchen,” laughs Engeran. “I am having fun in the kitchen, and as long as I am, I’ll stick with it.”

*Article originally published September 2023 in the French Quarter Journal

**Lead image courtesy of Ellis Anderson

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