NY Times Diner's Journal: Susan Spicer did not intend to be the
face of the restaurant rebellion against BP over its role in the
Gulf oil spill. But that's what can happen when you file a
Ms. Spicer, long a respected New Orleans chef, spent most of
Monday huddled with her lawyers, trying to map out a strategy after
word got out that she was suing BP and several other companies on
behalf of Gulf restaurant owners and seafood suppliers.
"I just hope that my motivations will not be misinterpreted,"
she said from her restaurant Bayona in her first interview since
the suit was filed Friday. "It's more about solidarity in this
region than about getting my piece of the pie. I can't say I expect
to see a dollar out of this thing. I am just angry."
Ms. Spicer's attorney, Serena Pollack, filed the suit in New
Orleans federal court late Friday asking that the court grant
class-action status for restaurants and seafood sellers who have
suffered in the wake of the April 20 drilling rig explosion in the
Gulf of Mexico.
The lawyers are arguing that Ms. Spicer and other chefs in
Louisiana and the region have built a reputation and a business
using fresh, local seafood that is specific to the Gulf of Mexico.
Since the oil rig accident, that seafood has either become
unavailable or significantly more expensive.
In addition, customers are and will continue to be unwilling to
pay higher prices or won't want to eat what is available for fear
of contamination from petroleum or the chemicals used to manage the
spill, the suit said.
Ms. Spicer decided to step forward not because her restaurant is
about to go under but because other businesses are.
"I really do believe there are people that are certainly more in
need than Bayona will be," she said, adding that there is plenty of
good seafood coming from Lake Pontchartrain and unaffected parts of
But some places are being hit harder than others, she said.
"We are already seeing casualties right and left, human
casualities, business casualties, cultural casualties," she
Ms. Spicer, whose company is the lead plaintiff, opened Bayona
in 1990 and quickly established herself as a chef who respected the
New Orleans culinary canon but was not going to be held hostage by
it. At Bayona, she offers global food and serves ahi tuna and
Pacific salmon. But her longtime signature dish is grilled Gulf
shrimp and black bean cake, and she usually serves Gulf oysters,
often stuffed with Italian sausage, spinach and fennel. Her recent
cookbook, Crescent City Cooking, has dozens of recipes based on
Earlier this month she opened Mondo, a casual, pan-cultural
restaurant that is as likely to serve plantains as beignets. She
has also recently gained some popular cultural currency, both as a
Top Chef judge and as the inspiration for the chef in the HBO
series Treme who struggles to hold onto her restaurant in the wake
of Hurricane Katrina. Ms. Spicer is a culinary consultant for the
Ms. Spicer said she was taken aback by the attention the suit is
getting, particularly from bloggers and journalists who have argued
that she doesn't serve that much local seafood or that she is in it
for the money.
"I was a little blindsided by all of this," she said. "But I
think it needs to be done and I hope more people will join."
It's not clear how wide-ranging support for the suit will be.
Frank Brigtsen, who runs two restaurants, would not comment on the
suit. Emeril Lagasse said he was not joining at this time.
"We are continuing to closely monitor the situation and the oil
leak's impact on Emeril's restaurant business," Jeff Hinson, Mr.
Lagasse's public relations manager, wrote in an e-mail message to
But the movement was getting some support from smaller
businesses. Franky and Johnny's, a neighborhood po' boy and seafood
restaurant, has signed on. And JoAnn Clevenger, who for nearly 30
years has run the Upperline Restaurant, plans to jump in, too.
She wasn't surprised larger restaurants weren't.
"Susan is an entrepreneurial chef. She is not big business like
Emeril. For her and for other owner-operated businesses, what else
are we going to do?" she said.
After Hurricane Katrina, small business owners felt like they
could pick up the pieces, rebuild and pitch in to help others.
That's not the case with the oil spill.
"That can-do spirit has been quashed," she said. "But what Susan
is doing can give us that spirit back."
The suit is designed to include restaurant owners and retailers
of seafood that is marketed and sold as local or from Louisiana or
the Gulf of Mexico. That means the suit could extend to chefs and
seafood shops in all five Gulf states, some of whom have already
filed separate suits.
The next step is a hearing scheduled for July 27, when a federal
panel of judges meets in Boise, Idaho, to decide whether all the
claims relating to the oil spill will be consolidated and put into
the hands of a special master. The panel is also expected to decide
where litigation about the oil spill will be held if it is
Plaintiffs are fighting to keep it from being consolidated in
Houston, where many oil companies are headquartered.