MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
On a beaten-down corner in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, you can find a little lunch spot that's open from 11 until three, six days a week. From the outside, it doesn't look like much. But Willie Mae's Scotch House is said to serve some of the best fried chicken you can find in America. After Hurricane Katrina, the restaurant recovered with a little help from a wide network of friends.
And we're a little jealous in Studio 2A because NPR's Neda Ulaby visited this culinary landmark.
NEDA ULABY: At around 10:45, the cars start bumping down Saint Ann Street, a pretty name for a battered road warped from bearing waist-deep water for weeks after Hurricane Katrina. They're all headed for Willie Mae's Scotch House, where Willie Mae Seaton's 28-year-old great-granddaughter is busily greasing the fryer.
NORRIS: We are friends of grease, basically, you know, we have the prettiest chicken you'd ever seen in your life.
ULABY: Willie Mae's Scotch House used to be a bar. But at some point, Willie Mae Seaton started serving fried chicken and the food just took over. In 2005, she won a James Beard Award, the Oscar of the food world. A friend of the family, Lolis Eric Elie, accompanied Seaton to the banquet in New York.
NORRIS: This is somebody who literally had never heard of the James Beard Award before she won it.
ULABY: Elie says, perhaps, an 88-year-old woman who'd spent a lifetime on her feet in the kitchen should not have been seated in the very back of the room. He escorted her on the slow walk to the podium.
NORRIS: By the time we actually got to the stage, there weren't but a few dry eyes in the house.
NORRIS: I want to thank each and every one of you all what made it possible for me to win this award. I'm so full I can't say nothing!
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ULABY: Four months later came Hurricane Katrina. Seaton packed her award and fled. But she could not stop worrying about the business she'd run on her own for over 50 years. Without telling her family, Seaton made it back to New Orleans, where police found her huddled on the stoop of her ruined restaurant.
NORRIS: And at the point, she was 89 years old. She was somewhat disoriented and obviously very depressed.
ULABY: Lolis Eric Elie and a group called the Southern Foodways Alliance rallied foodies from around the nation to help fix up Willie Mae's Scotch House.
NORRIS: Hey, my darling.
ULABY: In a documentary made by the city's tourism department, Seaton greets her volunteers.
NORRIS: All right, hug me. Come on, come on here. Come on. All right.
ULABY: The old double-wide shotgun building, also Seaton's home, was stripped down to its studs.
NORRIS: I don't have a bed to sleep in, nothing. My home, it's right here. I ain't going nowhere because I want my customers to see I'm back. I've got to fix some fried chicken for them and whatever they want.
ULABY: Seaton became a cause celebre for star chefs around the country. Lolis Eric Elie says, still, it took three years to get Willie Mae's Scotch House back in business.
NORRIS: On grand opening day, we had two James Beard Award-winning chefs in the kitchen. We had a James Beard nominee, John Currence, waiting tables. Based on that kind of firepower, this was the best restaurant in America that day.
ULABY: And according to some fans of fried chicken, it still is. Obviously, some fact-checking was in order.
This is amazing chicken. I'm getting grease all over my microphone.
Willie Mae Seaton's chicken is not a family recipe. She got it from someone years ago, but she won't say who or how.
NORRIS: Willie Mae Seaton takes more care with the recipe of her fried chicken than the national security folks take with the codes to launch the atom bomb. I mean, if she even thinks you're thinking about asking about the recipe, she'll say, I won't give my recipe to nobody.
ULABY: Not even to her friend Lolis Eric Elie. Supposedly, the seasoning is only salt and pepper.
NORRIS: We love this stuff. I mean, that's why we came here, so.
NORRIS: The crispiness - mmm.
ULABY: Jade Washman and Barbara Brogue drove here for lunch from their jobs in downtown New Orleans.
NORRIS: It takes a little time to come here, a little more than an hour.
ULABY: Did you guys know about this place before the hurricane?
NORRIS: No, and we've lived here forever.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ULABY: The two learned about it on the Food Network. Willie Mae's great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton, says expectations have changed since the spot was known only to neighborhood regulars.
NORRIS: There definitely is pressure, just to have first-time customers every single day, and to know that you have chefs sitting in your restaurant, reporters, food critics, editors, every day, and they're not going to let you know that they're sitting there, but I know.
ULABY: Kerry Seaton has taken over as cook, business manager and spokesperson from her great-grandmother, who's now 92. Kerry wants to open a second Willie Mae's Scotch House in the French Quarter and someday make her great-grandmother's business a national franchise.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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