“Just don’t embarrass me.” That’s how Frances Wood, who ran the legendary Southern Accent Restaurant in Toronto, ended our job interview. It was the shortest conversation I had ever had with a potential boss. I think it might have been just under a minute. We sat, talked and she said, “Just don’t embarrass me,” as she got up and walked away. I assumed that meant I had the job so I came back the next day, and most days after that for the next eight years. I loved the food, the staff, the atmosphere but most of all, I loved the spirit of the place. I had mainly worked in corporate restaurants before Southern. The kind of places where managers pull up your pant legs to make sure you’re wearing black socks, had “on-call shifts” and made you fill ketchups off the clock.
Southern Accent was the opposite of all that. I always used to joke it was the last restaurant any of us would ever work in because no other place could possibly offer the kinds of freedoms that the controlled chaos of Southern did. Don’t get me wrong, you were expected to provide and exemplary level of service and arrive more or less on time but you were also allowed to dance to the beat of your own drummer. Frances assembled a staff that was big on personality and that, as much as anything else, is what kept customers coming back.
I don’t think I embarrassed Frances very often during the time I worked there, but I’ll do it now. She doesn’t accept praise very easily, but since I don’t work there anymore she can’t tell me what to do! She’s a pioneer, a woman who for more than forty years, ran cool, idiosyncratic bars and restaurants in Toronto and did it her way. Her restaurants were unlike anyone else’s and she ran them unlike anyone else. She was the best boss I ever had, mostly because she cared about her staff. I once asked her why she didn’t fire a waiter who was a walking disaster on the floor. She said, “I can’t. Who else would hire them?” For her the business was about people and that, to me, is the very beating heart of the hospitality business and the thing that made her places great.
Southern Accent was the last restaurant I ever worked in but since my last shift I’ve been a regular customer and now it is gone because of COVID-19. I know it was just a place, a building with a bar and a kitchen but because of Frances, and later her co-owner Tess, it was much more than that and I will miss it dearly.
Here’s a story I wrote about a trip Frances and I took to Louisiana to research a cook book.
THE BALLAD OF FRANCES WOOD AND EARL “TWO-BIT” PATIN
What would make a directionally challenged navigator and one adventurous foodie travel deep into the heart of Cajun country?
Rumors of Southern Louisiana’s best étouffée, that’s what.
Étouffée, in case you don’t already know, is one of life’s great pleasures. It can be either Cajun or creole, can be spicy or not and can be served with any manner of shellfish or seafood. What makes it special, an ambrosia for lucky taste buds, is the sauce.
The word literally means smothered, and figuratively refers to “suffocating” whatever protein you like in a sauce that is as deep, thick and rich as the history of the bayou itself.
With mouths watering Frances and I left Lafayette and set out for the home of Earl “Two-Bit” Patin, the mayor of Henderson, a tiny town—only 1.7 square miles—in St. Martin Parish. Many wrong turns later, courtesy of my inability to read a map, we arrive at the Valhalla of Étouffée, a modest home with a pick up truck parked out front next to a fire pit.
Unannounced, we knock at the door and are soon given a lesson in Cajun hospitality. Patin greets the two northern visitors warmly.
“Call me Two-Bit,” he says in a gentle French-accented drawl. “That’s the name my old daddy gave me when I was small. He tried to give me nickels and I always wanted a quarter. He’d give me one, I wanted two.”
For forty years he’s been a cook at a nearby hunting club, using techniques passed down from father to son.
Before we get to the inner workings of the étouffée Two-Bit gives us some culinary lessons over a cold beer or two.
He has deep roots in the community and culture. Calling himself a “pure Cajun,” he says he is a “descendant from the ones who were deported” and taken as prisoners by the British colonists in mid 1700s.
He’s so traditional he still speaks French at home—most of the time anyway.
“Sometimes the old lady comes back from school and if she talks French, we talk French, “ he says. “If she talks English, we speak English.”
With deep roots come deep opinions, mostly about food.
“I don’t mess with boudin,” he says when Frances asks about one of her favorites. Made from pork, pig blood, vegetables and hank hog casings, it’s a Cajun staple, but not for Two-Bit. “I go back to when we were growing up. When we had a chicken that would have been for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I’m not complaining about what we was eating, but pork was very rare.”
His attitude on pork is surprising, especially in a pigcentric culture like Louisiana where dishes like Boudin, Cracklins and Hog’s Head Cheese have been decorating dinner tables for generations.
But his attitude on swine dining pales in regard to his stance on celery. It borders on heretical, at least in Louisiana where celery, along with onions and bell peppers are called the Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking.
He’ll tolerate the green vegetable in a seafood gumbo—it’s “OK” he says—but doesn’t like to cook with it. “I like it raw.”
He also doesn’t use filé, a spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree and commonly used in gumbos. “We put it on the table,” he says. “Some people like it, but I don’t use it myself.”
Roux, the classic thickening agent for sauces, he says, needs to be dark brown. Made with flour and either bacon fat or oil, it lends a dark nutty flavor to gumbos, soups and even though he is particular about how it is made, he uses instinct rather than instructions to make his honest, simple and delicious food.
“I don’t have any recipes,” he says. “I know what I put in and I know the amount. It is not measured. If you tell me how much a table spoon of salt is, I don’t know.”
To make the roux, he says, “I just look at my meat and know how much roux I’m gonna need.”
More beers are cracked, and more advice is shared. “If you forget to put salt in your rice,” he says, “you can put a box of salt in later but it’s not going to be the same.”
Also a definitive. “We eat spicy.”
Finally as it starts to get dark, we talk turkey, well, actually steak.
“I like a good thick steak,” he says. “I wash it real good. I wash it in vinegar then I will take, depending on how much steak you got, some lemons and squeeze to where I’m sure the lemon juice has went all over the steak. A good lemon. Then I will put a little bit of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. Salt and pepper, a little bit of mustard, a little bit of sweet ketchup and a little bit of natural meat tenderizer.
“I’ll slice onions, a few cloves of garlic, then I put it in zip lock bags in the ice box. I go into the kitchen five times a day and flip it over.
“Then to cook it you get yourself a good hot pit, and even though it is this thick, in forty five minutes you’ll be breaking up, medium, medium well.”
Then we talked some more. We talked about his family’s history. About growing up poor—“We learned fishing and we learned cooking.”—and when the best time of year to see alligators was. We talked about traditional Cajun music and his kids.
In several hours Two-Bit gave us more of the flavor of the bayou than all the reading I had done or the CD’s I bought and listened to before the trip. Authentic as grits, his plain-spoken wisdom and generosity to his two random visitors epitomized Cajun culture—ancestry, tradition, hospitality and, of course, food.
Before we hit the road I looked across Two-Bit’s property. You could see most of the town from his front yard. It was quiet, with just the sounds of crickets and a faraway radio or stereo playing some traditional Cajun music filling the air.
“Would you ever live want to anywhere else,” I asked, anticipating his answer.
“I like it here,” he says after a pause. “I know everybody.”
Frances and I liked it there as well. When I think back on it I wonder if we purposefully “forgot” to ask for the étouffée recipe so we’d have an excuse to go back and spend more time in Two-Bit’s front yard.