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Willie Mae Seaton, founder of famous Tremé eatery, dies

29th September 2015   ·   0 Comments

Willie Mae Seaton, the Crystal Springs, Miss. native many believe made the best fried chicken in New Orleans, passed away Sept. 18 at the age of 99.

Seaton, the founder of Willie Mae’s Scotch House on St. Ann Street in Faubourg Tremé, was the daughter of Charles Johnson and Zuela Moncure.

She moved to New Orleans during World War II so that her husband, L.S. Seaton Sr., could work at the Higgins Shipyard. A jill of all trades, Willie Mae Seaton worked a number of jobs, including stints as a cab driver, dry cleaner worker and licensed beautician, before converting her hair salon into a neighborhood bar on the corner of St. Ann and N. Tonti streets in 1957.

The legendary cook and busineswoman’s culinary talents grabbed the attention of patrons who gathered at the drinking hole for the bar’s signature drink, a mixture of Scotch and milk. Customers who caught a scent of the dishes Seaton cooked in the establishment’s small kitchen urged her to open a restaurant. Soon thereafter, Seaton’s talents in the kitchen began to spread and Tremé residents flocked to the small bar-turned-restaurant for some of the city’s best fried chicken, white beans, pork chops and smothered veal.

Cooking was a labor of love for the businesswoman and chef who woke up every day at 4 a.m. to begin preparing meals for the small restaurant’s faithful patrons, who by the late 1990s included everyone from locals to hungry tourists who strayed off the beaten for authentic, home-cooked meals and professionals who worked in the CBD and were willing to brave long lines to sample the famous fried chicken and potato salad.

In 2005 Seaton was named an America’s Classic by the James Beard Foundation and flew to New York City to receive the award.

Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of New Orleans a decade ago, destroyed Willie Mae’s Scotch House and Seaton’s home next door.

A small army of volunteers helped to rebuild the restaurant, which reopened on April 2, 2007. It quickly became a hotspot for post-Katrina workers and tourists visiting the city to support its recovery.

Unfortunately, the storm and its aftermath took a toll on Willie Mae Seaton and she was no longer able to handle its day-to-day operations.

With the help of her granddaughter and other members of the family, the restaurant continued to thrive.

For many years, the Tremé establishment was one of the historic neighborhood’s best-kept secrets but took on an almost mystical aura in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Kerry Seaton-Stewart told that her grandmother had prepared her to step in and take over the restaurant one day.

“I realize it now that I was having lessons every day,” she said. “How she handled it, and how I should handle the situation.”

Last year, Willie Mae’s Scotch House opened up a second restaurant on St. Charles Avenue. While the second location has more room and sits in the posh Garden District, residents and tourists alike continue to flock to the original restaurant in Treme´, where President Barack Obama visited when he came to the Crescent City on Aug 27, 2015 to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

“The fried chicken I think is the best fried chicken,” chef John Besh, who helped with the rebuilding of Willie Mae’s Scotch House, told “But it was really the way she made us all feel. She brought people together through food. She didn’t care who you were.”

Ramessu Merriamen Aha, a New Orleans businessman and former congressional candidate, said he often brought clients and friends from out of town to Willie Mae’s Scotch House to show them a taste of authentic New Orleans cuisine. Most recently, he brought a carload of his friends to the establishment during the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity International Conclave in the Crescent City.

“The food is just amazing,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “It was obvious that Mama Willie Mae put her heart and soul into everything she cooked. While I am sorry that she is no longer among the living, I smile every time I picture her cooking that fried chicken and potato salad in the Village of the Ancestors.”

Stephanie Brown, a former Tremé resident, remembers visiting the restaurant many times with her parents and siblings as a child.

“It always felt like home, and I know now that that was in large part because of Miss Willie Mae’s big heart, spirit and the love she put into the business,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “We didn’t need visitors to the city or someone from outside of Tremé to tell us that Willie Mae’s Scotch House had the best fried chicken in New Orleans. We already knew that by tasting it for ourselves.”

Mrs. Seaton was preceded in death by her husband, L.S. Seaton Sr., a daughter, Lillie Mae Guillement; a son, L.S. Seaton Jr.; and a grandson, Kevin Seaton.

She is survived by two sons, C.W. “Charles” (Doris) Seaton, and Eddie (Carolyn) Seaton; seven grandchildren; nine great grandchildren; and a host of great great grandchildren, great great great grandchildren, other relatives and friends.

A Mass of Christian Burial was held Friday at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church followed by interment at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home handled the arrangements.

This article originally published in the September 28, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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