Chef Chat

Chef Chat: Elouise Jones of Ouisie's Table

Elouise Jones, aka Ouisie, was a food pioneer in early-1970s Houston. Her restaurant Ouisie's Table, both on Sunset and in its later River Oaks incarnation at 3939 San Felipe, serves up creative Southern-eclectic meals, the result of Jones's childhood memories and a fertile culinary imagination. Jones talked to Eating Our Words about what it took for the first female chef in Houston to realize her ambitions.

What inspired you to become a chef? I grew up with very good food, and most restaurants at the time couldn't match it. The women in my family loved to cook. My grandmother, Lucy Tucker Adams, cooked in a basic kitchen, sort of shut away from the rest of the house, as they were then. She spent her early years in Louisiana and made strong drip coffee you could stand a spoon up in. She made one-ingredient meals, and no one complained because they were so good. I remember her making fried oysters with a nice sauce on the side; she made excellent sauces and gravies. Baked eggplant, in a casserole. Small, rolled biscuits wrapped in a linen cloth in a basket. Wonderful custards, lemon pound cake with berries.

Did you attend culinary school? No, and that was a good thing. The Culinary Institute of America was pounding out boring hotel food, and it did not encourage creativity in its students. It was either that or Europe, and I was a divorced mother in my early twenties. I didn't have the time or the money.

So how did you get your start? Well, I sent my husband to work at the Chronicle every day with a three-course meal in a brown bag. All the other reporters wanted one. I started making 12 lunches a day at $1.50 each. Everything in them, including the bread and condiments, I made myself. My mother-in-law ran the Blue Plate Café in Lampasas and said I should double the price. I did, and no one seemed to mind.

Did this give you the confidence to open a business? After my divorce, an aunt offered to help me set up an antique shop, but although I liked antiques, I wasn't in a position to do all the traveling that would be involved. I had no idea what it would take to open a restaurant, but I found a place on Sunset, near the Temple Emanuel, and started Ouisie's Table. You need enough money to see you through the first year. In 1972, I had $69,000.

Was it difficult? Many people told me I didn't know what I was doing--and I didn't. I just kept my blinders on and went ahead. There were times I was terrified, but I couldn't let anyone know. We constantly had to shore up the building on Sunset and even sweep out rising water. I had a hippie carpenter who did excellent work but was constantly smoking dope. Let's just say he worked slowly. I ground my teeth so much I had to get five crowns.

There was something at your original restaurant called a community table. What is that? I was impressed and intrigued by neighborhood restaurants in Europe. These places were quite small and you were expected to take any available chair. One or two people could not have their own table, so you sat with strangers. I got a long table for my restaurant that seated 12, and students and businessmen alike were expected to dine together. Many friendships began at that table, as well as marriages.

Does that tradition continue? Unfortunately, no. I tried, but the idea just didn't work for River Oaks. I use the table now for parties. If I ever open another restaurant, I'll try again.

There seems to be an emphasis on the importance of physical space at the restaurant. At the second Ouisie's, my plan was to create rooms that had their own character and that would give you a different venue depending on where you sat. One room is a cozy study. The Big Room is my interpretation of Galatoire's; it's a surprisingly well-lit large space.

How do you plan your menus? I walk around. If I can't taste something in my head, I discard it. If I can, I take it to one of my home kitchens to work it out.

Are the recipes hard to translate for other cooks? Sometimes they are. I have Mexican chefs, and their references are different from mine, but, as a Texan, I can understand Mexican-food references. Mexicans have regional foods just as Southerners do. Some of the white boys I employed in the past were excellent at executing my recipes, but they could not invent.

You host seminars at Ouisie's? To bring the community in. We've shown good art and bad. We had the first benefit for Inprint. Donald Barthelme asked me to host it. He also encouraged me to write a cookbook, but so far I haven't followed through.

So what's your favorite meal? The other night it was lemon chicken, baked eggplant, wild rice with shallots, brandied oysters, grilled squash -- really something directly from Lucy.

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E. Ting