In praise of the anti-Deen

These days I would not cross the street for the most famous chef on the planet, whichever one of dozens he might be. But nearly 20 years ago my consort and I heard Edna Lewis was cooking in Brooklyn and headed straight to Gage & Tollner on Fulton Mall, certain the reward would be a meal for the memory books.

It was a different time, but Edna Lewis was a very different celebrity chef. Regional American cooking had only recently been codified, and she was to Southern cooking what Alice Waters was to Californian, what Paul Prudhomme was to Cajun.Her fame came not from showboating and grandstanding and turning her kitchen into a mad scientist’s lab but from doing what many of the most legitimately revered chefs do today, working magic with local ingredients in season, treating them with absolute respect. Her skills were not acquired in culinary school or stages in Paris but from a childhood in Virginia spent making and eating the Southern food her mother and grandmothers had perfected. And she passed her lessons along in four well-regarded cookbooks before coming to work at Gage & Tollner, the 1879 bastion of seafood where she exposed countless diners to a more elegant style of country cooking, not soul food but a rich and nuanced repertoire.

Miss Lewis, as everyone called her, was already nearly three times the age of a “Top Chef” hotshot when she started cooking in Brooklyn. She originally made her name as chef in the late Forties at Cafe Nicholson in Manhattan, where her chocolate souffle was legendary and where clients-turned-friends included Truman Capote. But she had been back in the South for decades when she was lured north  by Peter Aschkenasy, a restaurateur who was captivated by her and her cooking at a Park Avenue wedding she catered. He lured her away from Middleton Place outside Charleston first to cook briefly at his Uncle Sam’s steakhouse in Rockefeller Center and then full time when he bought Gage & Tollner in 1988.

“I think she was anxious to come back to New York,” Aschkenasy said in an interview in his Brooklyn Heights penthouse. She had friends and family here, and she had a history (including a stint working in a “lefty” bookstore in Harlem). “And there was a history to Gage & Tollner — it was the first place to have black waiters; it was landmarky; it was old like she was.”

The restaurant, renowned as much for its gaslights and intact Victorian decor, was in fact the oldest in the borough; when it opened Brooklyn was still its own city. She was a mere 72 when she started her five-year sojourn there.

Her tenure may have been short, but her influence was lasting — she was written up in all the food glossies and in newspapers around the country, and when she returned to the South again and the restaurant was sold, the new owner kept many of her specialties on the long menu. Waiters with gold stars for service on their uniforms were still ferrying some of them the last time I ate there, right after 9/11 for a piece on restaurants that endure in a city that is constantly changing.

Arthur Schwartz, who rave-reviewed Gage & Tollner in the Daily News shortly after Miss Lewis started deep-frying and pie-baking there, says the restaurant was always a seafood destination but became more Southern while she ruled the range. “The big item was broiled clam bellies — really Ipswich clams. Originally they were just broiled in butter and served on toast points. Edna — probably with some input from Peter — crumbed them and put them in a shell filled with creamed asparagus. It was a good dish, real old Southern cooking.”

Her juicy/crispy fried chicken was equally renowned, as were her creamy  she-crab soup, her pan-fried quail flavored with Smithfield ham and teamed with spoonbread, her huge crusty crab cakes and her desserts, particularly pies: Tyler, Damson plum and lemon meringue included. She made her own baking powder for better biscuits, pickled the Jerusalem artichokes in her relish tray, put up her own strawberry jam and, most important, insisted on organic way before it was a questionable buzzword.

And she was anything but afraid of butter, salt and sugar, even as nutrition nuttiness was sweeping the country. She cooked the way she had grown up eating  in Freetown, Va., a tiny town settled by freed slaves. “Everything was so pure then, no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides,” Miss Lewis once told an interviewer.

These days the top restaurant critics are reverse bridge-and-tunnelers, but when Edna Lewis arrived Brooklyn was still terra incognita for ambitious eaters  across the waters — the River Cafe and Sahadi’s were the only draws for the insular in other boroughs. New York magazine quoted Miss Lewis as asking Aschkenasy: “What are you going to do with a restaurant in Brooklyn? Are you going to move it” across the river? But the magazine said she cooked her first meal at Gage & Tollner on Thanksgiving in 1988 and found “the people were so different from Manhattan — they came with the children, all dressed up, and they were so open . . . real appreciative and genuine.”

The Southern sensation proved to be just the magnet her boss had hoped. Bryan Miller of the New York Times praised her braised brisket and pecan pie, while Molly O’Neill in Newsday touted her “wizardry” with spicy catfish stew and shrimp gumbo. But it was Schwartz’s strong review that brought the most business, her boss said. Even with that, though, the restaurant struggled because of its location on down-market Fulton Mall, which was deserted and grim after dark; Aschkenasy says he could not even attract people from the Heights.

Schwartz came back repeatedly, often with his mother, who he says bonded with Miss Lewis: “She came out to say hello and it was love at first sight.” He also remembers Sunday lunchtimes when the restaurant was “packed” with “all the church ladies in their wonderful hats,” all of whom “knew who Edna was.”

The chef in the clothes she sewed herself from African fabric made many other Brooklyn friends, too. Aschkenasy recalls her being a bourbon-drinking buddy of the late Catholic archbishop. From the Seventies on she was close to Ann Amendolara Nurse, now an organizer of chefs’ workshops at New York City Tech, the Brooklyn cooking school, who made a point of meeting her after reading about her in Cuisine magazine and who cooked for her often. (“When she came to dinner, I always made sure to have clean clothes hanging on the line; she liked that look.” Even in Brooklyn.) Nurse actually got into the habit of rendering leaf lard for Miss Lewis’s biscuits and pie crusts.

She never flaunted her celebrity, Nurse said, “but when she walked into a room, well, you had to stop and stare.” Aschkenasy said it was because she was humble and shy but “also filled with great, great pride in what she did and how she cooked.”

He remembers she had equal presence in shopping the Union Square Greenmarket, where they would go together to buy cases of tomatoes and corn to stow in his station wagon to bring back to Fulton Mall. Everyone knew Miss Lewis; if she was not by his side, everyone wondered where she might be. Without her, Aschkenasy went to the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan to pick up all she needed for her specialties, particularly those famous clam bellies but also for “whole fish in a bag” (a k a en papillote). “She was very fussy about ingredients; the crab meat had to be just so,” he said.

The restaurateur said she was particularly adept at training unskilled kitchen staff and worked well with her chefs de cuisine and sous chefs, who tended to be women. “She wasn’t a line cook,” Aschkenasy says. “She made the recipes and made sure they were being followed.” And she did it 14 hours a day, six nights a week, for up to 150 diners. (Thursdays she rested.)

But Miss Lewis did not linger in Brooklyn, where she never lived, commuting instead from the apartment in Hell’s Kitchen she shared with a sister and niece. Aschkenasy says she “got tired” although he concedes that the kitchen was a problem. He described it as tough because it was on two levels, but Arthur Schwartz says it was “Dickensian.” “I cooked in the kitchen with her,” he adds. “It was the original 19th-century kitchen,” with an encrusted oven and “mousetraps all over the place.”

Nurse agreed: “She worked in that horrible place — I say horrible place because it was like a dungeon — and worked under a terrible handicap, but I thought she did extremely well. I never heard Edna speak badly of anyone, but I know it was not easy in that kitchen.”

Miss Lewis actually outlasted the restaurant. She died in Decatur, Ga., in 2006 after years of care by her companion and cookbook collaborator Scott Peacock. Nurse stayed close to her to the end; Aschkenasy fell out of contact. “That’s where my guilty conscience comes in,” he says. “It was not like me. I coulda done better. I shoulda done better.”

Gage & Tollner closed for good in 2004, only to suffer the indignity of rebirth as a T.G.I. Friday’s. Since that folded last year Amy Ruth’s of Harlem has reportedly signed a lease on the landmarked space, which means a very different kind of Southern cooking could one day be coming out of the renovated kitchen, more soul food or Afro-Caribbean.

As good as it may turn out to be, it will be hard to imagine anything better than my first meal there, with those amazing crab cakes and flaky biscuits and perfect pecan pie. Or a chef with such an aura gliding through the dining room. It was a singular experience, like going to hear Alberta Hunter at the Cookery in the Village, watching a supremely regal presence with hair swept up and earrings dangling, back onstage late in life but at the top of her game.

Profiled for Edible Brooklyn in 2009