Thanks to Frank's Place, Chez Helene in New Orleans Is Finally as Hot as Its Food

updated 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's been a long time since jazz was king, but in New Orleans the memories of Bourbon Street's ancien régime are still fresh. The old street still swings, and the tourists still pack Preservation Hall to hear old men awaken the ghosts of long-gone trumpet players. But jazz, even in its heyday, had to share the throne of the port city with a powerful consort: the quirky, spicy food of New Orleans. Combining poor folks' ingredients and rich folks' recipes, it has become famous all over, spreading in the last decade or so to every town in America. Unlike jazz, though, New Orleans cuisine doesn't always travel well; away from the tangy smell of the Gulf, it can become as unpalatable as watery gumbo. Aficionados say you really have to be there.

So when Tim Reid and Hugh Wilson were putting together the idea for a TV series called Frank's Place, which would be set in a New Orleans restaurant, they did the right thing: They went to New Orleans back in March 1987 and began dining out a lot.

Then, one night, they walked into Chez Helene, which has been located on North Robertson Street since 1964, serving crawfish étouffée and filé gumbo and oyster stew and quietly keeping itself unknown to everyone except the patrons who fill the place every night without benefit of reservation.

"It's first come, first served here," says Austin Leslie, Chez Helene's cheerful chef since 1964 and owner since 1975. There's nothing at all glitzy about Leslie's joint. It's just 15 tables, each covered with a red-checkered tablecloth and set with plain salt and pepper shakers, a water carafe, a white bud vase and silverware wrapped in simple paper napkins. The walls are festooned with newspaper reviews of the restaurant and magazine photographs of the staff.

Leslie, 53, remembers the night Reid and Wilson walked into his restaurant—the night Chez Helene began to get famous. "You could tell they were trying to follow suit, not act like tourist people," he says. "Tim Reid witnessed a lot of stuff here that night—people are easy and relaxed, sure-footed, and they don't panic."

Reid and Wilson, who dined on gumbo and jambalaya, knew that Chez Helene was Frank's kind of place. "Its down-home atmosphere is what we thought Frank's Place should have," says Reid. "We didn't want the sparkle or shiny decor; when you go there you feel like you're at home. We didn't want my character to walk into a gold mine." After they ate, Reid and Wilson called Leslie over to their table. "They asked me a lot of questions," he says. "They wanted to know if the Mafia owned the town. I told them I don't know anything about the Mafia. Then they asked me if I would come to Hollywood."

By April, Leslie was in Hollywood, being taken by chauffeured limousine to do what he does best. He made seafood gumbo, bread pudding with rum sauce, shrimp Creole, fried chicken and onion rings—all for what would be the Frank's Place pilot.

Back in New Orleans, Leslie kept it to himself. "They were making a pilot," he explains, "so I didn't tell a lot of people, because it could have fallen short." It didn't. Frank's Place received favorable reviews, and soon everyone knew that Chez Louisiane, the TV restaurant, was based on Chez Helene. "I was just proud they picked Chez Helene," says Leslie. "They liked my style. I wear a captain's cap in the kitchen, and I always wear my whites. On the show, Big Arthur resembles me, so a lot of people think I'm on the show. But I was made long before Frank's Place."

In fact Leslie was in the restaurant business long before people were watching television. He started working for his aunt Helen Pollock in 1942, at age 8. Helen owned a restaurant called Howard's Eatery in New Orleans' business district and, as Leslie says, "We sold plates of food then for 36 cents that we sell now for six dollars."

In addition to Leslie, Helen employed his sisters and cousins, a tradition that Austin continues today; right now seven members of Leslie's extended family work at Chez Helene. "When you find family inside a restaurant," says Leslie, "that's when it's the best."

In 1964 his aunt relocated Howard's Eatery to its present site and, on the advice of a niece and a friend, rechristened it Chez Helene. Leslie, who had been working in another restaurant, returned as chef. When his aunt retired in 1975, Leslie took over as owner.

And so, for close to a quarter century, Austin Leslie labored with love in this establishment, day in and day out, until the night two men from Hollywood walked in and ordered a meal.

Now, he says, some things have changed. Leslie, who lives two blocks from the restaurant, still spends 16 hours a day, seven days a week, at Chez Helene. But these days he wears a black jacket that says Frank's Place on the back and Austin on the front. A TV has been installed in the main dining room, and every Tuesday night patrons look up from their $15.95 plates of blackened redfish (the top price on the menu) and watch their favorite show. "Frank's Place has been good to me," says Leslie. "A third more customers are coming in. A lot of them ask me, 'Where's Frank?' I tell them he's upstairs sleeping."

—By Michael Neill, with Johnny Greene in New Orleans

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