NEW ORLEANS - Nearly 50 years after Willie Mae Seaton started dishing up fried chicken, smothered pork chops, and red beans and rice at her little restaurant near a public housing project, she has suddenly become trendy.
To the surprise of longtime New Orleans gourmands, most of whom didn't even know the place existed, Willie Mae's Scotch House was among just a handful of restaurants nationwide to win the prestigious America's Classics award from the James Beard Foundation recently.
"I didn't know about it, but I do now," said Michal Durell, assistant to the CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. "I'm amazed that I never heard of it. I'm a native and I've worked here for 20 years."
Announcement of the award set this food-obsessed town abuzz. New Orleans is a place where chefs in their tall white hats are part of the morning commute, where food is a pursuit, and where neighborhood restaurants are as much a part of the dialogue as Commander's Palace, Brennan's or Emeril's.
But don't try telling that to the 88-year-old Seaton, whose restaurant in the predominantly black Treme' section of the city thrives on its anonymity.
A few years back, when a food critic from The Times-Picayune asked to interview her, she agreed on one condition - that the newspaper print neither the address nor the phone number of her restaurant.
Located in a shotgun house just around the corner from the better-known Dooky Chase restaurant, Willie Mae's is identified only by a sign over the door.
No hours are posted, but the restaurant serves only lunch, beginning at 11:30 a.m and can seat 30 people - tops.
"I have a very distinguished group of customers, judges, politicians," said Seaton, who opened the restaurant in 1957. "And they don't want more people to know about the restaurant. I had plenty of people coming to eat before; now I have too many."
Seaton didn't even know about the James Beard Foundation before being invited to the award ceremony in New York May 2.
"I looked it up on the Web," said Kerry Seaton-Blackmon, Seaton's great-granddaughter and the waitress at the restaurant. "But when we got there, we're talking 2,000 people. They told us it was like the Oscars for food. All the people that cook on TV were there, all the big chefs."
She returned to find the story in the newspaper, her address being discussed around town and a long line at lunch time.
"I don't know where all those people came from," Seaton sighed. "They had to wait, no help for that, but we got them all fed and out of here. Nobody left before they ate."
Seaton doesn't know cordon bleu from corduroy. She's a self-taught cook who has always just concentrated on good food.
She begins her day at 5 a.m. when she cranks up the big stove in her little kitchen and puts the beans on to cook. There are red beans every day, white beans some days, and diners can have them or green beans and rice with each entree.
"I just took cooking up on my own," Seaton said. "I have four kids and I always took care that they got good meals."
Poppy Tooker, who teaches cooking at Culinaria and the New Orleans Cooking Experience, was among those who knew all about Seaton's little restaurant. But she's not happy to see it discovered. She's afraid Willie Mae's, like local favorites Mother's and Uglesich's, will turn into yet another tourist destination.
Mother's is now largely ignored by locals and Uglesich's is closing Friday because the owner is retiring.
"I guess the line will leave Uglesich's on Friday and move over to Willie Mae's," Tooker said, "until she gets tired and retires too."