Editor’s Note: New Orleans is more of a matriarchal city than most. Yes, patriarchy exists here, but New Orleans women have held influential positions in families, businesses, the community and the arts in numbers rivaling few other U.S. cities. So much of what makes New Orleans such a fabulous city is undergirded by the (sometimes unrecognized) hard work and sharp intelligence of its female residents. Exhibit #1: Oretha Castle Haley. #2: Ella Brennan. #3: Mahalia Jackson. #4: Joyce Montana. #5: Ruby Bridges. #6: Leah Chase. #7 +++: Pick anything you care about in New Orleans, and you can pretty much guarantee there’s a woman behind it, supporting with work through sweat and, sometimes, tears. This summer, we highlight a few of the city’s unique female voices. Next up in our series: scientist-turned-restauranteur Tia Henry, who counts her Lower Ninth Ward restaurant, Café Dauphine, as one of her children.
Who: Tia Henry
What: Co-owner of Café Dauphine
Where: At the corner of Egania and Dauphine, in the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth Ward
Tia Henry lives and breathes the Lower Ninth Ward. Originally from Lake Charles, LA, Tia made New Orleans home after meeting her now husband, Fred, who grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, during her senior year at Xavier University.
Tia, Fred, and Fred’s sister Keisha opened Café Dauphine in 2012 with zero restaurant experience. What they did have, however, was a strong desire to bring business into the Lower Ninth and a belief that the business should be directly connected to the community.
Since opening the restaurant, Tia has expanded her sights to catering; Café Dauphine booths at festivals, and most recently, event planning. She doesn’t get home until past nine every night (needless to say, she and Fred don’t get out that often), but when Leah Chase tells you she had to come and check out your food, it’s worth it. It’s worth it, too, for the young women working with Tia at the restaurant, as they gain valuable business and entrepreneurship experience in a neighborhood facing an increasing amount of economic and demographic change.
On starting the business, cooking as a child, and running a family business
Nora: I read that it took four years to open Café Dauphine, is that right?
Tia: Yes. My husband’s family’s house is right across the street. His mom lives around the corner. This was a corner store prior to Hurricane Katrina, and the owner told my husband, ‘Hey, we’re not coming back. I’m putting the building up for sale because me and my wife aren’t gonna rebuild.’ So my husband thought, ‘Why don’t we buy the building, so when people start coming back to rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward they’ll have somewhere in the neighborhood they can go to? My mom’s coming back, my grandmother’s coming back, we know people are gonna want to come back, slowly but surely.’ This is a place my husband frequented for decades, as a child.
The concept started as a coffee/sandwich shop. I’d never worked in a restaurant before, my husband has never worked in a restaurant before. I’d never even worked in a managerial position. I have a degree in biology—prior to this I worked as a laboratory scientist for the state. My husband worked for the school board. His sister is also an owner; she was doing mental health work before. I did a little catering out the house on the side, and I grew up in the kitchen cooking with my mom and my grandmother, but that was the extent of our culinary background.
So the project was just something to help with the revitalization of the Lower Ninth Ward. We were in unfamiliar territory for us; that’s why it took so long for us to open. Keep in mind too, this building was completely gutted. We had to put the building back together again. Getting all the permitting together, all the equipment that was needed, even putting together a concrete menu—it was a project that just kind of happened.
Nora: Did you look to certain places as models? Having no experience, how did you figure out how to put everything together?
Tia: We did not have mentors along the way. We did a lot of reading, and we just pulled from what we knew people here loved and things that we loved. We had suppers and we sold some of the food items that we had on the menu just to see how people were gonna like it and to build up a clientele and get the word out.
Nora: Did you include any of the recipes you cooked as a child with your mom on the menu?
Tia: Yes! The deep-fried bell pepper, that’s a one-of-a-kind dish we serve here. That’s a recipe me and my mom formulated. […] I’ve been in the kitchen cooking with my mom and my grandma since I was a child. Cooking comes as second-nature. My grandma used to cook three meals a day; my mom, she was a working mom, so she cooked one meal a day. So by the time I was eleven or twelve, my mom said, ‘Okay Tia, you’re old enough, you can cook dinner tonight.’
[I cooked] a lot of soul food. I’m originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana. Meat and rice and gravy are our staple meals there, so smothered meats with gravy, smoked meats with gravy, traditional dishes that I think are a little different than what people eat here on a day-to-day basis. And we use different seasonings for our beans and stuff. Smothered chicken, smothered pork chops, smothered neck bones, all the meats we eat smothered with gravy everyday!
Nora: Is your husband’s family in here all the time?
Tia: They do frequent here. […] We have three children, we have a nine-year-old, a-twelve-year old, and one of them is an adult. […] They’ll work where needed; they’ll bus tables. Me and my husband, we operate the business on a day-to-day basis. This is our only job, so we’re here all the time.
It’s amazing that [my husband and I] are able to work together day-to-day and still go home together and live happily ever after. It’s been helpful for our relationship, it really has been. That’s why I tell him, ‘I don’t know what I would do, if I couldn’t work with you everyday!’ I always need him in some capacity, he’s my workhorse, he’s my muscle!
Nora: Where do you like to eat? Do you have time to go out?
Tia: Not that much, honestly. Our days here are long. What I would really like is for somebody to just come over to my house and cook for me and clear for me. That would be ideal! But usually when we leave here at night, it’s nine o’clock. I’m tired; I’m exhausted; I don’t want to have to go home and change to go out. So most of the time, it’s sandwiches at home. Turkey with gravy, onions, and bell peppers. My kids love gravy sandwiches. Breakfast sandwiches too, it’s the easiest thing that people can agree on at ten, eleven o’clock at night! But I still have to cook for my kids, so they don’t feel neglected. They get exhausted from eating the restaurant food. […] More work in my household is getting everyone to agree on dinner! [My husband] knows how tired I am in the evening, so usually in the evening he’ll be the one to say, ‘Come on y’all, I’ll fix y’all somethin’ to eat.’
On Café Dauphine’s customer base and neighborhood changes
Nora: Where do most of your customers come from?
Tia: We get people from the neighborhood, but the bulk of our clientele come from outside the neighborhood. We’ve been here six years now, so even the influx of tourists this side of bridge now is more than it was before, and people leave positive reviews on Yelp, Hotwire, and all the travel websites. When people come to New Orleans, the first thing on the bucket list is to eat. People are looking for places that are off the beaten path, outside the French Quarter, where the locals go. And people who work in the CBD, people who live in the surrounding parishes—people in New Orleans, we’re always looking for some place good to eat, and we don’t mind traveling for it.
Nora: I’m struck by all the growth and economic development happening in the Bywater, which is so close to the Lower Ninth Ward, which is itself lacking in the same growth. I wonder how long it will be until the gentrification and displacement happening over the canal seeps into Holy Cross.
Tia: It’s a little bit slower, but it’s happening. Properties are selling [for] more here. They’re running out of space on that side, and this is the next closest place. It hasn’t happened at the rate that it’s happened on the other side, because even prior to Hurricane Katrina that side was starting to develop a little bit more than this side.
I try not to get so involved in the politics of it all, because when we purchased here, we didn’t purchase [because] we knew the property is gonna be worth a certain amount in ten years, or because we knew that the neighborhood was gonna turn into this other type of neighborhood. We really didn’t know.
We really just opened with the thought of giving back to the neighborhood that my husband grew up in and loved dearly. And we just knew that we were gonna be here until another disaster takes us out. We wanted something that we could leave for our kids, [something] they could have pride in. Something that people directly related to the neighborhood own. There’s a lot of people moving in, so somebody who was directly rooted in the neighborhood.
Nora: Have people from the neighborhood who are interested in doing the same thing come to you for advice?
Tia: People who are from the area and are familiar with the Lower Ninth Ward, I don’t think they need advice as to if it’s something whether or not they want to do; it’s something they’re already familiar with. They do it for whatever passion and connection they have to it. As far as newcomers, no, not so much. I think that if you’re looking to develop here, you already have a personal itinerary and you really don’t need my advice.
On her inspiration (and being one herself)
Nora: You spoke on a Southern Foodways Alliance video about how you hope to be remembered like Leah Chase. Did you take inspiration from New Orleans matriarchs when you set up the business and do you still, through your operation of the restaurant?
Tia: I would like to be a culinary icon like Leah Chase, whose roots come from home cooking, cooking for the family. When we opened this business, I didn’t know what I was getting into, but later I found out: it was like having another child. Someone I have to attend to all the time, somebody I have to watch over all the time, somebody you can’t just leave with any babysitter. You have to nurture, you have to mother the business itself, your employees. I’m a mom all day, everyday, at the business and at home. I think it comes second-nature in a woman, to be the primary caregiver, whether it’s over your family or over your business, It just kind of runs together.
Nora: I bet you’ve inspired a lot of the women who work here, too!
Tia: I think so, because they’ll be like, ‘Tia, I don’t know how you do it.’ But if I can do it, you can do it too. The only plan for them is to start here, and take what they learn here and grow into a better, well-rounded person.
Nora: Who do you dream of having in the restaurant and eating with?
Tia: When we saw the news the other day that Anthony Bourdain had passed, my husband and I, we just knew that one day we were gonna be on Parts Unknown. We really like him. We would have really liked to eat and drink and talk with Anthony Bourdain.
Leah Chase, she popped up, that was the first time I met her in person, when we first opened. That was a big compliment. This was in our first year of opening, she said, ‘I read about you in the Times-Picayune, and I told my daughters that we had to come here.’ That was an honor indeed.
Nora: I would be so nervous, I wouldn’t even be able to cook!
Tia: I was. I was like, ‘You thought enough about me that you wanted to come here?!’ She said, ‘You’re a young, black woman and you opened a restaurant in the Lower Ninth Ward, and I just had to come and see it.’
Nora: It’s like being blessed by the Pope!
Tia: Yes. I must be doing something right.