Working from Scratch – Lagniappe brings New Orleans to life

Michael Nagrant / 08.07.07

Most restaurants prepare food in advance, a dirty secret that involves quick reheating and a dash of garnish added to the plate before it’s served to the customer.  At Lagniappe, chef Mary Madison’s Cajun Creole “joynt,” she works from scratch, searing off the onion and green pepper, making the roux and throwing the crawfish in the pot only after you place your order.

“I’ve often found people who eat out often sacrifice quality for ambience,” Madison says.  Her green tomatoes are toothsome wheels of deep-fried goodness, and her etouffee, a chocolate-brown swamp of plump crawfish beached on an island of white rice, conjures an afternoon in New Orleans.

Only Madison’s ambition and vision rival her culinary chops.  Prior to starting Lagniappe in 1999, she began serving home-cooked meals to a handful of people under Lower Wacker Drive, an endeavor that has grown into ministry that feeds more than a 150 homeless people every other Sunday. Inspired by high-end chefs like Charlie Trotter, she hopes to eventually open a fine-dining restaurant based on her Cajun Creole roots to provide residents of her South Side neighborhood Auburn Gresham with more culinary choices.

Q. What do you wish you could change or pickle and preserve about the Chicago restaurant/ food scene?

A. I love the diversity.  Chicago offers a wide choice of items for varying taste buds and ethnicities.  One thing I would change is that there aren’t a lot of non-fast-food restaurants in this neighborhood (Auburn Gresham).

Q. What would your last meal be?

A. I have to have some greens with tomatoes and onions.  I love turnip and mustard greens.  Also some good BBQ, ribs and rib tips, especially from Honey 1, 2241 N. Western, and Lem’s BBQ, 311 E. 75th St.

Q. Where do you eat/drink before or after a shift?

A. The Sesame Inn on 95th.  I love their yellowtail, salmon, snapper and dragon rolls.  I like the Spartan omelette filled with feta, spinach, tomato and mushroom at Lume’s Pancake house on Western Avenue.

Q. What’s the can’t-miss dish at Lagniappe?

A. The crawfish etouffee because it’s my favorite.  A lot of people would say the jambalaya, but I’m not too big on tomato paste.

Q. What should we know about Lagniappe that we probably don’t?

A. We remodeled our upstairs to feature live jazz and incorporate a little bit more of New Orleans. Also, I always have something in the back that’s not on the menu, like chicken and dumplings, meatloaf, short ribs or oxtail soup.

Lagniappe; 1525 W. 79th Street, Chicago (773) 994-6375