“No, no, we don’t have a chef. We just have good people that cook good food.” – Donna Cheramie
Donna Cheramie officially grew up in Galliano, but she recalls spending much of her youth on her father’s shrimp boat. It was hard work on the water, she says. Too hard to think back on with fondness. But while Donna has chosen a landlubber’s life as an adult, her managerial position at Leeville Seafood Restaurant requires both a solid work ethic and a thorough knowledge of the region’s seafood. She buys it, cooks it, sells it, and eats it (though often at work a hamburger sounds best). All of the seafood prepared at the restaurant comes from local waters; in fact, Donna buys the largest shrimp from her father, who is still a trawler. Donna’s in-laws, Harris and Sue Cheramie, purchased the restaurant fifteen years ago. Sue, who developed all of the recipes but spends little time at the restaurant these days, taught Donna to cook. Seafood gumbo seasoned with ham and smoked sausage, crab patties, fried seafood platters, seafood fondue, salads piled high with chilled shrimp— Donna and a team of women whom she considers family prepare every dish in-house for a clientele of recreational fishermen, tourists passing through Leeville on their way to Grand Isle, and locals who point to Leeville Seafood Restaurant as a place where seafood is done right.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Donna Cheramie, manager of Leeville Seafood Restaurant—Leeville, LA
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Monday, October 17, 2011. I’m in Leeville, Louisiana at the Leeville Seafood Restaurant, and I’m sitting here with Miss Donna. Could I get you, please, to say your full name and tell me what you do for a living?
Donna Cheramie: My name is Donna Cheramie, and I’m the manager of Leeville Restaurant, so I pretty much do everything I need to do here—ordering, scheduling, cooking, anything that needs to be done; paperwork, and all the stuff that comes with it.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up here, in Galliano, the Galliano area, and actually I was in Leeville a lot because my father is a trawler. I came in this area a lot when I was growing up, the shrimp sheds, and next door to the gas station. And you know, this place wasn’t maybe here when I was growing up, or it was here but it wasn’t real popular back then. But this is one of my main areas. I was here when I was a child.
I forgot to ask you your birth date.
December 13, 1972.
Did you grow up on shrimp boats?
Yes, I did. I grew up on the shrimp boats in the summertime when we were off of school. We had to go with our parents on the weekends.
Did you enjoy that?
Hmm, I’m not sure [Laughs] if I enjoyed it. It was work. And I don’t really like to be on the water too much anymore, so I guess maybe I didn't enjoy it because we had to do it all the time, so it was more like a job then. You know how some people like to just go and do it just to see what it’s about? Well, we just had to do it, so I wouldn’t say it was fun.
Is your family still in that business?
Yes. My dad and my mom still skim the local areas. They have, I think it’s like a 42-foot boat, and that’s where I get most of my big shrimp from—my dad. He catches them and he saves them for me and we get it from him.
Could you tell me your parents’ names?
Daniel and Mary Bruce. They’re from Galliano.
How did you wind up here?
I was working at a restaurant in [Port] Fourchon. I met my husband there, and the same year we got married they [his parents] bought this restaurant. So actually they bought it before we got married, so I started working for them from the beginning. And on March 6th it’ll be 15 years that we have the restaurant.
Can you tell me your husband’s name?
Norrie Cheramie, and his parents are Harris and Sue Cheramie. They’re the ones that own the restaurant.
So when you got married, did you know that you were entering the restaurant business?
Oh yes, I did. We were dating when they bought the restaurant. Yeah, but I enjoy it. I really do. I really enjoy it, just serving people. It’s serving good food and just, you know, making everybody happy. That’s my main goal.
In a way you’ve stayed in the seafood business; you just don’t have to be on the water anymore.
Right, right, and he asks me to go fishing with him all the time and I’m like, “No, I don’t think so.”
You were very young when you first started working here. It’s a lot of responsibility. What do you think it was that appealed to you at such a young age?
I hear people complaining about it a lot, but I really love it and I don’t even feel like that. I think it’s just something that was meant to be. I believe in God and I just believe he brought me here with the people I work with, and I don’t even feel like it’s hard or anything like that. I enjoy it, and I enjoy everything about it.
You said that you do a little bit of everything here including cooking. Did you grow up cooking?
No, not at all. Actually my mother-in-law is a great cook, and I didn't really get into cooking until I came around them. All the recipes came from her. She did all the recipes, and she’s just real sick. She gets a lot of headaches, so it’s hard for her to come. But she enjoys cooking for us still [Laughs]; it’s not as much as cooking for like 100 people at a time and stuff like that. It gets really crazy in here sometimes, and our menu is very extensive from when she used to work here.
I guess after a few years of just like fried seafood and grilled seafood, I just kind of felt like we needed a little bit of a different change. And some of the sauces that she had, I just put it with steaks and I made different types of specials with it. Like we have a Leeville Filet; it’s a filet with a horseradish sauce that she came up with, and so we put horseradish sauce with crabmeat and we have it with grilled shrimp and grilled asparagus, and we call that our Leeville Filet, and that’s become a very, very popular dish. I just kind of incorporated stuff that we already had here and just made little different dishes with it. You know, nothing complicated because it is a small restaurant. I mean the kitchen is small so you can't really do like tons of different things. But just doing just different little things like that. We have mahi now and tuna that we didn't have before. You know people just like—they like eating a little healthier, you know, than fried, fried, fried. So but I think most people come here and they know they’re getting something that’s fattening, you know, so I guess it won't appeal to the dieter, so—. [Laughs]
When you first started working here, was your mother-in-law working here? Did she already have her hand in the kitchen?
Yes, we all came together. She started it and we’d work here all day, her and I. We had to go take naps every once in a while, you know, because we started off really small. We didn't hire a lot of people at the beginning. We might have had one. We worked with two people in the kitchen and one waitress. And we’d do, like sometimes 40, 50, 60 people, you know. It was a little rough. For the first couple years we worked with just one waitress and two people in the kitchen. And then we got to three people in the kitchen. And then we got to four. And now we’re back to three because it’s not as busy as it used to be before the bridge. I mean I don’t think anything is going to be the same because the traffic doesn’t pass through anymore. It goes around; it bypasses the businesses here in Leeville.
Yeah, can we talk about that a little bit? So I hadn't been here for a couple of years, to this area, and then I got instructions from someone who I was meeting on Grand Isle who said, “Give me a call once you get on the Leeville Bridge.” And I didn't know what he was talking about until I got here. It’s a completely different path for the bridge to Grand Isle, huh?
Yes, it is. It bypasses the town of Leeville, so all the local businesses that were here don’t get as much attendance. You know even the gas stations and stuff like that; I think they got hurt a lot more than we did. Because we kind of were established, and so were they, but I guess they would probably have people that would stop by and get like soft drinks or stuff on their way down, and they didn't get that anymore.
Because the bridge used to be like right at the end of Leeville?
You had to pass through, yeah. You had to pass through the town of Leeville, and now it just bypasses the whole town.
What would you call your type of food?
I guess seafood and steak. I don’t know—Cajun. I know we have a few—like we have the etouffée on the [menu]. Gumbo, seafood gumbo. It’s not overly spicy like I guess people say Cajun food is. Like some people in Lafayette and stuff like that, they put a lot of spice in their food. I don’t think our stuff is overly spicy that people can't eat it. So I would say Cajun, but then they might not. [Laughs]
Is your mother-in-law Cajun?
Yes, we’re all from Golden Meadow and the Galliano area.
One thing: I had the gumbo here, which I really liked. Could you describe it for me?
It’s smoked sausage, right?
Yes, smoked sausage, yes.
Do you get a lot of locals, or is it more people like me who are passing through?
We do have a good local business, but our main clientele I would say comes from Baton Rouge because of the hotel across the street. It’s a big fishing —recreational fishermen come here a lot. And we get a lot from over there. You can tell when LSU plays, we’re so dead. [Laughs] Before they got really big we were busy on the weekends, and then a lot of season holders—season pass-holders for LSU—are the ones that come fishing, so they stay home whenever they play, or even if they’re away they watch them on TV. And we don’t have a TV here.
Did you have an uptick in business with oil spill workers?
No, not at all. It was horrible. We went from doing like 150 people on the weekends to like 40 and 50 people. That’s where you could really tell where your business came from. That whole summer, because it happened—I think May 20-something of last year was the day they said, “Okay, the water is completely closed.” The fishermen was our business.
Did you suffer damage from Katrina or Rita or Gustav?
All of them, actually, but Katrina and Rita, yes. We flooded. And Gustav and Ike, it was the worst because the water came up to probably like right underneath the table in here.
So that’s probably about three feet.
Yeah, three, yeah. It was pretty much destroyed. They gutted the whole restaurant out, and my father-in-law—that’s when he comes in. [Laughs] He’s the one that does that part when they have a storm like that. He gets people here and he cleans it up and gets it open for us. I think it was Gustav and Ike, within a little over a month we were back open. He had changed the carpet and did a lot of redoing of everything. Our back building came apart where we had storage. It was a mess. I wanted to cry. We’re not protected by the levee system. So we flood real easy here; if the storm comes the right way, the water, you know the wind is blowing the right way, whatever. I guess every time hurricane season comes around we go, “Oh, are we going to flood this year or not?” So it’s been like every four years so far—that’s how often we flood, is every four years. We’ve been lucking out, I guess. I guess it’s lucky to not flood the years in-between [Laughs].
But that’s a lot to deal with, knowing that that’s just an inevitability.
Yeah, it is. It’s hard because, I mean you have people that work for you and you know, you don’t want them to go find something else, but there’s nothing you can do for them because you’re shut down. I mean there’s nothing you can do. I mean once something happens, once you flood, it’s at least a month if you’re lucky. So that’s like a month or so without them having a job, and I mean everybody needs to work, so you don’t want them to go find something else. So you know I worry about everybody else, is what I do. That’s one of my main concerns, is where are they going to go? What’s going to happen? So I think about them a lot. That’s probably why I get so sick—I think about other people so much.
It must be worth it to keep rebuilding.
Uh, yeah, I think so. I think so. I mean if we can get everybody to come back here. So far most of the people that left, they all waited for us to open because for whatever reason they like working for me. [Laughs] I mean I work with everybody, with all the girls that work here you know, and they’re all raising children, and I work around their schedules. And they all kind of help each other out and stuff. So they enjoy it here and I enjoy having them here. It’s a big help knowing that you have good reliable people to come to every day.
So is it mostly women in the kitchen?
Yes, it’s all women.
You said that you get your shrimp from your parents. Are the crabs and the oysters and everything also from around this area?
Yes. I get [a lot of] it from Bob’s Seafood. He is just kind of like a distributor where people sell to him. It’s kind of like a one-stop shop, you know; you get stuff with them, like the crabmeat, the oysters, and stuff like that—soft shell crabs. Before I used to have to go here and get crabmeat and there and get oysters and there and get this and there and get that. And so now that he does a lot of the local—people go to him and sell it to him.
Is there a difference between how local people order and tourist people order?
The local people: “I know what I want.” You know, like, “I want the flounder with the étouffée,” or they know what they want, when they want it, where—. I guess more of the tourists get different things. That’s where you sell a lot of your different stuff, too, you know are the tourists.
The locals migrate to certain dishes?
Like what? Like the flounder, you said?
The flounder with the étouffée, and there’s one man that he comes over here strictly just to eat the fried shrimp. He’s like, “I’m going to eat the shrimp.” That’s it. Our repeat customers like the fondue; there’s a couple that comes almost every Saturday. They come to get the fondue, and one gets the crab patties and one gets the shrimp.
Can you tell me about the fondue?
Well fondue is just a cap bread and it’s a sauce with—like a cheesy sauce with crabmeat and shrimp in it, and you just pour it in the bread and they just cut into it and eat it kind of like a pie.
What is cap bread?
It’s a French bread. We get it from the local bakery.
And can you tell me—I know this is a very popular dish in this part of the state, but it isn't everywhere—what crab patties are?
Crab patties are just crabmeat, a blend of crabmeat. We put like the claw meat, white meat, and it’s just mixed with a little bit of bread crumbs and seasonings and greens and stuff, and just pat it together, and you put it in the freezer so it just stays that shape like you had tonight. So it stays in that little round shape and we stick it in the freezer so they don’t fall apart, because if it would be fresh and you’d put it in the fryer it would just like probably shred up in the fryer. It wouldn’t stay together. A lot of people do it different. Like some people put potatoes, which we put as little bread crumbs and stuff like that as we can so that there’s a lot of crabmeat in it. It’s mostly crabmeat. I mean probably 90-percent crabmeat if not 95-percent.
It was a lot of crab, and then also in my dish the sauce had more crab in it.
Yes, that was the jumbo lump crabmeat that they put on top with the sauce.
You basically run with the recreational fishing seasons?
Right, yes, ma'am. And we get a few Christmas parties from the local companies, but not really too many. Maybe five or six.
I’ve seen some take-out happening since I’ve been in here.
Yes, we do a few take-outs. Every day is different. We get a few for lunch. We have maybe three or four people that call every day to see what our lunch is and if they’re going to come get it or not.
Oh, because you have specials?
Yes, we just do like fried chicken on Thursdays, and we do like hamburger steak specials and—like we had red beans today. But I don’t always have red beans, so it was just different. Fried pork chops, spaghetti, just little kind of home-cooked meals just to stray away from the fried food every once in a while.
Are you the one who decides what that’s going to be?
Do you do all the ordering also?
Yes, I do the ordering and everything. But it’s really not bad.
Your husband, he doesn’t work here regularly?
No. He’ll pick up seafood for me and stuff like that, and he helps out with my children. So I guess if you could say that—that leaves me time to come here. If I had to leave them with someone else I don’t think I would be doing what I was doing. You know if they had to be with a stranger or a babysitter or anything like that. It gives me peace of mind that they’re at home in the home environment even when I’m here—you know, even when I’m not home. That helps me to do this better.
Your children—how old are they?
Six and eleven.
Do they come hang out here ever?
Not too much anymore because we [moved up the bayou], but they grew up here, both of them. My six-year-old especially because of—that’s when I started kind of just mainly
Let me ask you just one final question: What is your favorite part about your job here?
I just love it. I don’t know, I just love the whole thing. I enjoy the different aspects of it, the fast pace. I love getting people in and out, and I don’t like when people don’t like their food. [Laughs] That I don’t like. That makes me sad. But I enjoy it when people compliment us on the food and the service. You know, like I strive to get the girls that work here just to be on top of their tables and take care of their people, and that’s the main thing I enjoy—serving people. And I enjoy having good people to work for me.
Well thank you so much for the spur-of-the-moment interview. It was really, really generous.
That’s the best way to catch me, is spur-of-the-moment. So you caught me at a good time actually.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.