When Audrey Duncan moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast about 25 years ago, it was nearly impossible to find a restaurant serving the home-style southern cooking she grew up eating in Natchez.
The Coast celebrated and showcased its local shrimp and oysters. But Duncan knew that the tourists who visited from other parts of the country, as well as native Mississippians, were just as likely to crave other southern favorites, like collard greens, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and peach cobbler.
And so she set out to make a place for fresh, made-from-scratch soul food on the Coast. Seven years ago, she opened her own restaurant, Ms. Audrey’s Southern Kitchen & Catering, which has become a destination in Gulfport’s Gaston Point neighborhood.
Day after day, meal after meal, Duncan has built up a reputation as one of the Coast’s most beloved restaurateurs. But the label she claims for herself is one shared by millions of Americans, most of them women, in almost every household: cook.
To Duncan, the word captures the love and attention that goes into each recipe. Her food isn’t about special presentations or showing off, she says. It’s about feeding people the way she feeds herself and her family.
“It’s a difference from when a cook cooks for a living and when a cook cooks from their soul,” she said. “The flavor is totally different– you’re gonna put your all into it. You’re gonna want it to be as if you’re eating your best meal.”
LEARNING TO COOK FROM HER MOM AND A GROUP OF NUNS
Duncan learned to cook from her mother, Bessie Smith. When she was little, her brothers built her a wooden step stool so she could stand alongside her mother and help her in the kitchen.
“The finished product was what made me so excited, to know that you could put these items together and make something so wonderful,” Duncan said. “It started making me be more inquisitive, like how did she do this? I started asking questions. She always would tell me, ‘Anything you do, but especially cooking, you have to have a love and compassion for it.’”
Duncan says she grew up “a disadvantaged child.” Her parents served the food they could afford. Her mom cooked rice and gravy regularly, because it stretched a long way to feed Duncan and her seven siblings. To Duncan, it was one of the most delicious meals in the world.
Smith died when Duncan was 19 years old. She never got to realize her own dream of opening a restaurant.
After her mother’s death, cooking became even more a part of Duncan’s life.
“I looked forward to coming home from school and getting those hot meals,” she said. “None of that existed anymore. So I just started doing it myself.”
After she graduated from high school, Duncan moved to New Orleans. One of her positions there was cooking at the Cenacle Retreat House in Metairie, a convalescent home for nuns.
About 36 nuns lived there, ranging in age from their late 40s up to 103 years old. Duncan was younger, and only one of the nuns was African-American. Though they had very different backgrounds, Duncan and the nuns became close friends.
She credits them with teaching her to be “a strong woman,” and also with how to cook vegetables by blanching and steaming them.
“They would always tease me and say, ‘Audrey, you made these damn green beans so damn good, but you cooked the hell out of ’em,” she said.
‘I STEPPED OUT ON MY OWN’
Around 2000, she moved to the Coast. She worked at Garden Park Medical Center for nine years before moving on to the Courtyard Marriott.
At the time, the hotel’s restaurant offered a breakfast buffet, with the scrambled eggs and cereal you might find anywhere in the United States. Duncan saw an opportunity to test her theory about the market for soul food on the Coast.
“When you’re down South, as if when you go to China, you want the best Chinese food there is,” she said. “When you’re down South, and nothing against the shrimp, the oysters down here on the Coast, but I was looking for that good home cooking.”
Duncan turned the hotel’s restaurant into a country-style buffet.
She quickly won a following, and her seafood gumbo, bas3d on her mother’s recipe, became a Coast favorite. Eventually, the hotel got new owners. They wanted the hotel to have a generic bistro restaurant instead of the country buffet.
Now that Duncan’s buffet was closed, she couldn’t find anywhere else to get that kind of food on the Coast. And her success had proven there was demand for it.
“I prayed about it and I asked God to give me guidance and direction,” she said. “So I stepped out on my own, and opened up Ms. Audrey’s.”
GIVING BACK THROUGH HER BUSINESS
Duncan has used her restaurant’s success to give back.
She partners with the workforce training nonprofit Climb CDC to teach culinary classes and give students work experience at her restaurant. She estimates she has trained more than 100 people, and some of her former students now hold positions like sous chef at the Beau Rivage.
On Election Day in 2020, Duncan set up a tent offering free burgers, hot dogs and drinks for people voting at the Gaston Point Recreation Center across the street from her restaurant.
She’s so well known in the community that at a recent town hall meeting about the New Year’s Eve mass shooting in Gaston Point, she and her restaurant got a shout-out as one of the neighborhood’s assets.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for Duncan’s business, and for her family.
Ms. Audrey’s was closed for several months in 2020. When it reopened, she joined other restaurant operators in the constant battle to keep her staff and customers safe — a struggle made more difficult by some customers’ refusal to wear masks and keep their distance.
“I’m having to improvise, because a lot of the customers, they don’t understand,” she said. “Some of them don’t want to abide by the rules.”
LOSSES DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Since March 2020, Duncan has lost five of her seven siblings: all four of her sisters and one brother.
Two of her siblings died of COVID-19.
Her sisters were her biggest cheerleaders and best friends.
“That’s what imagine, dealing with what’s going on right now: You just don’t know what people are going through,” she said.
The losses have been “unimaginably hard.” But she keeps going.
“It’s satisfying to my soul, and it helps me,” she said.
Every day, Duncan wakes up at 4 a.m She arrives at work by 7 and helps prepare the restaurant’s daily offerings as well as any catering orders.
The recipes are drawn from what she calls Ms. Audrey’s Kitchen Bible. There’s only one copy of it, with 174 recipes typed and hand-written, some dating back decades and passed down from Duncan’s mother.
Duncan has committed each one to memory, but her new staff use it to learn how to cook the restaurant’s specialties.
One of her next goals is to publish the Kitchen Bible as a cookbook. The hard times of the pandemic, she said, have shown the value of affordable, filling Southern meals like red beans and rice.
These days, she senses her customers line up at her buffet seeking something more than lunch.
“People are looking for some love in their food,” she said.