CINCINNATI -- LaToya Foster goes by different names, but please, call her "Ms. Toy." That's how she likes it.
Her customers also affectionately call her the Gumbo Lady and Creole Queen, but as the owner and chef of Mardi Gras on Madison, Foster calls herself a jack-of-all-trades. She has a few endearing names for her customers, too.
"Everybody is 'baby,' 'darling' or 'honey,' " she said, chuckling. "I grew up in New Orleans."
Mardi Gras on Madison is an homage to New Orleans, unabashedly adorned in memorabilia and steeped in bayou culture. There are beads of many colors -- hung, draped or simply placed -- along with colorful graffiti art and festive Mardi Gras music.
Foster, a self-taught cook, is known for her po'boys (like catfish, oyster and shrimp) and all things Cajun and Creole, including gumbo, etouffee and shrimp and grits.
Don't mistake it for a conventional restaurant, though; there is neither a menu nor fixed operating hours. The place works more like a pop-up restaurant.
"We're a 'homeaurant,' " Foster said, likening the establishment to a cross between a home and restaurant. "You should always feel at home, but like a home, we're sometimes home and sometimes not."
She posts on social media whenever the place is open, adding, "If you don't see a post, that means we're not here."
Foster decides what to put on the menu each day, at times with a little help from social media.
"Sometimes I'll ask on Facebook, 'What do you all want to eat tomorrow?' " she said. "Whatever the majority wants, that's what I'll fix."
She longed for the food of her youth
Foster was in junior high when she moved to Cincinnati with her mother in 1992. She felt displaced and longed for the food she grew up with.
"I remember going to the corner shop, Danny & Clyde's, to get a shrimp po'boy," she said. "I've always a wanted a po'boy shop."
Foster said her mother was a strict single parent who was always working. She often stayed with her aunt and, in time, developed a strong bond with her -- and her food.
"Anything she touched in the kitchen, I wanted to have seconds," she said.
But growing up, Foster was more interested in eating than cooking and conceded she "couldn't boil a pot of water" even if she had wanted to. After high school, she joined the Navy but left after she clashed with the boot camp chief.
"Authority figures just don't sit well with me," Foster said.
She worked in consumer finance for five years before striking out on her own. Foster opened a restaurant, New Orleans to Go, in Springdale in 2006. "It was the year after Katrina," she said.
Foster's restaurant became a casualty of the declining economy in the late 2000s, ultimately closing in 2010. But true to her New Orleans roots, she didn't quit.
"New Orleans has been (under) water numerous times," she said. "But we don't give up; we rebuild."
She reinvented her restaurant, packed it in a vehicle and started a food truck instead. Just a few months later, she was back in business with a food truck called A Streetcar Named Desire. The name has since changed to New Orleans to Go and continues to operate to this day.
Foster still visits her hometown to recharge. ("There's no place like New Orleans," she said.) According to her, the city's spirit even infiltrates her husband, a Maysville, Kentucky, native.
"When he goes to New Orleans, he changes," she said, laughing. "He's got the accent going and everything, and I ask, 'Did I marry Harry Connick Jr.?' "
She's never looked back
Foster acknowledged she still encounters attitudes and assumptions that are particular to her being an African-American female entrepreneur.
"For the longest time, people would see my (Caucasian) husband and think he's the owner," she said. "They would ask me, 'Are you the cook?' or 'Who's the owner?' "
Now the mother of three girls, Foster sees the shadow of her relationship with her mother in her daughters. Foster works long hours and isn't able to be with her kids as much as she would like.
"I'm starting to see the cycle where my mom was never there because she was at work all the time," she said.
Foster didn't plan to get into the food business, but once she discovered her passion for it, she hasn't looked back.
It hasn't always been easy, but she's never lost that dogged determination.
"Just never give up," she said. "Just keep on keeping on."
Mardi Gras on Madison
1524 Madison Road, East Walnut Hills
Mardi Gras Pop-up Event
When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28
What: Dinner (Louisiana crawfish, shrimp, Cajun sausage), live music, beads, ticket for one beer or wine.
Price: $65 | RSVP: email@example.com
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO.com. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.