Only when she heard Richard Pryor laugh, did Jesdarnel Henton realized who he was. She more easily identified other celebrities who came through for her mother’s cooking, like Muhammad Ali. But the most recognizable things at Helen Coleman’s Seattle restaurants were the oxtails, greens, and Ms. Helen herself, greeting customers with a gentle “Hey, baby.” Now, the queen of soul food in Seattle and legendary cook looks for one last chance to serve sweet potato pie to her community, as her daughter works to continue the family’s culinary legacy.
From 1970, when Coleman first moved from Los Angeles to Seattle and opened up Helen’s Diner on Union just south of 23rd, through the last pork chops handed out from the kitchen of Rose Petals Restaurant on Rainier, four decades later, Coleman’s food won hearts and gathered neighbors. Her daughter, who started cooking at her mom’s restaurants 50 years ago – known to customers as “Squirt” – kept the business alive as a caterer, but now sees an opportunity to bring it back to a wider audience. “I figure I got a least a good 10 years left in me to get this done,” says Henton. “Then I can leave it to the rest of the family to carry on.”