It’s the must-have dessert at many New Orleans restaurants, from white-tablecloth spots to bustling neighborhood diners. It’s bread pudding, and nowhere is it more of a signature than at the Old Coffee Pot on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter, where the same cook has been preparing it for the past half-century.

Pearlie Mae Jefferson harbors a long-held belief that bread pudding deserves its place among the pantheon of culinary essentials of New Orleans, right up there with red beans and rice, red fish courtbullion and shrimp remoulade. For regulars, the 76-year-old bread pudding master at The Old Coffee Pot has rock-star status.

Not bad for the young lady who arrived in New Orleans at the carriage house entrance of the Coffee Pot from Arm, Mississippi, looking for a job when she was just 18.

“That’s ‘Arm,’ like this,” Miss Pearlie Mae says as she stretches out an arm from her body and wiggles it. “We used to have a post office and a couple of little stores. Now, I don’t think it’s even on the map any more. When I got here, I came looking for a job. My brother was already here, and he told me about the Coffee Pot. I came here, and I was hired the same day. Never did I think it would be a 54-year-long job.”

Miss Pearlie Mae started out as a waitress, salad maker and “you name it,” she says. “I guess I did it all. But it was the kitchen that I loved most. I just felt right at home there because of all the time I spent by my mother’s side back in Arm, learning how to cook … from her. I learned that no matter what you cook, or what you do in life, whatever it is, if you’re going to be successful, you have to have one ingredient.”

Her voice trails off down the long tunnel of the carriage house so familiar to regular diners at the Old Coffee Pot.

Williet Falcon, the Coffee Pot’s executive chef, flips open a menu. It doesn’t list desserts.

“We just didn’t have enough room on the menu to list desserts,” he says. “Dessert is big in the evening, and that’s when we put out table tents at each table pushing Miss Pearlie’s bread pudding … not that it needs pushing. People come in visiting from Spokane, Las Vegas, Jacksonville … you name it.

“They all ask for Miss Pearlie’s bread pudding. It’s like, ‘If you go to New Orleans, you have to go to the Coffee Pot and order Miss Pearlie’s bread pudding.’ People take it home on the plane. They want us to send it here and there.”

“We’ve been coming to New Orleans for years,” says Tom Billingsley, who, along with his wife, Frances, travel frequently to New Orleans from their home in Arkansas. “And when you come to New Orleans, there are just some things you do not do. … You do not walk down St. Peter without coming into the Coffee Pot, sitting down and ordering Miss Pearlie’s bread pudding. To not do that is a mortal sin.”

Although she retired three years ago after 54 years in the kitchen at The Coffee Pot, Miss Pearlie is always at the ready when the restaurant runs out of bread pudding. When her phone rings, she drives from her Seventh Ward home straight to St. Peter Street and replenishes the restaurant’s supply.

The dessert is made in sizable batches, frozen and then baked to warm perfection, as needed, the cook said.

“That’s all she does,” Falcon says. “She’s our special lady. Nobody can duplicate what she does with bread pudding. To say that it’s our signature dish would be a big understatement.”

The recipe?

“I make a special sauce,” Miss Pearlie says. “It’s bourbon and vanilla … or should I say vanilla and bourbon.”

Miss Pearl says she lives near St. Augustine High School and doesn’t cook at home.

“She saves all that talent for the kitchen at the Coffee Pot,” Falcon says.

The subject comes up again and again: Miss Pearlie’s “recipe” and her “secret ingredient.”

“My secret ingredient is love,” the queen of New Orleans bread pudding says. “I learned this from my mother in our kitchen back in Arm, Mississippi. I saw the love my mother put into everything she cooked. That’s the secret of being successful at anything you do. If you love what you’re doing … it’ll show through. You can’t have success if you don’t put love into it. You don’t find that in books.”