How Do You Gumbo?
By Mitch Thomas
Wayne Camp of Coffin Custom Pits and Burners Inc. will spend four days preparing a chicken and sausage stock. Pat’s of Henderson Louisiana Seafood and Steakhouse chef Menola Zeno leaves out the celery, while Chastain’s Food and Spirits prep cook Penny Ardoin doesn’t use any bell pepper.
Each one will tell you that their pot of genuine Cajun gumbo is the best.
The official cuisine of Louisiana can be prepared in a number of different ways to satisfy a number of different tastes, but whether you prefer your roux lighter than caramel or deep dark brown, or whether you stick strictly to the holy trinity of vegetables, the result is a dish whose flavor comes straight from the kitchens of cooks raised on the culture and traditions of Louisiana.
"Gumbo to me is one of those special dishes where the chef over time determines what exactly the end product will be,” said Ryan Bourriaque, who was part of the team that placed first in the professional chicken and sausage gumbo division last year during Lake Charles’ World Famous Mardi Gras Gumbo Cook Off. "It is a give and take and a very fluid situation. In my humble opinion, no two gumbos are alike.”
Down in Creole and Grand Chenier, Bourriaque learned to cook gumbo from his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, with each preparing the dish differently. Recently, he and some family and friends have been learning championship-level cooking from Galton Boudreaux.
Bourriaque’s favorite kind of gumbo is his maternal grandmother Lidian Richard’s shrimp and okra gumbo. He was quite fond of his paternal grandmother Viola Bourriaque’s crawfish and egg filé gumbo, though it has been many years since he’s had it.
One to One
According to Camp, gumbo begins with roux, a one-to-one mixture of flour and oil that is browned and added to gumbo to serve as a thickener. Roux can be bought in stores, but for best results a gumbo cook will learn to prepare her own roux, a skill that takes practice to master.
"Gumbo all starts with the roux,” said Camp. "You have to be very patient. You have to practice a lot. I’d be surprised if a person cooking for the first time doesn’t burn the roux.”
Camp will use only vegetable oil and non-gluten-free flour for his roux. He prepares his stock, vegetables and meats before getting started on his roux, which must be monitored and stirred constantly to achieve the desired thickness and color. A roux can burn if it is neglected for too long or if the fire or burner is too high. Camp uses a specially seasoned Magnalite pot used exclusively for his roux.
Born in Lake Charles, Camp spend much time in Gueydan learning to cook roux from his step-mother. While in school for pharmacy, Camp and some fellow students took up cooking as a hobby, with gumbo one of Camp’s specialties. Still a pharmacist, Camp also builds barbecue pits and burners which he takes to cooking competitions.
Camp has won first place in seafood gumbo at the World Famous Mardi Gras Gumbo Cook Off in Lake Charles in 2015, as well as first place people’s choice and first place seafood gumbo at the Swamp Stomp in Thibodeaux in 2014.
If it’s any gumbo but his own, Camp is partial to Southwest Louisiana’s variety over New Orleans, as other kinds can sometimes use roux that tastes too floury.
The trinity and taste
Most cooks will agree that three of the most often used vegetables for gumbo, nicknamed the trinity, include bell pepper, onion and celery. Added after the roux has been browned, the vegetables are cooked down with the roux before adding stock or any meats and can further darken the roux.
Zeno at Pat’s of Henderson will leave out the celery when cooking at the restaurant, but she doesn’t believe it detracts in any way from the quality.
"Without a shadow of a doubt, I would say mine is the best,” she said. "Everybody eats mine and then says ‘Can you show me how to make some gumbo?’”
For Zeno, getting the seasoning "right on the nose” is what makes a perfect bowl of gumbo. Using the Pat’s of Henderson seasoning blend, Zeno will add and taste-test as the gumbo simmers to hit the right level of flavors. Cooks need to be careful not to add too much, she says, since seasonings will come from the stock as well as the seafood and chicken prepared ahead of time.
Zeno learned the proper flavors while working and watching her mother as she cooked for Pat Huval’s restaurant. She would bus tables, washing dishes, dabble in some cooking in the kitchen, and by the time she was 10 she was cooking at home as well. With a lifetime’s worth of experience and the recipes she learned from her brother, Zeno herself went to work at Pat’s cooking.
A dash of passion
At the end of the day, the quality of a cook’s gumbo will depend on the energy and love the cook is willing to spend.
"I think the most important ingredient is passion,” said Bourriaque. "If you are just trying to ‘cook a gumbo’ you are missing out on a great deal here.”
Ardoin at Chastain’s has been cooking most of her life. Spending time in several other area restaurants, Ardoin came to Chastain’s to help as a prep cook, learning from Verna Nelson, the day shift manager prep cook, how to make a gumbo that renders patrons speechless.
But as far as her own pot of gumbo is concerned, "love” is her secret ingredient.
"You’ve gotta love to want to cook, love what you do, and I love to cook,” said Ardoin. "I love to make gumbo. It’s the main ingredient and it’s how you cook it. I put a lot of love into the food that I make.”