Louisiana Brothers Bring Gumbo to the Big City
By Emily Alford
In New York City, few know the true joy of a perfect, hearty gumbo, but Adam Lathan and Clay Boulware, former roommates at LSU, are hoping to change that one bowl at a time.
In September 2014, the pair started The Gumbo Bros, a pop-up gumbo restaurant and catering company that brings both Cajun and Creole-style gumbos to common folk and big city executives alike. Their chicken and sausage, shrimp, and vegan gumbo z’herbes has been featured at the Columbus Circle Holiday Market at Central Park as well as being served up at parties given by Martha Stewart and jewelry mogul David Yurman. They were also recently nominated for a Vendy, which is a who’s who of New York City street food.
But while their gumbo may be making waves at high-end venues, their recipes remain rooted in homespun tradition. In fact, their chicken and sausage gumbo is called "Nanny’s Cajun Gumbo,” named for Lathan’s great-grandmother, whose recipe was passed down through generations of his family.
"My great grandmother used to do gumbo the same way most families get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas,” Lathan, who grew up in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, says. "But instead of a turkey or a ham or something like that we would always have gumbo, so it was kind of a family tradition. Then she taught the recipe to my dad, and he taught it to me. I’ve tweaked it a little bit, but for the most part it’s true to the recipe. So we named it after her. Nanny’s gumbo.”
The pair doesn’t take any shortcuts when preparing their roux, a fact that Boulware credits with their success.
"The way I was taught was to cook roux until you’re on the verge of just absolutely burning it,” Boulware says. "When you only have 30 or 40 seconds to throw in your veggies, that’s when you’re good to go. I get it as dark as possible. It normally takes me about an hour and a half. Every once in a while it come back to bite me, but that’s just part of making gumbo.”
And while New Yorkers don’t generally share the tradition of making gumbo with family, they certainly appreciate the nostalgia a good bowl brings back, says Boulware. For example, The Gumbo Bros’ tomato-based Creole gumbo, inspired by Lathan’s childhood memories of the shrimp gumbo he ate in New Orleans, evokes fond memories of good times in the city from many customers.
"What’s been great about selling so much gumbo is everyone’s connection to the food,” Boulware says. "Everybody’s a little suspect at first about who’s making gumbo in New York, and then they come back and are like, ‘This is good gumbo. This reminds me of a trip I had to New Orleans.’ People have connections to and stories about the state. That’s one thing we noticed right after opening. People don’t just say, ‘Oh, hey, great gumbo,’ and walk off. They want to tell us some of their memories. It reminds them of a good time, which is what Louisiana is all about.”
Of course, some recipes had to be modified for a New York palette, says Boulware, who grew up all around Louisiana in cities from Alexandria to Baton Rouge and Shreveport. For instance, to cater to New Yorkers with dietary restrictions, the pair modified a classic gumbo z’herbes - a gumbo traditionally made with greens - to create a gluten-free, vegan dish. Even Boulware was surprised at the delicious results.
"Our Voodoo Vegan Gumbo is a black eyed pea and collard green gumbo, and we also make that in a gluten free roux using rice flour and olive oil,” Boulware says. "It’s New York City, so we’ve got to do something. But surprisingly, it’s actually really good gumbo. It’s a good vegetable serving, so I like it a lot.”
Though the business often caters to a well-to-do crowd, it was important to Lathan and Boulware to make sure the foods reflect real Southern flavors.
"My dad grows collards in our back yard,” says Lathan. "So the collard greens and black eyed peas just sort of made sense. Those are staples for people who appreciate authentic Southern food.”
One advantage to selling traditional Louisiana foods to a northern audience, according to the duo, it getting to explain the subtle differences in regional cuisines to a whole new audience.
"We’ve had a good time explaining the difference between Cajun and Creole cooking,” Lathan says. "That’s why we have our two main gumbos, the Cajun and the Creole, available at all times. The Creole obviously has the tomato base to it, and we let people know it’s more common around New Orleans versus the Cajun, which obviously is going to be chicken and sausage, not as Bougie, if you will. And people, when they taste them, immediately go ‘Oh, I get it. This is a little more Spanish; this is a little more French.’ It’s been interesting to let people try both. People are always very definitive about which one they like more.”
Since they served their first bowl of Nanny’s Cajun Gumbo last September, The Gumbo Bros have been in high demand around the city. So much so that the pop-up market venue and catering business might soon become a lot more permanent.
"We just had the idea in June or July of last year,” Lathan says. "So all this has happened pretty quickly. We always knew we had something great, and now it’s allowed us to start shoring up and looking for a permanent location.”