Real Gumbo is Whatever You Grew Up With
When it comes to the official state food of Louisiana, Chef Allison Richard has a message for those who might question using okra and tomato in the big pot: “Anyone who says this isn’t gumbo can lick my spoon.”
Richard is a chef, manager, and owner of the High Hat Café, a neighborhood restaurant on Freret Street known for its Southern cuisine.
“Gumbo is such a strange dish,” she says, “It’s a little like mole: If you don’t grow up with it, can you really make it? That’s how I look at it.”
She says that okra and tomato gumbo has been in her family for a very long time. “It comes from my mom’s side, which is the Hebert side. My grandmother lived in Pointe-aux-Chenes, which is way down south of Houma on your way to Dulac. We would eat it when we were younger.” One catch: The gumbo does not have a roux in it. “I was like, is this really gumbo, Mom?” to which her mom replied, “People put shrimp and sausage together in a gumbo, Allison. They can put tomatoes and no roux in it, too!”
Ultimately, says Richard, gumbo is just a “soup with a bunch of stuff in it.” It’s not a stew because it shouldn’t be that thick. “It should still have some viscosity. But you can absolutely make a gumbo without roux if you have the right texture and the right technique.”
Growing up around such foods—and particularly Cajun, Creole, and Southern cuisine—is how chefs and home cooks really come to understand their dishes on an intuitive level. She calls mole—the variety of complex sauces found in traditional Mexican cuisine—a good point of comparison because, unless you’ve lived your whole life around it, it can be hard to understand the nuances beyond the variations in ingredients.
“It’s a mixture of peppers and chocolate and seasonings, and you can understand the techniques and the background of it, and how to make it, but someone who grew up with it will just know when you get it wrong.” Gumbo, she says, is the same way. If you grew up with it, you get it, and can deviate from the traditional methods with greater ease because of your fluency with the dish.
Richard definitely grew up making gumbo. She was born 50 miles south of New Orleans, in Raceland, a town on Bayou Lafourche (and the birthplace of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Aaron Loup). Her mom and dad worked a lot, so home cooking wasn’t always a top priority. Her grandmothers, both of whom had raised several kids, always had something on the stove, however. And quite often, that something was gumbo.
Every gumbo is unique, of course. The debates over what a gumbo is and isn’t could fill a book (and do, in fact, fill this issue of Rouses Magazine). But Richard’s grandmothers’ gumbos were very, very different. In fact, when they visited her maternal grandmother, her mom would warn her before they went inside: “Don’t ask what’s in it. Just eat it. It’s going to be good, but do not ask what is in it.”
Richard says of her grandmother: “She was known for just taking just about anything and putting it in a stew, in a fricassee, in a gumbo—you name it. So I’ve been around a multitude of things because of her.”
Her culinary skills as a young person were further enhanced at home. “My mom was a nurse, and she worked long hours, and so I would start dinner before she got home,” she says. “My mom would leave little instructions like, ‘boil the pasta’ and ‘cut the potatoes’—stuff like that.”
When she was old enough to go to college, Richard went to Louisiana State University and majored in psychology. It was her first week of graduate school for social work, however, when she had an epiphany: She hated it.
That day, she went to Thibodaux (right next to Raceland) and enrolled at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, the home of Louisiana’s only four-year culinary arts program.
She had cooked previously in restaurants that no one would describe as prestigious. “I cooked at a Moe’s Southwest Grill, which is like a Mexican Subway, where you come in and order a burrito and choose your toppings down the line,” she says. Next, she worked the “front of the house”—the host and server side—at a Buffalo Wild Wings. She got a job as a cook at a Counter Culture, which is a yogurt shop that serves sandwiches.
The day she quit school, she knew only that she liked to cook.
“I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into!” she says. “It turned out to be the best thing that I could have ever done.”
She lived with one of her grandmothers while at culinary school. She went to France for a four-month summer intensive. “As much as you learn in school, you learn way more by just traveling and eating,” says Richard.
While in culinary school, fate connected her with Frank Brigtsen, the legendary New Orleans chef and master of gumbo who owns the Uptown establishment, Brigtsen’s Restaurant. Over his fifty-year career, he has won innumerable awards and championed New Orleans culture and cuisine.
“He’s like the king, right?” says Richard. “The king of New Orleans cooking.”
Next, she worked for famed chef Susan Spicer at Mondo in Lakeview. After such intense experiences with two of the top chefs in the city, and at some of the best restaurants, Richard needed a break. She moved to Natchez, Mississippi. “It was a soul-searching kind of experiment,” she says, “and it helped me realize what it was I liked about cooking.”
The early years in any aspiring chef’s career, she explains, are about learning and refining the techniques of the culinary arts. Only then is one able to focus on what he or she really likes. This is where she really came to find a love and appreciation of Southern cuisine in general—with gumbo high on the list. “It’s comfortable,” she explains. “It was always there for me. My mom cooks what she knew, which was Cajun cooking. If you’re sick, here’s gumbo. So those sorts of dishes, each one has memories attached to it.”
While in Natchez, Richard was on the opening teams for a couple of new restaurants there, and she learned that she enjoyed helping members of the cooking staff—especially those in the hardest jobs, like fry cooks—find their passion for cuisine, and to lean into the hard jobs because those are the ones that matter immensely.
“When you are cooking in New Orleans, customers know what food is supposed to taste like. To cook for the city of New Orleans is one of the proudest things you can do in your life because this is a city that knows food,” she says.
When she returned to the city, she took a job for Chef Adolfo Garcia, who she knew from culinary school, and worked her way up the ranks at High Hat Cafe, first to sous chef and then chef.
In March 2020, the COVID quarantine restrictions were like a wrecking ball through the service industry, and High Hat was affected like everywhere else. Richard and a handful of the management staff keep the restaurant going, switching exclusively to take-out orders. When one of the front-of-house managers decided to leave the service industry, Richard took over the job so that High Hat would not have to lay off its sous chefs in order to hire from outside the company.
“I thought it would be momentary—maybe six months or something like that,” she says. It ended up being permanent. “I really enjoy the front of the house, but the kitchen still calls me.”
She calls High Hat her last restaurant. “I’m not going anywhere,” she says. “I’ll do whatever I need to do to make this restaurant work. Out in the front I am, but I still get to cook on the reg.”
One of the items on High Hat’s menu? Gumbo, of course. And yes, it is made with a roux—but as Allison Richard will tell you, it doesn’t have to be.