Gumbo with a Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark Roux
“Gumbo is such an opinionated dish,” says Chef Eric Cook, the owner of the restaurants Gris-Gris on Magazine Street and Saint John on Decatur Street in New Orleans. “If you had to pick one food in New Orleans, the number-one most scrutinized, debated, argued dish would be gumbo. Everyone believes theirs is the right one, and everyone believes theirs is the most traditional gumbo ever.”
After 30 years in the New Orleans restaurant industry, Cook has a few opinions of his own about the best way to make it.
“I’ve worked in New Orleans restaurants my entire life and my entire career, and I’ve made gumbo with every big restaurant in the city,” he says. Much of that time was making other people’s gumbo, whether from family recipes or the recipes from storied New Orleans chefs of the past. When Chef Cook planted his own flag, he looked for culinary inspiration west of the city.
“Our menus say ‘Paroisse de Vermilion -inspired.’ We make Vermilion Parish-inspired gumbo, which is way different than New Orleans gumbo,” he says. “Here, there’s a tendency toward seafood gumbos, okra, filé — that sort of thing. In Lafayette, it’s all about the roux. The dark, dark, dark, dark, dark roux. It’s not a thick stew, though. It’s a little lighter in consistency and way deeper in flavor.”
Seafood gumbo, he says, leads to something a little bit thicker, with a flavor profile that leans hard into its seafood stock, and the pronounced flavors and textures of shellfish, crabmeat and shrimp. “I’m not going to say it’s bad because I love a good seafood gumbo, I love eating half a crab out a gumbo. But for me, it should not be as thick, and not be as spicy. People can add their own hot sauce.”
For Cook, rather, simple is best when it comes to gumbo. “I think gumbo sometimes becomes overcomplicated because it has so many ingredients in it. For us, it’s simple: the trinity, sausage, chicken, a great stock and a great roux. That’s it, and that’s where we kind of draw the line. Like, this is what it is. Our gumbo speaks for itself. You can taste the sausage. You can taste the chicken. You get the roux. You understand its aroma, the aromatics, that deep, dark chicken stock. And it’s just simple and delicious, not overpowering. It’s something that you just remember forever once you eat it.”
Cook explains that chicken and andouille lend themselves to textures and flavor combinations in gumbo that are hard to beat. “We roast whole chickens for the gumbo,” he says. “Our roux is dark, dark, dark.” At Gris-Gris and Saint John, he and his kitchen team make a 48-hour chicken stock for the base of the gumbo. “We take chicken bones and put them in the oven until they almost burn, and we put them in the pot with some celery, some onions, some carrots, and we let the whole thing go for two days to get that dark, almost ‘holiday gravy’-smelling stock.”
In the gumbo itself, simplicity is his watchword. He adds celery, onion and bell pepper to the pot, and uses andouille. The “dark, dark, dark” roux and chicken stock go in, along with a little bit of Worcestershire, a little bit of Creole seasoning and a little bit of hot sauce — and that’s it. “We are not trying to overthink it. It’s simple things done extremely well,” he says.
The depth of the gumbo speaks for itself. “You can taste every little nuance, from that little bit of heat brought in by the sausage, to that dark, profound flavor of the roux. It’s a very straightforward approach to bringing about very complex, very deep layers of flavor.”
A few bright herbs go on top, some green onion, and the whole thing is brought together with Louisiana rice. This differs a bit from the Lafayette style of a potato salad-driven gumbo recipe. (“You know, I’m a big fan of potato salad, but in New Orleans it’s a tough sell,” Cook says.)
Since he first started making it, his recipe has been a benchmark in the New Orleans culinary world. “I haven’t touched this recipe in almost 20 years,” he says. “I don’t change it. I don’t venture out.”
New Orleans has stood for more than three centuries, and its unique history has forged the only real and overarching metropolitan cuisine in the United States ..
“Chicago can keep the hot dog, New York can have the pizza. California can have the avocado,” says Cook. “New Orleans has Creole. Our city is a melting pot of ethnic and generational influences — African, Haitian, Spanish, German, Italian, Asian, French. We have had so many different, powerful contributors to our cuisine, evolved over the last 300 years.”
Today we still feel a strong Creole influence, Cook explains. “It goes back to the French, when those big creams came in, and the butters came in, but that Cajun influence is still in town because everything here has always been a matter of availability.” The waters and woods around the city provided seafood and wild game for New Orleanians since the first nail went into the first frame of the first house here.
Because New Orleans is a port city, the influx of people both free and enslaved brought culinary influences together in ways unlike anywhere else in the world. “Africans and Haitians brought so many dishes into New Orleans that have now evolved into a staple culture ,” Cook says. Immigrants from every corner of the world in turn brought their own ideas of how to cook, and their own ingredients, and that likewise yielded new dishes of increasing elegance and sophistication.
“To be a chef in this city means to always be a teacher, and to always be a student,” says Chef Cook. “And always remember: You’re just a cook. The term ‘chef,’ to me, is just a leadership kind of role. I’m still learning every day, and I’m still teaching every day but it’s an obligation, I believe, because the culinary world is always changing and being influenced.”
American cities like New York are prone to culinary fads, and those fads radiate nationally. “What happens in New York is that new fads emerge at insanely expensive restaurants. But food is never a fad here. Ever. This is what we are. This is what we’ve always been. We were a food town before people knew what a food town was. And the preservation of that culture, the preservation of that history, the preservation of that story is essential.”
Traditional New Orleans cuisine is something you get at restaurants, but is also something that families make at home, and have keen and nuanced understandings of. Which is perhaps the main reason for the intensity of the gumbo discussion.
“On the Gulf Coast,, everyone’s got a gumbo recipe, and everyone’s grandmother’s recipe is better than everybody else’s,” Cooks explains. “The lines that cross over into family recipes — it’s like holy ground. So I always tell folks if I can be the second-best in Louisiana — if my gumbo’s almost as good as your grandma’s or your grandpa’s gumbo, then there is no better trophy for me in the world, because it’s such a family tradition, such a source of pride.”