Sunday, January 27, 2013

FINALLY GUMBO Part 1

FINALLY GUMBO, Part 1

There was a time in my life when I made gumbo every week.  Big pots of gumbo.  Gallons and gallons  of gumbo.  For nearly six years I ran the kitchens of two N'Awlins style restaurants in San Francisco, of all places; back to back and year butted up against year. When I started making it I thought I knew a little bit about what gumbo was all about and when I finally stopped making it with huge regularity I had come to realize that I was just learning what gumbo was all about.

Like a lot of cooks of my generation, I came into what we all used to call Cajun cooking (even though it really wasn't Cajun cooking at all) courtesy of Paul Prudhomme.  There was a food revolution going on (yeah, remember THAT?) and the places where I worked, which just happened to be Berkeley, were in on what was happening out there on that once cutting edge.  Not only were we (and I'm generously lumping myself in here with Mark Miller, Jeremiah Tower, Jonathan Waxman, Bruce Aidells, and of course, Alice) doing our best to both push the borders, as well as discover the terroir, of what we were cooking, we were also aware that there were cooks and chefs Just Like Us who were doing it in their own necks of the woods.

Nobody discovered regional cooking, it was always there.  In many cases, however, it had been buried, or set aside like a boring old book, while different directions and options were pursued.  It did seem, however, that an unspoken and underground movement sprung up nearly simultaneously all over the country and suddenly we, the cooks, were aware that there was something abrewing nearly everywhere  we looked.  And a lot of these cooks were re-evaluating the foods that the folks around them had been eating all their lives.

Despite the fact that it may indeed have been the one single place that stayed most in touch with its roots, New Orleans became a flashing red light at that time on just about everyone's dashboard and a lot of that was do to Chef Paul Prudhomme.  He was just a big ol' quiet shy country boy (and yes, he is/was Cajun) who happened to make his way into a Big Time kitchen in N'Awlins and just happened to, because he loved the cuisine, start tweaking it to the point where it caught the attention of people who cared.

I met Chef Paul in the kitchen of the 4th St. Grill in Berkeley where he'd come to visit the Chef I was working for, Mark Miller.  At that time, even in his pre-Coyote Cafe days, Mark was making a name for himself by cooking with chiles that no one had ever heard of and was just beginning to push the edge of the palates of the dining public.  4th St. Grill was a stop-off point for other chefs around the country who were just as curious about what we were doing as we were about them.  I stood in a bit of a daze and eavesdropped as they talked gumbo, how to make the right black roux, what sauce debris was and a whole lot of other arcane knowledge.

I was transfixed and knew immediately that I wanted to learn a whole lot more about cooking that kind of food.  I set off buying every New Orleans cookbook I could find (and there weren't a whole lot of them out there at the time).  I absconded with a Brennan's cookbook from the 60's that my dad had brought home from a business trip years before and also latched onto The New Orleans Cookbook by Richard Collin and one or two others.  I had a few side trips, but by 1983 I had a chef's job in the Napa Valley where we did a week celebrating a local New Orleans Jazz Festival and I had a week to cook and serve my version of the food I'd been digging into.

What that week of cooking did was open my eyes to the complexity and diversity of the cuisine.  I realized that there was a WHOLE lot more to all of this than slinging some red-spiced fish into a blazing hot pan.  I made marchand du vin sauce, I found a source for "real"andouille",  I learned about tasso and muffalettas and etoufee, AND, I made my first batches of gumbo.  At the time I thought they were good.  They weren't, not really, but they were okay.

Roll the film forward somewhat slowly and you see me working in restaurants in and around the SF Bay Area and putting my New Orleans leanings on hold for a spell.  But as my career began to run its course I found myself living nearly around the corner from the Elite Cafe in San Francisco.   The Elite had been the first restaurant in the City to devote itself entirely to the cuisine of New Orleans and it was a hotbed of blackened redfish.   But by the time I started going there the Elite had been open for nearly 12 or 13 years and was beginning to show signs of wear and tear.  My ex and I would go in during softshell crab season and I would look around from my seat at the ancient counter and think, "If I was the Chef here. . . ".

Naturally, I ended up as the Chef of the Elite.   I got hired at the Elite Cafe in Spring of 1994 in attempt to get it back "on track" numbers-wise, and to drag it kicking and screaming into the 90's.  I had the very good fortune to inherit a good kitchen crew, chief among them, a sous-chef, Steve Harlow, who took his gumbo making very seriously.  So began a five year stretch of my life in which I made or participated in making at least 15 gallons of gumbo every single week.

WHAT I LEARNED/WHAT I NOW KNOW

It was my opinion in early 1994 that I knew how to make a pretty good batch of gumbo.   I hadn't made it in large quantities on a regular basis, but I had made some 5 gallon pots of it that I thought were pretty darn good.   I knew how to make a dark roux and I knew how to throw the Holy Trinity (onions, bell peppers and celery) in on top of it along with stock, andouille sausage, garlic and some hot stuff to make it gumbo-like.   What I had no appreciation for, or even understanding of, at that time, was how gumbo was made up of layers and layers of flavor.   And not knowing that, I certainly had no idea of how to go about getting/creating something I didn't even know existed.

When I started work as Chef at the Elite Cafe I learned quickly that most of the cooking, the "setting of flavors" was done in the daytime.  At night it was busy; way too busy to do anything but fry popcorn shrimp, flash highly-seasoned filets of fish in a cast iron skillet, slam out plate after plate with the same potato/veggie combo and then do it again, all night long.   It was in the daytime, however, when Mr. Harlow, who had been at the Elite close to when it opened and had returned several years before I arrived put together the gumbo, the etouffee, the red beans and rice, all the desserts, all the stuffings and all the sauces.

When a chef or cook makes the same dishes each week, often on the same day of the week for weeks, then months on end, one of two things can happen:  either the chef/cooks grows weary and unchallenged by the roteness of it and either he suffers or the food suffers and often both flag in their freshness and flavor; the second is that the chef/cook can begin to see the nuances, the oddities, the changes, the aberrations that can occur from one batch to the next, no matter how minute or non-earthshaking they may be.

What happened at the Elite is that once Steve Harlow and I began working together, the Gumbo Discussions began.   We began speculating on what made gumbo gumbo; what made it taste right, taste good and what might or might not give it the complexity we both knew it should have.  What I brought to the Gumbo Discussions was a serious and classical cook's background in how flavors were developed.  I knew about reductions and infusions, roasting for flavor and kitchen techniques that had been the building blocks of flavor for years.  I had also made gumbo in five or six different restaurants and received varying criticisms in those restaurants.  What Steve brought was an artist's mind and palate, years of experience of having made the gumbo, loyalty to something he was proud of, and a philosophy fueled by the first Elite Cafe Chef, Thomas Brown, who described the need for the gumbo roux to be "as black as your arm if your arm was black".

Week in, week out we opened that kitchen at 7:30 AM, put on anything from Coltrane to Hendrix, from Hank Williams and George Jones to Arthur Alexander on the battered tapedeck and set about making the foundation of the Elite Cafe's flavors.   We made gumbo on Wednesday, etouffee on Thursday, red beans when they were needed.   I took over the pie crusts but Steve still made the fillings.  He made creamed spinach and on Friday he made our famous filet hash.  On Tuesday's we cooked 150#s of baby back ribs and at least twice a week made the accompanying BBQ sauce.

I changed a few things right away because that's what I had wanted to do back when I had sat at the worn counter stools and eaten things I didn't like, but most of it either stayed the same or evolved slowly.  All of it was up for discussion.  What changed most over my three and a half years though, albeit slowly, almost imperceptibly if you were a guest, was the gumbo.  It got richer and deeper; smoother, yet edgier.  We started roasting the andouille and the okra on a sheet pan together before we added them to the base.  For a while we left out the celery.  For a while we added basil mixed in with green onions at the end.  After a while we began adding the vegetables in two layers, one at the beginning and one two or three hours into the cooking process.

It was never Cajun gumbo, or Creole gumbo, or even New Orleans gumbo, because every single gumbo is different.  But what it was, at the end of that time we spent together, was a damn good gumbo, one that I know I was proud of.  And I'm sure it changed even more when the next Chef, who was actually from Louisiana and had some mighty strong opinions about gumbo, came aboard.  I moved on to yet another Louisiana-style restaurant, Belle Roux, where I got to create my own menu and banish all those things that the Elite had made me hold on to.  I made the gumbo each week in a style very similar to the one Steve Harlow and I had talked about and experimented on so many times.  And then I started to tweak it all on my own.  I still do every time I make it.




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Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me


This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
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Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.