Gumbo is to Louisiana as clam chowder is to New England. And, if that doesn’t thoroughly explain how important this traditional soup is to the Bayou State, then perhaps the Cajun cuisine savvy Greg Dickinson, native Louisianian and front-of-house manager at L’Espalier, can.
Dickinson whips up a pot of his family’s traditional gumbo for staff dinner every now and then. And last week was one of those times, to be served to fellow employees before the New Orleans-hosted Super Bowl (Feb. 3) and Mardi Gras
(Feb. 12). Gumbo, which is said to mean “throw it in the pot,” is a dish with humble origins. It isn’t glamorous and it definitely isn’t couture cuisine. Although recipes are tailored for families large and small, the dish always calls for inexpensive, simple, and seasonal ingredients. This philosophy of gumbo fits Dickinson’s Southern notions about cooking, and goes with L’Espalier’s tenets of local and fresh cuisine.
Dressed in jeans, leather top-siders, and a brown wool sweater, Dickinson, who has little trace of a Louisiana accent, looks comfortable in the industrial kitchen, though everyone else is in chef’s whites. Staff address him by his first name and peer over the pot of darkening roux, asking questions about the differences between gumbo and jambalaya. Hostess Winnie Williams says she will “never have a gumbo without okra,” and, though she hails from New York, claims to have a passion for the stew and other Southern specialties.
While prepping ingredients, Dickinson bursts out with Cajun colloquialisms like “Tonner, ca c’est bon!” (“By thunder, that’s good!”) and throws in a few Julia Child adages like “never crowd the pan.” He says that there is “something cathartic about being over a stove,” and tells a story about his grandmother’s ambrosia salad, which spilled on the floorboard of her car and was served anyway. Ever since it’s been called “floorboard salad.”
Born and raised in Baton Rouge,
Dickinson credits several family members for his gumbo expertise, including his mother, Dot, who has a master’s in home economics and writes a food blog
(Weekdayrambler.com), and his father, John, who grows okra in their backyard at home.
But his father’s grandmother, Hortense, influenced him the most. Her great-grandson says she could feed more than 30 people with a single chicken in her pot of gumbo, and dismissed the worry of unexpected dinner guests simply by saying, “put a little more water in the pot.” Dickinson adopted this laissez-faire approach to cooking and first attempted gumbo as a college student seeking out a cheap but filling meal.
He originally moved north to study classical music at the New England Conservatory and decided to stay on to pursue his interest in wine. He completed the wine studies program at Boston University and obtained another certification through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in New York. Dickinson began at L’Espalier in 2007, first as a waiter. He has tried to learn more cooking techniques from owner and chef Frank McClelland.
Last week, McClelland, who also owns neighboring Sel de la Terre in Back Bay, announced that restaurant closed on Jan 28. McClelland’s statement, which said the Natick location is not affected, gave no reasons for the closing. McClelland did not return calls to explain the situation and Dickinson, who says he’s sad about it and had no idea until it was announced, was otherwise mum on the subject.
But he has plenty to say about what’s in his pot. There are few rules to making gumbo and recipe variations are often a heated topic of debate in kitchens where it is made, even in Louisiana. Some recipes call for tomatoes, others do not, some for seafood instead of chicken or sausage; it seems that every cook has an opinion about the ingredients for the flour and fat sauce base.
One thing most gumbo makers agree on is using a roux. A roux is a heated mixture of flour and some form of fat, such as butter, oil, or meat renderings, and this mixture, stirred for 20 minutes or sometimes longer, forms the foundation for a traditional Louisiana gumbo. Roux has French origins and helps in making other sauces, such as creamy bechamel and gravy-like veloute, but where the French favor a lightly colored roux, Cajun cuisine calls for a dark, rich, and nutty base cooked low and slow. As Dickinson says, “gumbo is a dish you make on laundry day,” since it sits on the stove and simmers for hours, but making the roux is the one part of the dish that requires constant attention from the cook. Or as a native might say, roux requires you to “take care of business beforehand.”
In the back corner of L’Espalier’s kitchens, Dickinson begins by searing chicken legs and thighs and Italian sausage (traditional Cajun andouille sausage is difficult to find in New England so he compensates with extra spices). He removes the browned meat from the pan. Next, the roux. Dickinson adds more oil to the pan and gingerly sprinkles flour over it. He quickly whisks the mixture, toasting each tiny grain of flour until it reaches his precise state of roux doneness. This, he says, can also vary from cook to cook, but in his opinion, the darker the better. Dickinson refers to the various shades of roux as if they were other delectable ingredients: starting with light peanut butter, then hazelnut, then the color of pecan pie, and lastly, rich chocolate pudding.
Once the roux has reached the right stage, Dickinson folds in the holy trinity of vegetables — onion, green bell pepper, and celery — along with spices such as bay leaves and dried thyme. The meat, broth, and other liquids join the pot and begin the slow and low simmering process. This big pot will take more than three hours. Dickinson serves the final product with plain white rice; he prefers jasmine for its fragrance, cooked with a ladle or two of the gumbo liquid.
Later that afternoon, when it’s time for staff dinner, the manager is dressed in a dapper suit complete with pocket square, and finds more employees than he planned for.
Taking a page from his great-grandmother’s book, he adds a little more water to the pot.