March’s arrival signifies something of culinary significance in Kalamazoo: the return of the Gumbo Cook-off, in all its delicious glory.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the event, which features 24 local chefs presenting their finest gumbo and battling it out for the People’s Choice Award. The cook-off takes place from, 2-7 p.m. March 1 at Louie’s Trophy House Grill, 269 Walbridge St.. Tickets for all you can eat at the cook-off can be purchased for $20 at GotOkra.com, and all proceeds will benefit Loaves & Fishes, the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, Advocacy Services for Kids, Pretty Lake Vacation Camp and the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center.
All those brimming pots of gumbo goodness are inspiring, but making gumbo as a beginner can be intimidating — online forums are chock full of diverse and confusing directions, opinions and disagreements. Add tomato to a gumbo? Only above the Mason-Dixon line. Use okra, gumbo file or roux to thicken the stew? Depends on which tradition you follow. One indisputable fact seems to reign, though — no one makes a gumbo better than each opinionated gumbo lover’s mama.
For those wanting to try their hand at gumbo or looking to perfect their efforts, three local chefs and Gumbo Cook-off participants — Emilio Dacoba, owner of Mangia Mangia, 209 S. Kalamazoo Mall; Allen Worman, chef at Comensoli’s Italian Bistro & Bar, 762 W. Main St.; and Andy Havey, chef at Bold, 6915 West Q Ave.— have taken time to ladle out some tips, tricks and advice offered here.
Why does Allen Worman love gumbo?
“There’s a million different variations on it, and it’s basically peasant food,” he says. “For it to still be around today is just amazing, and gumbo gives you a chance to be creative.”
Worman, who has been cooking in the Gumbo Cook-Off for five years, says he learned how to cook gumbo while working at the House of Blues in Chicago.
“As part of our training, we were sent down South to learn all the classic gumbo preparation. I loved it — it was great.”
You might not have the resources to travel down South for gumbo school, but a good gumbo relies on the tastes and preferences of the cook, so finding a good starter recipe and tweaking it to fit your own taste is a good place to start.
Worman’s tip for finding a starter recipe?
“A Paul Prudhomme cookbook would actually be a good place to start,” he suggests. There are also Prudhomme gumbo recipes available online at ChefPaul.com. “He is the grandfather of Cajun cooking,” Worman says, “and he brought in the formalities that we know now.”
The importance of roux
Roux, roux, roux — there’s almost nothing more talked about in gumbo making than roux. All three chefs we talked to pointed to the importance of two main things when making gumbo: using quality stock and ingredients and taking time to hone your roux-making skills.
Roux, a flour and butter mixture slowly heated to a color ranging from blonde to chocolate brown, is the main thickener in gumbo and sets the tone for the flavor.
Andy Havey, a Gumbo Cook-off participant for six years, learned how to cook gumbo at a Cajun restaurant in Colorado after he graduated from culinary school. The sky is the limit on the ingredients you can add to a good gumbo, but any good recipe comes down to one thing, he says.
“In my opinion it’s all about the dark roux — that’s the basis of any good gumbo and that’s the trickiest part of the whole process. With cooking the roux, you have to mix the flour and butter to the right consistency and cook it for 20-30 minutes, constantly stirring it to avoid burning it. If you burn it, you impart that taste to the gumbo. It takes practice and patience.”
Make a gumbo yours
There’s nothing inherently difficult or complex about making gumbo — it’s a stew or soup that has roots in provincial cooking — and there’s something that compels people to love gumbo.
“It’s comfort food. There’s no doubt about it,” says Emilio Dacoba, who has been a part of the cook-off for seven years. “But when it’s made right, it engages all five flavor senses — sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (a savory taste). It’s a down-home cooking kind of food.”
In order to make gumbo your own “down-home cooking,” you’ll have to tweak the recipe with the spices you prefer, the cooking style you like best and the ingredients you love. Dacoba likens the process to perfecting a spaghetti sauce in Italy, and he has some pointers for how to do it.
“You have to trust your senses,” he says. “I think a lot of what goes into gumbo is the loving part of it — you want to make something that tastes great and has a richness and depth to it. You might not get it on the first try, but just keep making it and tweaking it and don’t forget to write down what you’re doing so you’ll remember. It’s a labor of love.”