May 11, 2021

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Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Gumbo Recipe from the Red Rooster Is Next-Level Comfort

The first time Marcus Samuelsson ate a bowl of gumbo, he was sitting at a table inside New Orleans’ famed Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. Next to him was legendary chef Leah Chase, who helmed the restaurant from 1946, when she and her husband Edgar “Dooky” Chase II took it over, until her death in 2019.

Samuelsson, the acclaimed Swedish-Ethiopian chef behind New York’s Red Rooster and Ginny’s Supper Club, among others, emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s. Early on, Chase became one of his mentors. Her decades of experience both as a chef and a leader in her community, which earned her the unequivocal moniker as the Queen of Creole Cuisine and recognition as a civil rights icon, proved invaluable to Samuelsson.

“She came to my restaurant often and guided me,” says the chef, whose latest cookbook, The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, celebrates the contributions of Black chefs, including Chase, to American food culture. “She talked about how it was to be a Black lady opening Dooky Chase in [1946] when Black and white people couldn’t eat together. She’s seen the Civil Rights movement, she’s seen Hurricane Katrina, she’s seen everything.”

The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food

Through it all, Chase was serving Creole comfort food, including gumbo—a dish that, Samuelsson asserts, is as iconic in American food culture as mac and cheese or fried chicken. One bite of her okra-and-shrimp stew is all it takes to transport him back to Chase’s dining room in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood.

“Eating her gumbo, going to Dooky Chase many times, cooking at Dooky Chase—her voice is clear to me still to this day,” he says. “I don’t know if there’s a dish that represents a city better than gumbo. When you taste the sausage against the okra against the seafood, you taste New Orleans.”

Though he didn’t grow up eating gumbo, Samuelsson says that the dish offers a special kind of comfort nonetheless, beyond being a fantastic antidote to cold weather. When he considers what comfort food has meant throughout his life, he looks to three different places: the Ethiopian food his wife makes, the Swedish meatballs and fish dishes he grew up with, and the “comfort food of Harlem that has that migration, Southern narrative.”

“Being an American and being an immigrant, the fact that we can express ourselves through food—food is identity, right?” he says. “When you come as an immigrant or you’re a person of color, the past is very nonlinear because we had to make do with very simple ingredients. Sometimes we move to a place where comfort food changes. In The Rise I really explain that Black food in this country is not monolithic. There’s many different entry points to it.”

While gumbo’s exact origins are unknown, its ingredients are representative of the city’s history and diversity. That includes the okra brought to North America by enslaved Africans, the traditional French andouille sausage, and the ground sassafras leaves found in Choctaw cuisine.

“When you understand gumbo, you also understand America and New Orleans,” says Samuelsson. “There are French techniques, there are African techniques, there’s Haitian and Spanish influence in it. That’s why Creole cooking is so unique.”

This winter try Samuelsson’s tribute to Dooky Chase’s iconic gumbo at home and enjoy a comforting taste of New Orleans’ rich and vibrant culture.

While some gumbo recipes are made from a roux base, Samuelsson’s forgoes the flour altogether, starting instead with the holy trinity of Creole cuisine: onion, celery and bell peppers. A recipe for shrimp and grits with gumbo sauce in honor of Red Rooster executive chef Ed Brumfield, whose father is a Louisiana native, is also featured in The Rise. It starts off with this same technique.

“His Papa Ed’s Gumbo is a legend at Red Rooster,” says Samuelsson. “It’s that idea of using the trinity—onion, peppers, and celery—and then adding in sausage and seafood and okra, and building this layer stew that is so delicious.”

From there, you’ll add in flavorful and fatty chorizo, which will render its fat to enrich and provide texture to the base of the stew. The liquid ingredients—fish and chicken stocks, apple cider vinegar and crushed tomatoes—will cook down and thicken with a little help from the dish’s two star ingredients…

Gumbo is often divided into two camps: okra gumbo or filé gumbo, depending on the thickening agent used. Samuelsson, however, uses both. “We wanted to show exactly those two different points,” he says.

The first known appearance of the dish is on a menu for a gubernatorial reception in New Orleans in 1803, according to the Southern Foodways Alliance. Various iterations of the dish are then featured in recipe books published later in the 19th century, some using okra and others not. There is reason to believe, though, that it was a key player from the beginning, as the word “gumbo” is likely derived from ki ngombo, a West African Bantu term for okra.