Lil’ Dizzy’s Café
1500 Esplanade Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70116
610 Poydras St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
“Gumbo is the soup of New Orleans with soul in it." – Wayne Baquet
Wayne Baquet’s New Orleans roots grow two hundred years deep, and his family’s history in the restaurant business there is three generations strong. Wayne thought about leaving the business in 2004, when he sold Zachary’s, a restaurant once known for its fried chicken and Sunday brunches in the Carrolton neighborhood. But his passion for the food of his Creole heritage runs deep: soon he was opening a Lil’ Dizzy’s Café in the Treme neighborhood, and then another one in the Central Business District. The Creole filé gumbo ladled out at Lil’ Dizzy’s is the same gumbo that his family has been serving at its restaurants for decades. It builds upon a pre-made, seasoned, dry roux mix that Wayne and his father developed so that they could reproduce the essence of their gumbo anywhere they traveled, be it to another family restaurant or a family reunion.
Listen to this two–minute audio clip of Wayne Baquet talking about the rules of making a Creole gumbo.[Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.]
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original
interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire
transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Wayne Baquet
Date: July 17, 2007
Location: Poydras Street—New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Sara Roahen
Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Tuesday, July 17, 2007 and I am in New Orleans, Louisiana. Could I get you to state your name and your birth date and how you make your living, please?
Wayne Baquet: My name is Wayne Baquet, Sr. I was born May 3, 1947, and I’m in the restaurant business, and I’ve been in the restaurant business for 40 years. And the name of my—my current restaurant is Lil’ Dizzy’s Café.
Before we get to your historical background, can you tell me how that name came about?
Sure. I’ve had several restaurants, several different names, and one of the restaurants was named after my grandson, Zachary Baquet, and it was called Zachary’s, and I had that restaurant for like 13 years. And—got an opportunity to step back, because I was doing lunch and dinner, and just to back off—got a good sale and sold it. And then I got restless and wanted to open up another restaurant, and I wanted to come up with another name. So I found a location on Esplanade and North Robertson Street in Treme and—and in the process of getting it the way I wanted it to I had to talk to my grandson, Zachary. And I called and I got a message on his cell phone and he said, You got me, it’s Lil’ Dizzy. And I said, Perfect. This will work just fine. And then I called him and I said, Well you know, I know you play the trumpet and is that your nickname: Lil’ Dizzy? And he said, Sure, that’s my nickname because I do pretty well on the trumpet and they named me—all my friends call me Lil’ Dizzy after Dizzy Gillespie. So that’s how we named the restaurant Lil Dizzy’s.
That’s a good story. Can you tell me a little bit about your heritage, your family background?
My heritage, my family background is that my family—I could trace my family roots in the Baquet family back 200 years in New Orleans. We’ve had quite a few musicians in the family, so we come from a musical background family. In fact, George Baquet, who is my father’s uncle, is—and Charles Baquet, my grandfather’s brother, is one of the originators of jazz. He was Sydney Bechet’s teacher. Also his sister, Eda Baquet Gross, got us all started in the restaurant business in 1947, when it was a place called Paul Gross Chicken Shack, where we was famous for our fried chicken. And until this day we’re still famous for our fried chicken. And I’ve taken the name to a new level, because my father opened up his restaurant called Eddie’s, and actually I was a college student at the time, and I was there to open it up with him, and since then I’ve opened up 11 additional restaurants. So I’ve been quite busy in my last 40 years of running restaurants.
And I know you have several siblings who are in various professions. Was it always clear to you that you were drawn to the restaurant business?
I think it was clear for me from, just about from the beginning. I even told the story to some of my friends this morning, how I planned my senior prom, rented a hall, and got the food catered, and so that we could have a private party for us and our dates back—and that was in 1965. So I guess you could say it’s always been in my blood. I think I went through a period there where I wanted to get away from it, when I first got married and it was just a little bit too much for me. And I got away from it for a couple of years and then realized this is—this is my calling.
Your family is Creole, New Orleans Creole. Can you define that for me?
Sure, I’d be glad to. The real Creole people of New Orleans is a mixture of the French, Spanish, American Indian, and African, because these are the people that inhabited New Orleans back in the day. And they had to intermingle to survive, and that’s what happened. That’s why when you come to New Orleans, you see black folks with all these different colors. Some of them you can't even tell what they are. Some of them look Oriental, some of them look white, some of them look black, you know, all mixtures of colors because of this total mixture, this melding pot mixture, this gumbo of people that we have including—and then as time went on, we even had the Italian input, you know. So all of that mixed together—these are the people in New Orleans, and that’s what I am—me and my family result—that’s what the Creole people are.
And how about Creole food? How would you define that?
Creole food is the food, the product of Creole people. And that’s—that’s exactly how you define it. It—it evolved. It’s taking food and having a passion for food, and that’s what we do. We do things here that you can't do and can't find anyplace else. We make our own sausages, we make our own stews, gumbos and jambalaya and stuffed peppers, and if you travel anywhere else outside of New Orleans you can't find it. You can go to Baton Rouge and you can't even find our French bread the way we do it here. Leidenheimer’s French bread—you see because we’re below sea-level, we’re able to bake the best bread. You can go to France and you can't find bread like we have here in New Orleans. So, and—and you do know that gumbo is an African word. It means okra. So you know gumbo is one of our main dishes. You know we—we don’t open up one of our restaurants without having gumbo.
Can you describe Lil’ Dizzy’s gumbo for me?
I’ll describe Lil’ Dizzy’s gumbo as the best gumbo, period, in New Orleans. I’ll put it up against any gumbo at any of the big houses, all the big chefs. This gumbo was perfected by my father and the—the strategy was that we would make the roux ahead of time, and we would take the roux and bag it up so that all of the gumbo tasted the same wherever we went. And it has worked for me over the years. So whether I open up an Eddie’s or a Zachary’s or a Lil Dizzy’s, we have the gumbo mix roux that will make it taste the same all the time. If everybody would follow their instructions, it would be perfect.
So you mean you make the dry roux without the—without oil or with the oil?
We make the dry roux without oil, okay. We take it and we bake it in the oven with all the different seasonings that we put with it, and we bake it in the oven. You just baste it with a little—a little oil, but you don’t—it’s not a wet rue. It’s a dry roux. You bake it. When you start off, it’s a flour that’s white. When you finish, you bake it to the color that you want it to be and then you take it and you bag it up or container it up. And then you take and the next—and when you have to make gumbo, you put a pot of water on and throw the mix in there and stir it up good, throw all your ingredients in, and let it cook down and—boom, you have gumbo.
And what else is in your gumbo here?
Well we—the way we make our gumbo, we put crab, shrimp, our own homemade hot sausage that we make, smoked sausage and ham. Those are the ingredients that we put. Those are the—what we put in the gumbo. Now sometimes during the Lenten season, when we have to have a seafood gumbo, then we’ll change that around. We use the same roux, but we’ll use oysters, shrimp, crab and crawfish, and eliminate all of the meats. But on a normal basis we—we have a mixture of meat and seafood in the gumbo.
Do you use okra or filé in your gumbo?
You can't mix okra and filé. According to the laws of New Orleans gumbo-making, you don’t mix those two things together. So we do an okra gumbo sometimes, and sometimes we do a filé gumbo, but we don’t mix it. The okra gumbo is not made from that roux; it’s made from another recipe that we have. But our gumbo, our signature gumbo is our filé gumbo. Our okra gumbo is very good, but the gumbo that everybody comes to get everyday, seven days a week, is our Creole filé gumbo.
Can you tell me at what point you put the filé in?
At the end. It’s the last thing—after you cook everything now and you’ve got just the right texture and color and you want—and the filé is going to thicken it. That’s your thickener, so you add your filé at the end and stir it in and then that’s the finished product.
When you were growing up, who did the cooking in your house, and what was that gumbo like?
The two best cooks—the three best cooks I know are my wife, my mom, and my mother-in-law. So when I was growing up, contrary to what people believe, my dad was a mail carrier who went into the restaurant business with his aunt, but my mom was the cook. She cooked everything. And she can really cook, you understand. So she cooks everything from scratch, and that’s the way she wants to do it. My mother-in-law doesn’t cook anymore, but she lives with me and my wife and—but my wife learned how to cook from her, and I would say 90-percent of the recipes that we use—the pot recipes that we use in the restaurant— are recipes from my wife, because that’s the way it evolved. And it was my decision, being the restaurateur, to make a decision about what recipes we were going to use, you know. For example, crawfish bisque is a lost art. When we decided to start doing crawfish bisque some 19 years ago in the Jazz and Heritage Festival—that’s how long we’ve been doing crawfish bisque—in that particular festival I had to use my grandmother’s recipe, which my mom had to cook for us, which was crawfish bisque in a brown gravy, which is the original way it was fixed. And then my wife’s recipe, which she got from her mother, which was crawfish bisque in a light Creole gravy—not a real tomato gravy but a light Creole gravy. And I made the choice that the one in the light Creole gravy was better, and that’s the one that we use.
What neighborhood did you grow up in?
I grew up in what you call Treme, the Sixth Ward—the Treme area, St. Peter Claver. I know that don’t mean anything to you. St. Augustine. You know right—right around where my Lil’ Dizzy’s is at on Esplanade, but I was closer to Broad Street. I was—I grew up on Rocheblave Street between Dumaine and Saint Ann, and you could walk to St. Peter Claver, nine blocks to St. Peter Claver or three blocks to the Carver Theater, you know everything. You walked everywhere, you know, because not everybody had cars back then. But a great old mixed neighborhood, a really nice mixed old neighborhood—that’s where I grew up at.
What about rules of gumbo? You said earlier that you never marry okra and filé in the same gumbo. What would you say some other rules are?
Well that’s—that’s definitely an ongoing rule, and the reason why I said that is because a lot of folks come from out of town, like these companies like Arrow-Sysco and all of that, and they come in and they sell people different mixtures that’s got okra and filé mixed together. So we don’t do that. Other rules of gumbo is that it’s got to be rich and robust. Can't be watery, can't be watered down. All versions of Creole gumbo are very similar. You got the similar texture, thickness, you know. I mean some other people that come in and try to do things and make a gumbo with too heavy a roux, and it’s tasting more like a roast beef gravy with meat and seafood in it—people make that mistake. That’s a big one, you know. I’ll be honest with you: I find, unfortunately, that a lot of the restaurants in New Orleans now, I don’t like their gumbo. I don’t know why it has evolved as such. But I—I won't even mention any names, but like I went out to dinner about three weeks ago to one of the major restaurants—me and my wife—and one of the guys that was playing music who’s got—an old musician who has been playing for years at all of the big houses. He told me, he said, Why don’t you go back there and show those people how to cook some gumbo? I said, Man, I can't do that. I just won't order their gumbo, that’s all. [Laughs]
When you were growing up and used—people used filé in their gumbo, did you get that at the grocery store or did you know people who were grinding their own sassafras?
Oh, we knew people that was grinding their own. You know they would bring it to us from the country and all that stuff. So it wasn’t no big item in the grocery store, I guess. By the time I got to be 15 or 16 or 17, then you—even when I was growing up, they didn’t even have supermarkets. They had, you know they had one supermarket called Schwegmann’s, but other than that it was the corner grocery store, and the corner grocery store would get that fresh filé, you know from wherever it is that they would get it from. Different people did it different ways, you know, and we’d also—. See, the old way that they would take the sassafras leaves and—if you’ve ever seen it done—and you take this big wooden block and it’s got a big cavity in it, and you put the leaves down in there and you pound it and pound it and pound it until it becomes more like a powder—that’s fresh filé, you know.
It seems like it’s really hard to come by these days, the fresh kind.
If you look enough you could find it. It’s like finding fresh okra and different things. It’s like making sure you keep with the tradition of—keeping—when you’re cooking your gumbo or you’re cooking your seafood, that you’re using Louisiana products. Like we use Louisiana shrimp you know. We don’t short-change that. Or we use Louisiana oysters and you know—and our own homemade hot sausage, and our own Chisesi ham and things like that. All—all of that is very important, and when you leave and try to go someplace else, that’s why it’s so hard to cook, you know. I mean you can't even find pickle meat in Atlanta. You can't find pickle meat. You can't have red beans or white beans without—or greens—without pickle meat, you know.
So you mentioned you make your own hot sausage. Does that go in the gumbo?
That goes in the gumbo. This is a recipe that Janet and I—my wife and I—created maybe 25 years ago when we had a problem getting a hot sausage that we liked with consistency. So in—in our kitchen we created our own hot sausage recipe, just with ground meat and ground pork and different seasonings and onions and garlic and all that good stuff, and we created our own hot sausage, and we’ve been rolling with it ever since. And it definitely is something that goes in the gumbo. In fact, people comment on it all the time: Where did you get that hot sausage from? I said, Well we made it, you know.
Can you tell me if you—is there a difference in your mind between the definition of Creole food and soul food?
Oh there’s definitely a difference between Creole food and soul food, without a doubt. Creole food is soul food. It’s the soul food of New Orleans. But to—there’s a total difference between Creole cooking and soul food. Down home soul food cooking we don’t do. We don’t do chitterlings, okay. We don’t do ox-tails. We don’t do pig-tails, and we won't do those things. Those things are soul, down home Soul food, you know. We—all the things we do are New Orleans Creole things. Like stuffed peppers, jambalaya, crawfish bisque, crawfish pies. So there’s a distinct difference between what we do and what is strictly soul food.
So maybe there’s a difference between New Orleans soul food then and just Southern soul food. Is that right?
That’s exactly what I’m saying. New Orleans soul food is Creole food. I call our cooking Creole soul, because it’s the soul food of New Orleans. Technically it’s Creole food—it’s Creole food. It’s not soul food technically. And it’s totally and completely different from regular soul food, as I just explained. I mean if you go into some markets that are in a suppressed neighborhood, you know what I’m saying, and they’re selling to poor folks and you go into that market, you may have a 15-foot display of all of those things that are high cholesterol: pig-tail, pig-feet, everything on the pig, you understand, tripe and all that stuff. That—that’s not Creole food. We don’t—I’ve never eaten any of that. I’ve never—never even eaten any of that stuff. Never will.
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in PDF form, please click here.
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