701 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 524-4114 herbsaint.com
“If you make a roux—make a gumbo—and then at the very end throw in your meat and turn it off, that’s not gumbo, in my opinion. What makes gumbo gumbo is that all that stuff is put in earlier and has enough time to break down. That’s why it’s always better the second day. So all the components lend itself to the whole, and that’s what flavors it." – Donald Link
A native of Crowley, Louisiana, Donald Link began cooking when he was fifteen years old. After gaining some experience in local restaurants, Donald moved to San Francisco. There, he realized his passion for food and local ingredients. He attended the California Culinary Academy and honed his craft in various restaurants. Donald referred back to his native Louisiana for ideas and inspiration, building his reputation as a leading chef in the Bay Area. Eventually, though, his roots called him home. Donald moved to New Orleans and opened Herbsaint Restaurant in 2000. Five years later and only a handful of months after Hurricane Katrina, he opened his second restaurant, Cochon. Gumbo is served at both establishments. At Herbsaint, the menu allows for the gumbo to change regularly. At Cochon, Donald offers a Cajun-style chicken and andouille gumbo served with potato salad.
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: Donald Link
Date: March 21, 2007
Location: Herbsaint – New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Amy Evans
Amy Evans:This is Amy Evans on Wednesday, March 21, 2007 for the Southern Foodways Alliance in New Orleans, Louisiana, at Herbsaint with Chef Donald Link. And Donald, if you wouldn’t mind saying your name and also your birth date for the record.
Donald Link: Donald Link. Birthday July 18, 1969.
Okay. And we have a lot to talk about here today, but we’re here to talk first about boudin and then a little bit about gumbo. But first I want to kind of couch our discussion in some history of your family and—and your—your Cajun background.
My family is—my last name is Link, obviously, and my dad—that’s my dad’s last name, and his mom’s last name is Zaunbrecher [pronouncing this Zon-brecker]. It depends on where you come from; over there they call it Zaunbrecher [Zon-breaker]; in Germany it’s Zaunbrecher[Soun-bre-sha]. And they came from Germany in 1880 with a group of forty immigrants. Forty families came over, and they settled in Robert’s Cove, Louisiana, which is practically, I guess, in Rayne, and that’s a community there. And then that stretches from where I-10 first comes off in Rayne [Louisiana], coming from New Orleans all the way through Basile [Louisiana], I think. And you start at one end in Rayne, and it’s a lot of Link land—Link properties. And then when you get to Highway 13, you start seeing a lot of the Zaunbrecher fields, and they farm rice. Actually, Nicholas Zaunbrecher, the first immigrant, was the first person to sell rice commercially in Louisiana and sent the first load to New Orleans. And they developed a lot of the farming standards and irrigation, built some bridges to get other people’s rice to market, and that’s pretty much all they still do over there. It’s a long history of rice farmers and now, of course, they’re farming crawfish and then—and they make sausage and boudin—not for sale. Well, a couple of them do it for—have a store but for the most part it’s done for personal consumption for the families. They are big families.
My dad on the Zaunbrecher side is one of eighty-eight grandchildren. His dad, Lawrence Zaunbrecher, who was Nicholas—Nicholas—his son is Lawrence and that’s my dad’s grandfather and that’s the tree that has the eighty-eight grandchildren just from Lawrence. So it’s huge, talking about ten kids each kind of situation, ten or eleven kids. So it’s a farming community and back then that’s—it was important. And if you go there today, it’s something that I’ve always known about as a kid. I knew that we had big families, and I knew that we were from Crowley but up until I—my later teenage years, I never really got outside of Louisiana, so I never really understood the importance of what that meant and how unique that was. I just figured that was commonplace. I thought the food was commonplace and the family was common, and it wasn’t until I started getting a little older and kind of moved away for a little while that I started to realize that there was something very unique there.
So can you talk about what it was like when you were in the Bay Area and working in San Francisco what your Cajun heritage meant to you then, and then how that evolved when you got to New Orleans and opened your restaurants?
When I first moved out there, I was—I had cooked all my life—pretty much all my life from fifteen on, and that was always what I did for a job. You know, fry-cook, dishwasher, hamburger joints. So I did all that and when I moved to California, I had maybe one semester at college to graduate, which I walked out of LSU [Louisiana State University]. I hated college. I just walked out one day. I didn’t drop any classes. I just threw my books in the trash and left because I hated it so much. [Laughs] And I moved to California with kind of in the back of my head like, “Oh, I guess maybe I’ll think about finishing.” And then, as usual, I got a job to get by working in a restaurant, and that’s when it clicked. I got hired at this dive dump in lower Haight, you know, to be a cook, and then when I saw I was from Louisiana they were like, “Well we were thinking about opening up—doing some dinner here with like a Louisiana thing.” And I’m like, “Well sure,” you know, “I’ll do that.” And that’s how it started. That’s how—and like I said, at that point I didn’t really think that it was all that big of a deal—that Louisiana food is just food, right? But come to find out everybody was very interested in that kind of food and the place did great after I took over. They went from doing eight people a night to 100 people at night, which is all that place could really hold. And I guess it was—just kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s like I don’t need to go back to school; I don’t want to. I love this; this is awesome. And then that just kind of grew, and then I eventually took over at the Elite Café, which was a New Orleans restaurant. And they gave me free reign over the menu there, so I came in there and threw everything away from the first day I walked in. I went in, actually, on a Sunday night and threw all the food in the trash and came in Monday morning and started a whole new menu. And it’s—the reputation started to build from there, and I just couldn’t believe it. I’m like God, I’m getting written up and reporters are coming in and it’s like, why? What is the big deal, you know? But it was a big deal to them, and it definitely got me thinking like, this is very interesting you know and, I guess when it really turned for me to come back [to Louisiana] was when I had my daughter, and then I was like, you know I’m going to go home and buy a house and open a restaurant and settle down.
Well in California, when you first started cooking what you knew, being a native of Louisiana, was there any kind of need to fulfill expectations of what Louisiana food was or anything that you kind of fought along those lines? Because I know a lot of people, when they think Cajun, they think highly spiced and when they think Creole, they think something different. Was there anything like that that you had to kind of convince people of, or that was different than what they thought you would do?
Well the blackening thing was a big issue. I mean because—well, that restaurant, particularly—the Elite—had that on the menu for a long time, and I just refused to do it. I was like, that’s not what I want to do; that’s not what I grew up with. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with it or it tastes bad, it just—that’s just not what I wanted to do. I mean I just think that—at the Elite I just tried to really fuse French and Cajun food together like old country style, you know, rustic French cooking. And I think it was very similar and a big root of Cajun cooking, you know, the peasant, poor farming, one-pot, lots of similarities between the two. And the thing is, Cajun food is not spicy. It’s not. If anything, it’s salted. That’s the difference between Cajun food. Like when I go home and I eat, everything is salted perfectly, and I don’t know if I season that way because that’s what I grew up with, or I just season that way so it tastes perfectly to me. I think that there’s a relationship there somewhere. But to me, that’s what it’s about; it’s about the products that are being used because they’re local. The shrimp taste better in Louisiana, and I think they taste better in Lake Charles than they do in New Orleans. They have just a certain texture and iodine level that just is, to me, better. But again, it’s probably because I grew up there. But everything there tastes different and that’s, I think, what makes it Cajun food is how they draw flavor from the meat and how they salt and how it’s seasoned, but that doesn’t make it spicy. I can't really recall ever having anything that I considered spicy growing up. And it’s just not spicy. I mean you take gumbo, for example. If you make a roux—make a gumbo—and then at the very end throw in your meat and turn it off, that’s not gumbo, in my opinion. What makes gumbo gumbo is that all that stuff is put in earlier and has enough time to break down. That’s why it’s always better the second day. So all the components lend itself to the whole, and that’s what flavors it. If you just throw shrimp in at the end, and you taste the shrimp, it’s going to taste like shrimp, but the gumbo won't taste like shrimp.
[Could you talk about your] family tradition of gumbo making or what you’re used to being gumbo?
I kind of taught myself gumbo. I feel like—God, I hate to say it this way, but I feel like I made it better because I’m pretty sure my mom made it with bouillon cubes, but a lot of people make it with water, and I’m not particularly a big fan of the water gumbos. And I watched my granny as she got older switch from making roux’s to using jars and she was—but she was older, and she couldn’t get around. I asked her why she didn’t make her roux once, and she goes, “Oh, I can't be on my feet that long.” But I don’t think a lot of people really do it that well. And I think it is because of the water. I mean I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen anybody make a stock. I mean bouillon cubes and canned stocks and when—when I did that pork roast for the funeral, I didn’t feel like making stock because it was a real quick turnaround that I got there and had to have this ready. But I went to the grocery store, and there’s a huge section of chicken stock, beef stock, I mean, it’s enormous—bigger than any place in the country I’ve ever seen. There’s just a whole section devoted to stock, so I know people cook with stock but I don’t—nobody makes stock. It’s either bouillon or canned stock. And, again, this goes right back to what we were saying earlier, the people don’t have five hours to make the stock, which—and to be honest, I make stocks in my house when I’m testing, but I can steal from the restaurant, too. [Laughs] It’s a lot easier for me to use homemade stocks. But sausage, I think, in Lake Charles, in particular, and that area sausage is probably one of the most important ingredients that—that flavor a gumbo. And, again, you can talk about sausage just like boudin, but sausage is definitely what is flavoring most of those and—and how you cook the chicken matters a lot. You know, whether you cook the chicken on it’s side and pick it and throw it back in, or my preferred way is to cut up the chicken with the bone on and the skin on, sear it in the pan, take it out, make your roux, throw it back in with the bone on, so your gumbo is full of bones, but it’s by far the best way to do it—a simple chicken and sausage gumbo as opposed to just throwing picked meat in.
And you mentioned shrimp earlier. Growing up were you used to primarily chicken and sausage gumbo or was there a seafood gumbo, too?
Well where I came from there’s only two gumbos: chicken and sausage and seafood. And they don’t really—I never really remembered seeing them mixed ever and still, to this day, when you go back there, it’s one or the other. Whereas New Orleans, you know, they mix everything in the gumbo. But there it’s one or the other, which makes perfect sense to me because if you mix them, you—the seafood is going to get lost. I mean we mix ours here because I think that’s—people seem to really like that depth and that flavor, but back home when I grew up it was one or the other. I mean when I was a kid, we did a lot of shrimping. Me and my dad shrimped all the time as a kid, so we had a deep freezer full of shrimp so, obviously, we had a lot of shrimp gumbo, bouillon cubes, roux, onions, pepper, celery and shrimp and lots and lots of shrimp.
Can you talk about the roux and maybe how your grandmother used to make it and what kind of color she achieved in her process?
Dark, dark roux. I mean to the point of it looks black. So it’s, again, a fine line there. I mean I—to be honest, I hate to say this, but I’ve had to cut back on the color, and I don’t make the gumbo here like I used to. But I’ve had to cut back on the color because, unless you’ve made it—100 rouxs, you’re going to have a hard time deciding when to stop the roux. And if it goes—it can be a matter of three minutes, it will turn it from black to scorched, so I had to cut the color back just a notch so that we could have a more consistent product. But yeah, I mean definitely, slow is good. If you do it too fast, I think it will—it will give the roux a kind of bitter flavor. I’ve done it in an oven overnight, which was really interesting. I think it tastes good; it gives it a different texture. But definitely the speed that you cook it, I think, is the most important thing. Generally, a roux takes me between forty-five minutes and an hour before the vegetables go in—but just super slow and then at the end you’ve got to kind of—my rule that I don’t know if it translates to other people well, but the way I decide when my roux is done, I wait three times when I think it’s done. So when I think it’s ready, I’ll have to wait, and then the next time I think it’s ready, I’ll wait again. So then by the third time I think it’s ready, that’s generally about the time it’s ready. [Laughs]
Are you the only person who makes the roux for the gumbo here, or are there other people who do it?
Oh no, I don’t—no, every—I’ve trained other people to do it. I mean I can't spend an hour every other day making roux anymore, but I’ve definitely—if it starts to go off—it did what, I don’t know, six months ago it started—I noticed that the roux started to get a little inconsistent, so then I made the next four gumbos, while they [the staff] sat and watched. So if I notice that they’re just slightly changing, I’ll jump back in, and I’ll start making it and have people watch and so that they can see where, when, to feel it. I mean the thing with the roux that I’ve always found—that I’ve always been fascinated with gumbo—it’s one of the first things I ever made. I mean it was like a project of mine to learn how to make gumbo. I mean I sat there and I made it and I looked at it. And I mean the whole process of going shopping for it, even in San Francisco I used to love making gumbo because I’d go to Chinatown and get live crabs and fish for stock and just use all these products. And the whole process of making it and then, of course, you know you have to have a six-pack of beer ready, a couple—you know, a couple cold beers on hand while you make the roux. But the whole process, it’s like becoming one with the roux. And like just sitting there staring at it, and it’s always nice to have some company in the kitchen you can talk to but it’s a matter of—like with any food, I think, but especially with a roux, you have to almost become one with it and have to listen to it and relate to it and think of it as its own entity, its own living thing that will almost tell you when it’s ready to take the onions or whatever. You can just see it and smell it and hear it and there’s a sound that it makes; there’s a certain level of bubbling that it makes. The aromas change as the roux grows. The textures change. It will go from thin to thick back to thin again. I mean there’s a lot of nuances with that. There’s different shades of rust and brown that it goes through. And it’s all about—constantly, every time you make it—and this is what I try to tell the cooks here is every time you make it, you need to connect with it because that’s how you’ll get better at making it. And then the really difficult part, I mean the roux is one thing, but I found where most people mess up gumbo is the ratio of liquid to roux, and that’s where people screw up gumbo because then it gets too thick. If it’s not—that’s why I hate writing recipes for gumbo because there’s just—it’s so hard to put a measurement on the liquid because it depends on where you stop the roux. If you don’t stop the roux at the right point—and it’s hard to say cook it for forty-five minutes, you know, because a few degrees difference on an hour is a lot. You know what I mean? And low on my oven is not going to be the same as low on someone else’s oven or on somebody else’s burner. I mean all burners put out different levels of heat, so it’s a very difficult recipe to write because of that. And the thing that—with a roux, the darker it gets, the less thickening it has. So, for example, if you stopped it too soon and put the same amount of liquid in, it’s going to be a lot thicker than if you let it go longer and put the same amount of liquid in. Does that make sense? So and then here’s the thing: if you don’t have the ratio right for liquid to roux, the fat won't come out of it, and then you’ll have a really nasty greasy gumbo and even now, the cooks still sometimes will come up to me and like there’s no fat coming off the roux—off the gumbo. And I’ll go in there and I’m like, “Well, man, you’ve got a sauce here. This isn't a gumbo. Put some liquid in it. Now wonder it won't come out.” I can't give you the chemical explanation of why that is. I’m sure there is one, but if it doesn’t have enough liquid in it, those—that fat won't release. And, you know, we pull off—like at home, for example, I’ll pull off all the oil I put in, which is, you know, if somebody did—. I did a recipe for—for a school textbook for gumbo and they put the calories on there; it was absurd, like 4,000 calories for a bowl of gumbo. But all that oil comes out—mine does, anyway. Hopefully, people aren't out there making gumbo without pulling that oil out. But if I put in say, a gallon of oil into the gumbo here, I pull out a gallon, at least, of oil, if not more. I mean it comes out but then, like I said, then you risk thinning it out too much, and then you’ve got a thin watery gumbo. So it’s definitely a really fine line, you know, but it has to be skimmed. You’ve got to continue to get that oil off of there. And there’s, generally I’d say an hour to hour-and-a-half before any product goes in and then they go in stages, you know. If it’s seafood, crab bodies and oysters go in after. And the thing is you want to get—I always try to get the oil out first so that you’re not skimming out ingredients. So you get the oil out, and then you can start putting your ingredients in and give them a chance to break down. Oysters, in particular. I consider oysters a flavoring ingredient more than a garnish for this—for the gumbo. I like mine just cooked to hell and back. I like my shrimp to be falling apart in my gumbo. So everything goes in with enough time to break down. You don’t just throw it in, like I said, and turn it off—or I don’t. And the thing is, like with any meat, it will go through a process of firming up and then breaking down. That’s just like if you do a roast—a beef roast—and you want it tender, falling apart. If you don’t cook it long enough, if you cook it halfway, it’s going to be hard and chewy. If you keep cooking it, it’s going to break down, and then you’re going to have a better sauce—the same with gumbo.
Well all that you’ve said is making me think about your kitchen more and, you know, I know you have a lot of talented cooks in there, but what is it like in the restaurant environment to teach these culinary techniques that are so unique and, you know, you’re talking about becoming one with the roux and people who are just learning that and you teaching them.
No, it’s—well actually, there’s only a couple people allowed to do it. It’s not like it’s a general prep job that anybody can do. I mean I brought a sous chef here from California when I opened Herbsaint, and I had already been teaching him how to make gumbo over there. So when we opened up Herbsaint, it was the only two people that ever made the gumbo for years was me or him, period. Nobody else could touch it; nobody else could season it; nobody else could skim it; nobody could do anything to it, and it was off-limits. And it’s still kind of like that now. I mean I’ve got two, three people now that can make it, but that’s it. And nobody is allowed to season it. It’s not—I don’t—we have a recipe that we follow now, which is the first time in—ever that I’ve had a recipe that I use in the kitchen because I don’t want people just—I don’t want them disconnecting from it. Which is why I’ve always been against having recipes for the gumbo in the kitchen because I want people to get it. I don’t want them to just fill up spices in a bowl and go [Gestures]. It’s just doesn’t work like that, to me. I mean I know I have to have recipes to keep it consistent, but it just seems like [Sighs]—cheap, you know, to do that.
But to generate that personal connection to the food it’s—I mean, it’s so Louisiana. It’s so Cajun, and it’s so a part of your kitchen.
Yeah. I tell them, you know, that I get a lot of weird looks, but I’ll definitely get on my rants and be like, you have to be one with this food. [Emphasis Added]. You have to talk to it and speak to it, listen to it, have a conversation with it, you know, connect to it. It’s not just some thing you’re doing. You’re not building TVs here. You know, we’re making food, and we’re making this food and that is what makes it special. You talking to it and being one with this food is what makes it special. And I think that applies to everything. Obviously, gumbo has a much bigger place in my heart than most of anything else but it’s the same thing with cooking a steak, as far as I’m concerned. You have to communicate with that piece of meat. You can touch and prod it and stick it and put thermometers in it all day long, but if you connect with that piece of meat while it’s cooking, you’ll know when it’s done. It will somehow tell you when it’s ready to come off and that’s—so I try to tell like every single cook that is new has trouble with temperatures. All of them. I have maybe one or two people in my career I have seen been able to naturally know how to cook meat to temp. They all have to go through this thing. And I tell them it’s like, “Look, you should feel it. It’s a feeling you know. It’s not a temperature thing.” I don’t allow meat thermometers in my kitchen. We don’t have any. It’s just like you have to know how long it’s been on there, the way it feels—like if you take a hanger steak—that’s what we have—it’s this big around, and I mean you should be able to tell when you touch it how hot is it, what does it look like, how long has it been on, you know, what does it seem like? If you just had to go with an instinct, when would you say it was ready? Not by feel or a touch or anything but by just a pure instinct and a pure feeling—the same with gumbo and the same with all food, you know, you have to connect to it.
So what about Creole gumbo and okra and filé and all those [gumbos]? Those are not in your repertoire at all?
I have never understood what all that means. I mean I put okra in gumbo; I put filé in gumbo, but I don’t thicken gumbo with filé. I don’t want it to taste like filé. I use a roux. Do people really make gumbos with just filé? I’ve never seen it. I mean maybe I have and I just don’t know. But maybe, I guess Leah Chase does, right? I had hers last night, and it was good. And I like it. It’s different. It’s not what I do, but I like it. I have had some that were—what was that place in Baton Rouge? There is a place in Baton Rouge, and I’ll tell you, it was just—it was obviously thickened with okra, and it was not very pleasant to eat. It’s like [Gestures] a big stream of slime off of every spoon and it’s like, ugh. Filé I don’t mind, but thickened with okra? I mean we cook our okra out before it goes in the gumbo, and we sauté it in oil, drain it, dry it, and then put it in, so we get the slime off of it.
Does your family still carry on a tradition of gumbo making along with the sausage and boudin and all that?
Yeah, my—I think my Aunt Sally still makes gumbo on a regular basis and probably a few of my uncles and aunts. I mean my dad has never been much of a cook, and all my grandparents now are gone but—. Not—not so much—like I said, some of the aunts and uncles do but, you know, my dad is—he doesn’t know what a head of garlic looks like. [Laughs]
[Is] there’s anything you’d like to end on, either regarding boudin or gumbo or your Cajun heritage that you’d like to share?
Yeah, I would just, like I said, I just find myself where I am right now with my age and my kids really appreciating a lot more my background and my culture and the culture that we have, and the importance of preserving it, you know. It’s just one of those things you have always taken for granted, like it’s just the way it is and it’s never going to change. But I have seen signs that things are changing and—and I’m glad that I’m going to write a book about it. And I have two kids that hopefully will—will understand where they came from one day. I mean I named my son Nicholas after Nicholas Zaunbrecher and, you know, that they will have that culture. And I don’t wish this business on my kids by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m—I’m almost to the point where I’m going to demand that they learn how to cook some of these dishes just so that they carry it on and that this—this food doesn’t go away—that it doesn’t become processed and—and cheapened. And hopefully, with the cookbook and through my children, I can really preserve it in some way. But I think we’ve got a lot of family members that can carry that on, too. So but, like I said, it’s just really, really important, and it’s really a special thing in my life to know that I can drive out tomorrow to Cajun country and eat at JW’s house and—and visit with them and go pull crawfish out of the rice fields, and it’s a very cool thing.
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