Dunbar’s Creole Cooking
501 Pine St.
New Orleans, LA 70118
“Gumbo has always been an expensive dish. A lot of people think gumbo is—just take it lightly—but gumbo is a process. If you make a real gumbo, the right ingredients, you’re going to spend some money.” – Celestine Dunbar
“This is gumbo city.” – Peggy Ratliff
Celestine Dunbar learned how to make her father’s Creole seafood gumbo at age six in her hometown of Lutcher, Louisiana. Nearly sixty years later, she and the cooks at Dunbar’s Creole Cooking roughly follow her father’s original instructions, beginning with a dark brown roux (“browner than a copper penny”), and finishing it off with a sprinkling of filé. In-between: okra. Dunbar’s gumbo is unorthodox, incorporating all three gumbo thickening agents in one pot. During Lent, it becomes a meatless potage, absent its usual sausage and chicken. Before Hurricane Katrina flooded her restaurant, Celestine operated a casual but classy white-linen and sweet-tea establishment renowned for its fried chicken, red beans, and gumbo, and located in a primarily residential part of Uptown. With the structure now condemned, and insurance funds scarce, that restaurant’s future remains uncertain. Thanks to a fortunate twist of fate, however (Celestine calls it God’s intervention), Dunbar’s full menu is available at Loyola University’s law school cafeteria. Red beans and rice on Mondays; spaghetti and meatballs on Wednesdays; pork chops on Thursdays; Creole gumbo every Friday.
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: Celestine Dunbar and Peggy Ratliff
Date: September 7, 2007
Location: Cannon’s Restaurant—New Orleans, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen:This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Friday, September 7, 2007. I’m in New Orleans, Louisiana, at Cannon’s Restaurant where I’ve just taken a seat with members of the Dunbar family. And so if we could get started by your telling me your full names and your birth dates, I’d appreciate it.
Peggy Ratliff (Celestine Dunbar’s daughter): My name is Peggy Ratliff, and my birthday is October 27.
Celestine (“Tina”) Dunbar: My name is CelestineDunbar, and mine is November 10, 1943.
Could you tell me what kind of gumbo you serve or served—I’m not sure if you’re serving it right now, but—at Dunbar’s Restaurant?
CD: At Dunbar’s we do Creole gumbo. It’s a mixture of—okay, it’s a mixture of shrimp and andouille and smoked sausage and chicken. And you know, it’s like throw in everything, you know—lots of good fresh seasoning, and it’s made with lots of filé. So it’s a filé gumbo. It’s Creole. It’s really good.
And do you use okra or roux in that?
CD: I—I use okra and roux.
So you use all three?
CD: Yes, yes, I do.
Is it a family recipe?
CD: I learned how to make gumbo at six years-old. My father taught me how to make gumbo at six years-old. So it’s been a family recipe a long time.
Was your father the cook in your family?
CD: More or less, yes. My mother was more a gourmet cook and my father was just like a Creole cook, uh-hm.
And where did you grow up?
CD: I grew up in Lutcher, Louisiana. [Laughs]
Can you take me through the process of making a gumbo?
CD: Yes, you start off with a roux. You start off making a nice brown, brown roux, browner than a copper penny. And then you add hot boiling water, and then you start adding your ingredients like your gumbo crabs, your dried shrimp, and you let that cook for a while because those items give flavor to the gumbo. And then you, you know, you add as you go. You add like your, your celery and your green onions and onions, which is—that’s your vegetables—some people call it vegetables—to put in the gumbo. And then on—maybe when the gumbo is an hour or so before cooking ending, you might put your chicken in it you know, and your filé—stuff like that—and your okra. So it can kind of like, you know—. Your okra is always cooked ahead of time—not in the gumbo; on the side of the gumbo, and then add to it for thickness and richness. It’s good, yeah.
PR: Isn't the roux the heart of the gumbo? if you don’t get the roux right—?
CD: Gumbo not going to be good, right. If you don’t get the roux right, you’re messed up. The roux—the roux is the secret, yeah. Rich—it makes it real rich and creamy. A lot of people make gumbo and it’s just like brown water, but my gumbo is creamy and rich and—yeah, full of flavor.
And so how much darker than a copper penny is it? [Laughs]
CD: As dark as it will go without burning. That’s the secret. Because when you add water, then it lightens it up and—and it don’t hold the richness, if it’s—if it’s not enough roux. You can not put enough, too; that’s another thing. So it’s kind of hard to explain, but I know how to do it. [Laughs]
I’m interested that you use dried shrimp.
CD: Uh-huh. I use dried shrimp and fresh shrimp, but the dry shrimp give it the gumbo flavor and taste. It’s more in there for flavor and taste than—than the meat of it, and the fresh shrimp are in there for the meat of it.
And you didn’t mention green bell pepper.
CD: I don’t put green bell pepper in my gumbo, no. Other people do; I don’t.
PR: Because it’s powerful. Bell pepper takes over.
And the okra—do you use fresh okra or frozen?
CD: I like the frozen cut-up okra because it’s—it’s the same thing if you take a fresh okra, cut it up, and freeze it, so it’s less time but it’s the same thing. You get the same results, so why cut it up and freeze it? Or why cut it up if it’s already done for you?
I think that I was in the restaurant during Lent once when you didn’t have any meat in there. Is that right?
CD: You’re exactly right. You’ve been to Dunbar’s. That’s a seafood gumbo. We only put the shrimp, crabmeat, crabs and whatever kind of seafood—oysters—and still make the same stock with whatever I told you; everything but the meat. Exactly. You were there.
When you were growing up—both of you, I guess—on what occasion would you have gumbo at home?
PR: Holidays mostly. It’s a holiday meal. Yeah, because it’s a lot of work to do gumbo. The preparation is—is tedious.
CD: Gumbo has always been an expensive dish. A lot of people think gumbo is—just take it lightly—but gumbo is a process. If you make a real gumbo, the right ingredients, you’re going to spend some money, yeah. Yeah. So usually it’s done around holidays, uh-hm.
And at the holiday meal, do you have that as an appetizer or is that the main course, or how do you serve that?
CD: Well where I came from it was the main course. We didn’t know too much about appetizers and all that stuff, you know, but—. So it was like a main course. They had a lot of other food cooked, but normally you’ll eat a big bowl of gumbo and you’ll lay around the house and you’ll come back and you’re going to get some turkey and dressing, and so you’re just eating [Laughs]. Okay. That’s the way we did it.
Is that what you still might have on a holiday—like this Thanksgiving, will you have that?
PR: But now it’s more of a cup. You normally get your cup of gumbo now. And then the other things is the main course; so it—it’s the beginner, you know. You always come in the house getting a good hot cup of gumbo to get the chill off.
What do you have to charge for a bowl of gumbo at the restaurant to—since it is an expensive dish to make?
CD: Well normally we serve—charge $6.50 for a bowl and $4.00 for a cup.
What about, do you ever—do you order gumbo out?
PR: I do, but it’s never the same so at some point you just stop. Like right now, I don’t order gumbo from anywhere else, because gumbo, when you go out like to another restaurant it’s a broth—more of a broth. And so you may have a piece of shrimp in it, or just a little something floating around in it. To us that’s not gumbo.
CD: Right, yes. And for me, they used to have a restaurant that I loved their gumbo but it’s not there: Chez Hélène. And he’s—they’re not there anymore. And I found they were so close to our gumbo, and it was delicious and I used to get it then. But I haven’t been anywhere now that I enjoy no gumbo.
Is that the restaurant where Austin Leslie worked?
CD: Yes, right, and he was the chef—awesome chef. He died, yes. But I had his gumbo and it was awesome.
Okay, we’re back after some delicious food, and we were talking over our meal about when you opened Dunbar’s and what you did before that. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
CD: Yes. Before—before Dunbar’s I had a boutique shop, and I was working at Ochsner Hospital first, but during the time I was working at Ochsner Hospital I had the boutique at the same time, because my daughter went to beauty school and we opened up her a beauty shop. So we combined the beauty shop with the boutique. And a friend of mine across the street from the boutique had this little deli restaurant and he took sick—took ill. And the doctor advised him not to go back into that business. It was stressful, and—and he wasn’t strong enough to run a business, so they advised him not to do it anymore. So he was going to close it down and not open it up no more. So I—behind raising seven kids and cooking for seven kids, I said, I’m a pretty good cook. I’m going to try to give this a try. So I talked to him and everything, and he told me, Sure; he didn’t mind me taking it over. So we talked to the landlord and we took it over, and it just was a little small place—that I used to cook in my house and transfer the food across the street on a hot table. So my first dish was meatball and spaghetti. It was. We opened on a Wednesday, and it’s still meatball and spaghetti day today—now.
And so meatballs and spaghetti—it seems like that is a Wednesday thing in New Orleans.
CD: It is a Wednesday thing. I didn’t know it. I didn’t know it at that time, but that was the first meal that I prepared for the restaurant.
PR: I believe that she set the pace for a lot of things that happen. A lot of people patent after her menu, and it wasn’t done on purpose. It was—she just, Okay tomorrow I’m going to cook meatballs and spaghetti, and then people would ask for a certain thing, and then she’d say, Well I’m going to do that. So I believe that’s how a lot of people have patentbehind her. Like you never got sweet tea before her. Now you can get sweet tea in the city.
At what point and why did you move to Freret Street?
CD: Why? [Laughs] Because the place where I was, they had a—they had a lady that used to come in my restaurant every day, every day, and she said, This is a well-hidden secret. She said, You should be somewhere where you can get exposed to stuff. People don’t know you’re here over in this corner. So she kept bothering me and bothering me to move, but I told her I have no money to pick up—it was a little bit, you know mom and pop little place. So she said, Come and look at this building that I have on Freret Street. So we went and we looked at the building and I told her, I don’t have any money to just move this restaurant to this one. So she said I’ll do this and I’ll do that and I’ll do this; she literally almost paid for everything for me to transfer—you know, brought everything over there. So that’s how we got to Freret Street.
What year was it that you moved to Freret?
CD: Eighty-four. I would say 1984, uh-hm.
The restaurant flooded in Katrina. And what’s the current state?
CD: Right now they—they analyzing everything and they said that it couldn’t be rebuilt. The structures wasn’t strong enough to rebuild on that structure, so it should be torn down and rebuilt over. So—so we’re waiting on more funds to do that with.
Can you tell me then how you came to be on the Loyola Campus where Dunbar’s is right now?
CD: Yes, it’s kind of a spiritual thing. I mean some people don’t believe in spiritual things, but I do. And after the storm, it was a year or so after the storm, and it looked like everybody around me had gotten some money or gotten good jobs or was replaced somewhere else, and just everybody was doing well—except me. So here I am, restaurant owner, and then took care of all these employees and done—done took care of the neighborhood of New Orleans all these years, and I’m sitting there with no income, no job, no restaurant. So I was praying. I started praying and asking the Lord, I said, Well why me? Why—what’s going to happen to me? And I prayed and I prayed and I prayed and I cried and—and so when I finally settled down and just sit a while, I could hear the spirit of the Lord say, Call Tulane—Tulane University. I said, Call Tulane? I said, I’m not going to call Tulane.Tulane don’t have nothing for me. It said, Call Tulane. And I could just—just over and over and over in my spirit. So I kind of like obeyed the spirit, and I picked up the phone and I called Tulane. And I was talking to a young man and I told him who I was; I said, I’m Miss Dunbar with the restaurant down the street on Freret Street. He said, Miss Dunbar, I know who you are. So evidently this young man knew who I was, so I was saying, I’m trying to find a location to have maybe some red beans and rice and fried chicken—just a little small spot that I could lease. He said, Miss Dunbar, I’m going—I don’t know how to do this, he said, But I’m going to give you to a guy that might can help you. So he gave—he transferred my call to this man, and I was explaining to the man who I was again. This man knew who I was too. So I was telling him who I was; he said, Miss Dunbar, I eat in your restaurant all the time. I know who you are. So he said, Miss Dunbar, he said, We don’t have anything. He said, Everything is contracted out. He said, But I have a friend at Loyola University who is looking to put a little restaurant in on the law campus at Loyola. He said, I don’t know. I can't promise you anything or nothing; he said, But I’ll get back with you. He said, So don’t—don’t take this as a promise. He said, But I’ll see what I can do and I’ll talk to my friend. So it—about a week later he called me back and he gave me this guy’s number that—I mean this man is over so many things. You ever heard of Sodexho? Big huh? This is the owner of Sodexho. I talked to him. This is the man who’s over everything—over—yes, he is. So I talked to him and he told me to put a menu together and put an equipment list together and bring it to his office. He say, I got to go out of town and I’ll call you when I get back. When he called me when he got back he said it’s a done deal. He said, I got one, one little person, he said, I got to sign off, and he said, I’m sure it’s not going to be a problem. Within the month I was in Loyola. I was—on the 28th of August, which is the day before Katrina—you know the anniversary, the first year anniversary—I was over on Loyola campus, and it was like, just like—it just went so smooth. Like everything, everything. Like they told me I had to have $5,000,000 worth of insurance. I said, What? It was like, I can't even count that far; it was like, What?[Laughs] And just quick like that [Finger Snaps], it looked like my spirit quickened, and he said, Don’t worry about it; you’re going to have it. I told him, Okay, no problem, and went—and when I got ready to get the insurance, we had dealt with this insurance company before. We went back to that company and we only had to come up with like $5,000. I didn’t have any money; my family together got together and put the money up, and a friend of mine put the money up for all the groceries. So everything just went—God said, Yes, and it just went—just went to plan. So I—I give all the credit to my spiritual Father. This—that is absolutely the truth. So many people wonder the same story. Well how you do—how in the world did you do this? This has never happened in the history of nowhere. Not just New Orleans—nowhere. Soul-food, Creole food, on a college campus. This have never happened. I made history. So it’s nobody but God that did it for me. Nobody.
Well your cooking helped.
CD: Yes, it did. [Laughs] But [He] guided me to that place.
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in PDF form, please click here.