"[My gumbo recipe] came from my mother.
It’s just something that’s handed down, and I’m
very proud of it—that I happened to learn it, you know,
from her because I know it came from her mother and that whole
area [in South-central Louisiana], so I really feel honored that
I was able to—as a kid—learn something about this.” – Billy Gruber
A native of New Orleans, Billy Gruber grew up in
the restaurant business. His father, William J. Gruber, opened
his first restaurant at the age of nineteen. Over the years, the
Grubers have operated more than a handful of cafés. But
not until Billy opened the neighborhood joint, Liuzza’s
by the Track, did he actually put gumbo on the menu. Today Billy
makes what he calls a Creole gumbo. The recipe is a nod to his
mother’s Cajun heritage, but Billy has definitely made the
dish his own. Starting with a nearly black roux, Billy layers
flavor after flavor, adding locally-made sausage, cooked-to-order
seafood, and a secret mixture of thirteen seasonings. And to many
people’s surprise, there’s quite a lot of okra in
there, too—another one of Billy’s tricks that keeps
bringing folks back for more.
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: Billy Gruber
Date: August 4, 2006
Location: A friend’s home – New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Amy Evans
Amy Evans: This is Amy Evans on Friday, August
4th, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the Southern Foodways
Alliance; and I am with Billy Gruber at a home near Liuzza’s
By The Track…We’re at the dining room table, and I
have a bowl of gumbo before me, which I will dig into momentarily
and—but first Billy, if you wouldn’t mind stating
your name and your birth date for the record please, sir?
Billy Gruber and, gee whiz, three—eight—forty-six,
March 8th, 1946. Sixty years old. Sixty years young!...New Orleans,
you know, I consider this one of the top three or four areas in
the country for food because of the—because of the French,
you know. I mean the original—the word Creole and what it’s
done, meaning the French, etcetera, etcetera, and the Canadians.
They got exiled out of Canada and so they sent—were sent
down here. So when they came down here, the Cajuns, they got with
the—was—that was French and then they got with the
Africans, they got with the Germans, they got—that’s
who New Orleans is; it’s such a mixture. It’s such
a hodgepodge of every ethnic group you can think of.
Now you were telling me before that you’re
from Grand Isle [Louisiana] originally?
Oh, we used to go there every summer and my dad—my
dad [William J. Gruber] was a Senator in 1946 and he had—his
first restaurant. He was in the restaurant business. His first
restaurant he opened in 1935; he was nineteen years old.
What propelled him into the restaurant business,
do you know?
Ah, he wanted something for his mother to do. She
was—she came from Germany and so—they had four brothers,
and he first did, I think, a snowball stand and then a little
thing and wanted her—to have something for her to do…But
he—as some of his friends used to say he didn’t let
grass grow under his feet. He was a Senator; we owned six restaurants—all
twenty-four-hours…Well that’s what he did then. And
when he did that he would go down and do that at like ten until
three or four in the morning. I knew my father getting up at twelve
o’clock, having tea and toast, and then going down to the
restaurant until my mother [Idea Mae Bourdeaux] made him come
home and eat supper, as we called it, at five o’clock.
And you know—and my mother—you’ll
hear this again when we talk about my gumbo, but everybody asks,
you know, “Is that your dad’s recipe, the gumbo?”
were nominated top in the city two or three years—Tom Fitzmorris,
a main critic in the city—top gumbo by him. With Gourmet
Magazine: “The best reason to come to New Orleans is the
Gumbo and at Liuzza’s by the Track.” And you know
countless people there. And they say, “Well, was that your
father’s recipe?” And I said, “No, my mother
was a Boudreaux from Chacahoula, Louisiana.” Chacahoula
[Terrebonne Parish] then was a town of 500; today it’s 500.
I don’t even think it’s on the map anymore. It’s
north—it would be like central Louisiana. It’s north
of Houma and then east of Gonzalez and Baton Rouge, so it’s,
you know, kind of south-central Louisiana, and it’s—it’s
a typical—it’s a different type of gumbo, you know.
Want to talk about gumbos?
Yeah. I wonder if you could kind of put words
to how [your mother’s] gumbo merged with the German kind
of influences in your house?
Well it was probably—like I said, the—the
gumbo is—is you know, it’s French, it’s African—the
Sassafras weed, that was the—the filé; the okra comes
from the African thing. And you know, it’s just all these
different things. The German—I forget exactly—I’m
not a really good historian; I just, you know, know taste. That’s
the only thing I do know. That’s why I’m in the business.
But it was just all this, you know, just this hodgepodge of everything.
Like I say, when all the Cajuns came, when they were exiled from
Canada and Nova Scotia, they came down here and then they met,
you know, they were in the swamps. They had to deal with the wildlife,
the gators, the—the crawfish, the—they had no—nothing.
They had nothing. They were exiled from their homes. They had
the clothes on their back. And it was told they came down here
with their iron skillets and that was it. And then when they met
with all these people there was really never—you didn’t
have a lot of one-pot cooking, and that’s why you see down
here—the etouffees, the jambalayas. Where everything goes
into one pot and nothing is wasted…The spices came from
different—probably that was a lot of French and all the
natural herbs that were growing around the area at the time.
So what is it about gumbo, then?
Well like I said earlier, you know, when they ask
you about the gumbo and no, it doesn’t come from my daddy;
it comes from my mother, Boudreaux from Chacahoula, Louisiana.
So it really has origins that go far back and—and you know
and—you know, if you ask me—I mean when I go to a
restaurant—I mean I’ve been told I have the best gumbo
in the city and you know, I like it; I think it’s good.
You know, I created it and my mother showed me, you know, kind
of her version, and I did it similarly, very similar. And—but
there’s fifty or sixty different types of gumbo. I mean,
you know, from gumbo z'herbes, which is all greens and it’s
all done in odd increments—three, five, seven, nine, eleven.
There’s some stories behind that, but we’ll let that
go for another day. And it was all greens that go into it. Then
there’s this whole different—and they put this—all
gumbos, they’re cooked the same.
Like I do andouille [sausage] and chicken gumbo…Yeah,
like the—I make—basically a lot—most of them
are chicken and andouille [a smoked pork sausage] or chicken and
smoked sausage and, you know, and there’s—there’s—you
can take that alone and make thirty different types. I mean New
Orleans, I think, would be known more for a thick gumbo. I know
mine is thin, but it’s powerful and it’s just a lot
of flavor. And what I like about mine is—and I tell people,
you don’t need salt, pepper—you don’t need—and
I don’t put a lot of salt in mine. It’s more chicken
stock than anything because, you know, I use all natural bald
chickens to get the stock…And my roux is black as the ace
of spades, as they say –
But anyway, my point is—is that, you know,
like you do so many different gumbos and mine, what I do is—the
difference in mine is—you’ll see a lot of them, you’ll
see okra in it. And mine, you won't see okra because I cook mine
at a minimum of four hours…I do twenty-gallons three times
a week, and we sell a lot of gumbo. But I cook it no less than
four hours and I have tomatoes—I don’t use tomato
sauce, tomato paste as a lot of people; I use canned whole tomatoes.
I kind of learned that from Paul Prudhomme, you know. Paul said
that he uses canned tomatoes because when you use fresh ingredients
it really sounds cool. You have—yeah, it’s good, it’s
hip, but you can't rely on a fresh vegetable being the
exact same taste every time. When you have a neighborhood joint,
when you have a place that people go, they want to go there going
I know what tastes like, so I’m going to go back to that
exact same taste. I don’t want any other; I want that taste;
I like it…So therefore you have a hint of tomato. And I
believe that the real definition of Creole cooking is a hint of
everything. When I do a sandwich, I don’t—even though
I have a Vidalia onion and a Creole tomato and this, I want just
a hint of a taste of everything, so when you taste it, close your
eyes and you can go whoa—whoa—whoa! I got all these
different flavors. What’s going on?
But back to the gumbo, when I cook it four hours, in twenty-pounds,
I put sixteen-pounds of okra, okay. It sounds like a lot. Okra
in the old days was used as a thickener—a thickening agent,
period. You either thickened it one or two ways: with a lot of
roux and I don’t like it because then you become a flour-based
taste and it’s just—and you can taste the roux; the
other way is filé. You use—at the end of your Gumbo
when you—when it’s set in front of you, you take filé
which is the Sassafras leaf, I believe, or whatever and you just
pour it in there, and it will naturally thicken it up, you know.
But mine—it’s really funny because, you know, everybody
says, “Oh, God, all that Okra? Eh! Oh, it’s slimy.”
Well you don’t—you cook the okra before, number one.
What we do is we put baking sheets in the oven and cook it for
about a half-hour. Okra, the natural seeds in it are slimy, so
when you cook it and bake it like that it takes—naturally
it takes the slime out of it…But—and then you put
it in the gumbo, so all—what you have is—and all of
the sudden you’re watching it—you’re watching
it—you’re watching it and all of the sudden in four
hours there ain’t no okra. You don’t see any seeds;
you don’t see anything.
I make my roux beforehand. And once again…Paul
Prudhomme, you know, when he’s the first one that did his
gumbo, before he did his roux—the way he did the roux would
take forty-five minutes to an hour-and-a-half. They were put on
a slow flame and those women would sit there—or those men
would sit there and just stir it. You got to stir it because it
won't—you can't leave the pot or it will burn. And it’s
equal amounts of flour and oil and that’s—you know,
that’s basically it. And then you wait and after about forty-minutes
later it starts—you know, it will start turning [color]
in about twenty-minutes—it starts turning from white because
you have white all-purpose flour and vegetable oil—peanut
oil or whatever—and you start to see it turn gray—ashen
gray—and then beige and then it will get into a little brown
and then you start to get later to a little burgundy—get
a little reddish. And that—that roux is your etouffee roux
because that’s a little reddish, but you want to stop it
there. But I go all the way with mine to the black. And you’ve
got to pull it off before black because it will keep cooking fifteen
to twenty minutes after [you take it off the heat]. So you go
to Paul [Prudhomme], where I was saying what he did was, all of
the sudden he puts that fire up on a humongous burner. I mean
that—that oil gets 300, 400, 500-degrees and that’s
why you hear it known—a lot of chefs will call it Cajun
napalm, because you get that thing on you, it’s going through
you, you know…I mean, you know, I tell everybody to get
the hell away and you don’t leave that pot for anything;
you don’t leave that pan and you just start stirring like
a madman, and you throw in the big whisk and you’re going
and you’re going. And you’re going to complete a roux
in about eight minutes…and you take it off the stove, like
I said, right before it becomes black, you know, when it’s
deep, deep brown and it may be still going. You’re not going
to stop 500-degrees like that, you know. It’s—so you
pull it off the stove, off the heat and you put it over—and
on the side. What you do, the best way to do is you have an onion
already diced up celery or bell pepper or whatever and you take
that and you don’t get close to it but you hold it at a
little higher—like a foot away, and you kind of throw it
in there and you [Sizzling Sound] and as soon as you throw it
in there it’s going to ignite. And you keep stirring and
you’ll see it start to molt…and you can see it start
to cool down.
Then we use smoked sausage…I bake the smoked
sausage in there also but what I do is—a lot of people take
the sausage after it’s baked and they’ll tilt the
pan and let all the fat go out. And it’s not only fat, it’s—it’s
just the juices that are in smoked sausage, which is not all fat.
So anyway, I pour everything into this. Okay, so now we got the
stock, the okra, and the sausage. So what you got is the smoked
flavor, the thickener—no flavor—and then the chicken
base and then the nuttiness of the roux. So about this time what
I do is I go ahead and I’ll put all my herbs in. And I use
thirteen different herbs including oh, like I said, a little salt.
I might put three tablespoons of salt in a twenty-gallon pot,
okay. So I have like thirteen different herbs in there…So
from that moment on, everything I do is increments—and
the most of the herbs I’ve put in there, the majority of
them are thirteen spoons. And I don’t have it on me right
now, but you can never find me without a large iced tea spoon
in my back pocket. The reason is, you got gallon containers that
all your spices are in, and when I do the measurement, I just
go in and do [whoosh]—I mean that sound is I just shovel
it in and take it out…So everything in there, you know,
whether I do six spoons of this or—or not six—nine
of this or five or seven—do everything in odd numbers [Laughs],
it’s all do with the teaspoon.
So now we got the herbs in it, so we got the flavor;
we got that. But if you take a spoon—now let’s say
that whole period is twenty minutes—twenty-five minutes
that we’ve—the water has been boiling—got everything
going. Well you take a big kitchen spoon and you put the water
and you put it in the water and you hold it up and you look at
it. And if you look at it, you’re going to see the center
of it about the size of a fifty-cent piece and then the periphery
of that will—will let’s say spread out to an inch.
Well the guts of that is that fifty-cent piece. The outside of
it is still water, okay. So if anybody tells you they cook a gumbo
or, you know, in a half-hour, just tell them you know, talk to
you later. But anyway, so thus, my point is—and I just let
it roll from then on, and I let it roll to a strong boil—one
hour, two hours. Well then, you know, you start to lose—it
evaporates, so you got—I’ll fill it back up with water,
you know. I’ve got a hose right there on the thing and get
the low burner—if the thing is going and then at about three
hours—three hours, fifteen minutes—three-and-a-half
if you do that spoon test again, and you look at it you’re
looking like if you were looking at roast beef gravy. It is all
solid, meaning that there’s no water; it’s all just
flavor. And then all of the sudden the herbs all marry into it;
the okra has dissipated. The thickener—the thickness is
coming into it.
One thing I forgot to say is after the—the—the
sausage you put in—w what I used to do, and I kind of changed
a little bit—you cut up chicken thigh meat and in that—in
that twenty gallons I put right about thirty—thirty pounds
of sausage and about thirty pounds of chicken thigh meat. So then
I put the chicken thigh meat in right around the sausage and okra
time. But when you do that with raw chicken, well what do you
get? What do you get if you boil in plain water thirty pounds
of chicken? You get this humongous chicken stock that’s
natural, so then you’re adding that into it. So you’ve
got all of this really just natural stuff, you know. I don’t
know what people think of gumbo elsewhere but hey, this is the
real deal and, you know. So it—all—and then all of
the sudden—. But what I do is I stage the chicken, meaning
that I’ll put some of it in the first half-hour, maybe half
of it, so that chicken by the end is not shredded but it’s
kind of getting ready to shred almost. And then you have the other
stuff I might put in maybe an hour before the end and that will
be a little more solid, you know, something like that.
But other than that, you know, and then it comes out and—and
then like as I told you earlier, I always try to regulate the
gumbo that it is never cooked on the same day you eat it because,
like red beans, which we cook three days before you eat it, gumbo
or any of the—well I guess, you know, we talked earlier
about the Cajuns the way they were the first—some of the
first people to do the one-pot cooking. Just think about that
and when it all marries together and then it hangs out with each
other overnight, and it all just sits there in that walk-in cooler.
What do you think it does? It all just—the flavors just,
you know—God, they get together so greatly…But anyway
yeah, and all of this stuff put together overnight, and when you
eat it that day and you eat it the next day—two different
animals in my book. You know, the thickness of it and—usually
when I make my gumbo I make it such that—I make it like
a concentrate, meaning it’s—it’s hearty and—and
I need everybody to be on the same page. Everybody who works for
me knows number one they have to carry around a spoon; number
two, the reason is you have to taste it everyday. You have to
taste that gumbo when you put it on because you’re going
to have to add a little water to it. It’s going to seem
too salty, but it’s not salty; it’s just a lot of—lot
of concentrated chicken stock, you know. And anyway, you know,
you do that and you add a little water to it.
The reason I can sit here and talk to you about gumbo—because
I have made over 450 mistakes, you know. And I have—-proud
to make them all because I—you know, that’s how you
learn, you know, and I did.
So is—I wonder, in gumbo-making and in
families and communities, if the color of your roux that you use
to make your gumbo is something that you want people to know.
If it’s like a badge of honor to make a black, black roux—?
No, New Orleans is about flavor. You know, when
you come—when you come down here—and I don’t
think a lot of people—I really don’t think a lot of
people cook it that long to get rid of the okra. I really don’t
think so, even though I know that’s one of the old ways
of doing it because a lot of people love—I mean if you give
me fried okra and ham and tomatoes, you know—excuse me;
see ya later. I can—that’s, you know—. So a
lot of people like okra and then—and then also what we do
at the restaurant is we sauté the shrimp and oysters or
whatever per cup or bowl, meaning that, you know, when you have
that bowl you’re going to have the chicken andouille and
then the guts of it but also we’re going to put the chicken,
the shrimp and the oyster, whatever and it’s going to be
sautéed and put in it. And so when you cook a gumbo, like
if I was to cook a gumbo at home, first of all I’d use about
two gallons of oyster water rather than anything because it’s
a natural salt, and you don’t need any type of sodium or
anything but you know—but you want it chocked full of stuff.
So they’re going to leave the okra in it; they’re
going to make it a lot thicker. And most people I know who do
gumbos at home—whether you do a duck gumbo or whatever,
you want it—they want it full of stuff, you know. That’s—to
me, that’s the badge of honor of—of a home-style Gumbo.
You know, when you get, “Hey, come on over. I’m making
some—cousin Laramie shot ten ducks. I made some duck gumbo,”
you know. So that’s kind of what, you know, that’s—that’s
more the badge, you know. I don’t think it’s the color
of black [roux]—I don’t think.
With a mother from Cajun country and growing
up with her gumbo and then—I might be wrong, but on your
menu do you call—you call your gumbo Creole Gumbo, right?
Yes. Yeah, because it’s everything. It’s
a mixture of everything.
Can you talk about that a little bit more? Because
with the Cajun influence—and so the Creole gumbo—and
Creole kind of, to me, is being New Orleans—urban-New Orleans
Well the Creole is really—I mean it’s
Cajun—and that’s a big—that’s a big discussion
right there. I mean when I was younger I didn’t like to
be considered Cajun. You know, when I went in the military in
1967 [I said,] “Oh no, I’m from New Orleans. Oh no,
don’t compare me to those crazy people.” Because I
mean, you know, they were—yeah, those were people who came
out of the swamps literally, you know. I mean because they caught
all the crawfish in the swamps, they
caught the alligator further down and, you know, like I said,
everything—but there’s two different schools on that.
You know the—the Cajuns, they’re—we’re
the ones that come from Nova Scotia and the Creole—the Creole
goes, you know, into the French and it goes into everything.
We haven’t mentioned filé at all.
What do you think about filé gumbo? Do you have a taste
for it or no?
Yeah, I guess. I just like flavor. It doesn’t
have—I’m not—being a—a soup guy, I don’t
care what consistency it is; as long as it’s got flavor,
I’m for it, you know…I don’t care about consistency
or the thickness or whatever, as long as it’s got flavor.
That’s why my gumbo is thin, but every spoon speaks for
itself. I mean it has a lot of power.
Well what would you say your gumbo says about
Wow! Never heard that question. It came from my
mother, you know. It’s just something that’s handed
down, and I’m very proud of it—that I happened to
learn it, you know, from her because I know it came from her mother
and that whole area, so I really feel honored that I was able
to—as a kid learn something about this, you know.
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