“I like to think that while I'm back there, that I'm doing Jimmy Smith's gumbo, and I hope that I'm doing it the way he wants it done and that he would—that he would taste it and say, 'This is my gumbo.'" – Michelle McRaney
Many parents would worry about a daughter who graduated from business school only to pursue a career as a chef, which is what Michelle McRaney did in her mid-twenties. But her father was French and had always half-dreamed of once owning a restaurant himself; he loved hearing about his daughter’s line of work. While she traveled early on in her career, she settled in New Orleans, her husband’s hometown, and has worked for the Brennan family for more than two decades, primarily at Mr. B’s Bistro. That’s where she took a crash course in New Orleans cooking, from then-chef Jimmy Smith, as a culinary school extern. And Mr. B’s is where she now serves at executive chef, channeling Mr. Smith’s pot-stirring with every roux she darkens for the restaurant’s renowned gumbo Ya-Ya. A Creole-style chicken and andouille gumbo, the Ya-Ya is Mr. Smith’s legacy. Michelle prefers the Ya-Ya over Mr. B’s seafood gumbo, in part because it harkens to her mentor, whose recipe she is proud to keep alive. “It’s very important that people remember these things,” she says. “Because they’ll be lost just like a lot of other things are lost.”
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: Michelle McRaney
Date: September 23, 2008
Location: Mr. B’s Bistro—New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Tuesday, September 23, 2008. I’m in New Orleans, Louisiana at Mr. B’s Bistro. I’m sitting here with Mr. B’s chef. And if I could get you to say your name and your birth date and your profession, we’ll get started.
Michelle McRaney: Okay, my name is Michelle McRaney. My birth date is February 7, 1957. And what was your other question—I’m sorry?
Can you just describe, in your own words, what you do for a living?
Yeah, I’m the executive chef at Mr. B’s. In being the executive chef here, it’s more of a hands-on position. I know a lot of people think of executive chefs as paperwork-type of people. That’s not at all true here at Mr. B’s, so I’m very hands-on in the kitchen. Like today I’ve got—we have a dinner here tomorrow night, a bourbon dinner, so I’m getting rabbits in today to get those in marinade. We’re making soup right now. We’ve got—every day there’s a little something going on, so and I’m very involved in that.
Can we start by telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and raised, and your upbringing a little bit?
Okay. I was born in Florida. I was born in a small town in Dunedin, Florida. We lived there for just a short time. Mostly I was--I was raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I went to high school there. Then my-—actually my last year of high school we moved to North Carolina. From there I went to college in Virginia and went to the Virginia Commonwealth University there in Richmond, Virginia. When I was 25 years-old, my sister was living here in New Orleans. I’ve always been interested in cooking. My degree is in business, though, but I had always been interested in cooking. They were--they were just starting up a program here at Delgado [Community College] and so I thought, Well you know it’s—I’m not really happy what I’m doing in the business world. I was working in a bank, not really happy there, so I thought, You know this might be the opportunity to do something different.
So I came here to New Orleans. I enrolled in Delgado; ended up working—through Delgado what you do is you go to class just one day a week. You spend all day there and it’s just, you know, kind of going over the basics of cooking and just kind of develop palates and things like that, but the best part about their program was that you had to do an externship in a restaurant. I happened to end up here at Mr. B’s for my externship, so I worked here five days a week. I worked with a lot of great people here at Mr. B’s. At the time we had a gentleman here named Jimmy Smith, who was our Creole chef, and I learned all kinds of things from him. I worked here for about five or six years and then ended up moving out of town and went to Colorado for a little while, moved to Oregon for a little while, did—but still stayed in the restaurant business. And then about 15--16 years ago we moved back to New Orleans.
One day I was down here in the Quarter just walking around and I ran into Emeril Lagasse, who I had worked with at Commander’s Palace while I was at Mr. B’s also. I spent six months externship at Mister--at Commander’s Palace during that time. And he was just getting ready to open up NOLA, so I spoke with him and it was—it just kind of happened that I ended up being the opening sous-chef at NOLA.
I spent a little bit of time there, probably about six or eight months, and Gene Bourg, who is a local food writer, came into the restaurant and did a review of the restaurant and I spoke with him. Through that article that came out, Mr. B’s and the Brennans had found out that I was back in town. I really hadn’t—I mean you know I just hadn’t made connections yet at that point again. And so Gerard Maras, who was the chef here at the time—you know I got together with him and talked to him. He was looking for somebody to do--to be like a chef de cuisine at both Mr. B’s and Bacco. While NOLA was good, it wasn’t a great fit for me at the time, and so I came on with the Brennans at that point again. So I’ve spent about almost 20 years with the Brennans.
What is your heritage?
I’m French-Irish. My father was born in Le Havre, France; moved here when he was about 20 years-old. He was actually sent here by the French government to go to school. He graduated from Vanderbilt and he was to go back to France and become an English teacher. He just never went back. And so I—you know the French always loved their food and--and I think that some of it comes from that, because he had always talked about, you know, wanting to have a restaurant. Food was very important in his life and he was so excited. He’s passed away four years ago now, but he was always so excited about me being in the restaurant. You know, he thought it was so interesting; he was always interested in what was going on here. And then my grandparents and my mother were Irish, so French-Irish.
Did you ever have gumbo in your house growing up?
We did not have gumbo. We--my grandmother did make soups and she did canning and things like that, but a gumbo we never had, and--and if we did—you know I see elements of—I mean there’s so many different types of gumbo. I see elements of some of the things that she did in gumbos, but we never called it a gumbo.
Would one of those elements include a roux?
Yeah, definitely a roux but nowhere near as dark as the rouxs that we’re accustomed to here. I mean, I do for our gumbo Ya-Ya here, I do a roux that is just a deep, deep mahogany like--like you’ve never—. I mean it’s just, it--it amazes me that it can get that dark and still—it’s just got that nut flavor to it that’s just great.
That’s one of our signature gumbos. We do a seafood gumbo here that we run on the menu every day, and then we run—our gumbo Ya-Ya is on the menu every day, too. I personally like the gumbo Ya-Ya better. It’s a chicken and andouille gumbo. We call it--we call it a country-style gumbo but we serve it more in a city style. I know that country-style gumbos are--are lots of times served with a potato salad or something like that; we do ours with a white rice. It’s got, like I said, the andouille in it, the chicken in it, peppers, onions, great seasonings, lots of garlic, that dark roux, and a real rich chicken stock in it.
Let’s talk a little bit about the roux first. Can you tell me what you make it in and what you use to stir it?
Sure. I have a--we make the roux in what we call a rondeau, which is a round pot that’s probably six or eight inches tall and probably 24--26 inches in diameter. I use—for that particular one I use about two and a half gallons of oil and then equal amounts of flour to make—. What you want to do is, we bring that to a consistency of almost like a wet-sand, is what you’re looking for. I have in the past used, you know, a wooden spoon to stir it. Right now I’m just using a real heavy whip, is what I’m doing. And we start that on top of the stove. Because there are so many other things going on in the kitchen at the same time, we cook that roux in the oven and we cook it at about 450-degrees constant—you know, we stir it. In the beginning you’re stirring it every, you know, 20 minutes, half-hour. As it gets on that rich color, you want to take every 10 minutes or so and stir it up because once you’ve--once you’ve gotten a black spot on that roux it’s done. You’ve lost it, and so you really have to be careful as the cooking process goes along. But it cooks in that 450-degree oven for anywhere from five to six hours. It’s a long process.
Is it possible to get a black spot and burn it when it’s in the oven?
Oh yeah, it is, it is. I mean I like to think that our ovens are well-calibrated here and we don’t have hot spots in them, but it does happen. It does happen, and like I said, at that point you—there’s nothing you can do to save it. You have to throw it out and start all over again.
Can you tell me without divulging any secrets what kind of oil you use?
I actually just use a vegetable oil in it. It’s--it’s what we call an 80/20 blend: it’s 80-percent vegetable oil, and 20-percent olive oil. Now if I’m doing a smaller batch—you know if I’m doing gumbo at home—then I’ll use butter in that roux rather than using the oil. I really like that rich flavor of the butter in the roux, but like I said, when I make--when I make gumbo here I’m making 40 gallons of it and we’re making it an average about three and a half to four times a week.
I’m curious about what you said about using butter in your roux at home. The sort of conventional wisdom is that butter’s burning point is so low that it’s not really possible to get a very dark roux. Is that true?
I mean, I don’t find that true at all. I mean, you know, think of brown butter. So that brown-butter smell, that brown-butter taste: it’s that great nutty smell and flavor, and that’s what you’re looking for when you do a dark roux also. I’ve made gumbo Ya-Ya at home and used the butter for it, yeah. It does fine. It does fine. It’s more of a cost aspect that I don’t do it here. I mean, you know if I had to make—that’s a lot of butter involved in that.
Can you tell me about the process of making the gumbo?
Sure. What we do is we will put on—the first thing we do when we come in in the morning is we’ll put on a chicken stock. And we use chicken backs for that, a little bit of a mire poix, which is going to be your onions, your celery, your carrots, whole black peppercorns, bay leaves. And we let that simmer very low for anywhere from four to six hours, so you’ve got a nice stock going, which I feel is very important in this particular dish.
And while that is going, then we’re getting our roux going because your roux is going to take four, five, six hours also. And we make everything here in what we call, in a kettle, you know. And like I said it’s--it’s a big kettle. I’ll show it to you. It’s a steam jacket type of thing. It’s almost like a--kind of like a pressure cooker. It holds water on the outside of it and it heats it that way. So we’ve got our chicken stock going; we’ve got our roux going. About an hour before everything kind of comes together, before your roux is done, your chicken stock is done, we put our vegetables in the kettle, which we use red peppers, green peppers, celery and onions, and then we add our seasoning to that. And the seasonings that we use are going to be our blend of what we call our Creole seasoning, which I’ll talk a little bit about, and to that we add some basil, some thyme, some oregano, some garlic, some--a little more onion powder to that, and we add some tomatoes at that point and some tomato paste. And we get that—and about 10 pounds of the andouille. For the total batch we use about 70 pounds of andouille. So about--add about 10 pounds of andouille to that and you kind of let that--those flavors kind of marry together. You get a little bit of liquid out from the peppers, the onions—you know they’re kind of sautéing a little bit almost in that.
And then at that point what we’ll do is we’ll take our hot roux and drain off any oil that’s left over from that, because once you do your final stir, we just let it sit for a little while because it does continue to cook. It continues to cook for quite a while. We dump our hot roux into those vegetables. Real quickly with a wooden paddle we get that stirring very quickly, because you don’t want to burn any of your vegetables or your tomatoes that are in there. We get that stirring and then we take our hot chicken stock and we pour that on top of it; again, just working it in, you know.
And then, you know, once we’ve got everything in there we start adding the rest of our andouille. Like I said, for this--for a batch like this we’re using about 70 pounds of andouille and we’re constantly skimming the top of it because you have your fat coming off the andouille so you’re skimming that off of there and then once it’s all in the kettle—everything is in there together—it still cooks for another three to four hours because you still want to cook that flour taste out of there. While a dark roux really doesn’t have much of a--a flour taste, you still—you’re looking for a richness in it. You’re looking for a nice sheen to this soup.
We don’t add any chicken to it at that point; what we do is as we heat up the soup, we take chickens that we’ve roasted, tear them apart rather than dicing them, tear it off of the bone, and we add that to the--to the Ya-Ya at that point.
You always make the roux the same day that you’re making the gumbo?
Yes, we do--we do. You don’t have to do it that way. I know there are people that say you have to have a—you know, if you have a hot stock you want a cold roux or vice-versa. I’ve never had, and I’ve—you know we have a cookbook out and I’ve talked about this in the cookbook, too. I’ve always done hot and hot and it--it works fine. It works fine.
Where do you get your andouille, if you can tell me?
Actually we work with a gentleman named Vaughn with Creole—I want to say it’s Creole Cottage or Creole Country. I always get it mixed up. [It’s Creole Country.] He’s here in New Orleans. Before I came here, Gerard Maras was the chef here and--and kind of worked with Vaughn developing different recipes and—but Vaughn is the one who does our sausage for us and it’s got a nice peppery flavor to it. He uses only top-quality meat in it, so it’s--it’s a nice andouille. It’s very nice.
So you talked about that sheen. I know what you’re talking about with the gumbo Ya-Ya. It has a beautiful sheen. I’ve never accomplished that at home. Do you attribute that to the cooking time?
I--I think it comes from the cooking time. I mean, you know, soups are—like I said, we’re talking about making gumbo Ya-Ya here. We’re talking about an all-day process. You know this starts that you put your roux in the oven at 7 o'clock in the morning and we’re pulling it basically out of the kettle 12 hours later, you know. So there’s a lot of love that has to go into this, a lot of time. Everything has to cook really slow. I think your stock has a lot to do with it. You want a nice rich stock—and your roux.
Can you tell me anything about the origin of the recipe?
Yeah, the—you know I mentioned earlier about Jimmy Smith, who was our Creole chef here at the restaurant when I started here a long time ago. He has since retired. But his--his story to me—because like I said, all of this was brand-new to me when I first moved here also—his story, to me, was similar to a red bean story. You know how they talk about red beans were done on laundry day? And you know his story with gumbo Ya-Ya was similar to that in the fact that, like I said, it’s--it’s an all-day process just like red beans are an all-day process. And the women would--would be the ones who were making the gumbo.
And it--it’s kind of funny, but he--he talks about, you know, the women in the kitchen, five or six of them. One of them is cutting the peppers; one is doing onions, you know. And it’s a family thing. And he said that the men would come home for lunch or at the end of the day and be ready for their gumbo. And he said the men would come home and it would sound like the women were--the women were in there talking. But to the men it sounded like Ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya. And so that’s where the gumbo ya-ya came from. That’s what his story was.
Do you know when he might have first started making the gumbo here?
Well Mr. B’s has been opened for 28 years now and it was on the menu when we opened up. Now I’m sure it’s something that he used to do at home or, you know, other places, but we--we consider the home of gumbo Ya-Ya Mr. B’s.
I wanted to ask, so when you came on, and I guess until you did the cookbook, was there a written-down recipe for the gumbo Ya-Ya, or was it all in your head or Mr. Smith’s head?
Well we have--we have a written-down recipe for it, and I guess even when Jimmy was here we probably had one then. But when he was here he did--he did the gumbos, so it was all just a matter of watching him, and they all changed. You know we’re using—you know maybe your andouille isn't as peppery as it was two days ago so you wanted just that flavor, so there’s always—. While recipes are great for things, they’re not anything that should be carved in stone. You know they’re--they’re meant to be a guideline more than anything else. So I knew basically what was going into them, but until you work with them, until you taste them over and over and over again a recipe doesn’t do a lot of good.
Have you found that your business background, your business training, has helped you in your chef-ly life?
I think so. I mean I think that any type of—there’s all kinds of things you can use in the kitchen. I mean being a good cook is part of it. You know, but you can have someone who—I think that there are chefs who are great cooks, and then I think there are chefs that are not good cooks but really good managers and--and can handle paperwork and things like that. And then there’s the combination of the both. I like to think that I’m a combination of the both. I love to cook. But I also still have that--that business knowledge of kind of how to manage things, how to handle the--the food cost end of it, as well as the managing of the people of it, as well as the palate for it.
I understand that both of your regular gumbos are roux-based here. Does the seafood gumbo contain okra?
Yes, it does. Yeah, we use—we’re going to use kind of the same type of thing. We’re going to use our—we don’t use red peppers in this one. We’re going to use the onions, the celery, and the green peppers; again, cook those down with tomatoes, and then we add our okra in also. So it does have okra in it.
And so both gumbos have tomato?
Yes, they do, yeah, yeah, uh-hm.
In the gumbo Ya-Ya you wouldn’t necessarily know that. It’s very dark.
No, you--you don’t see it in there. The tomato product pretty much cooks itself out and that—you know that lends itself to a deeper color, a richer flavor, you know, whereas the seafood gumbo you can—sometimes you can see a little bit of the tomato is still left in there. But with the Ya-Ya it definitely just kind of cooks itself down.
And what about filé? Do you use filé in either of the gumbos?
In the seafood gumbo we use filé. In the Ya-Ya, we don’t.
And at what point do you add the filé powder?
We add the filé—I add it at two different times. I’ll add a little bit when we’re--when we’re cooking our vegetables down for the seafood gumbo, and then lots of times we’ll just finish it with a little bit of the filé also.
Are you using the filé as a thickener or as a flavoring agent more?
I’m using it as a flavoring agent. I know that it can be used as a thickener. But I’m using my roux more for that. I think that I’m—it’s more of a flavor thing for us.
Thank you so much for giving me, and us, your time. I appreciate it.
Oh sure. Oh sure, that’s fine. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it.
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