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Interviews with expats, Louisiana

Kenyattah Robinson misses po’boys, New Orleans Popeye’s and his mama’s gumbo

March 27, 2015

Like so many people who grew up in New Orleans, Kenyattah Robinson’s life as a kid included a grandmother whose cast iron pots made magic.

“She wouldn’t have to measure anything at all,” he told me recently. “She cooked everything by feel. She would nod off in the living room and wake up exactly when the food was ready. She had this internal clock. Every meal was freshly prepared. There was no eating out.”

Kenyattah left New Orleans to study at LSU, where he earned a degree in Liberal Arts and business, then landed a job on Capitol Hill with then-Louisiana Senator John Breaux. Later, he earned an MBA from Cornell University, and now works in Washington, D.C. for Jones Lang LaSalle as a senior vice president on the Public Institutions team.

A major theme of my book Hungry for Louisiana, An Omnivore’s Journey is the grip Louisiana’s culinary culture has on those who have left the state. As part of my interview series with Bayou State expats, I wanted to pick Kenyattah’s brain about what he missed from Louisiana’s culinary tableau. I know there’s great food in D.C. – some of it made by Louisiana-born chefs and some of it meant to mimic the Bayou State experience. You can even get boiled crawfish in the nation’s capital.

Still, there’s no place like home, so from his K Street office, Kenyattah spilled to me his Top Five Most Missed Foods.

1. Gumbo.

I’m very particular about gumbo. I will not order it from a menu. My mom makes a really mean gumbo and I usually bring some back to D.C. with me. It’s seafood with crab and shrimp. She also throws in pieces of sausage for flavor. No tomatoes. That’s wrong. That’s for shrimp stew or shrimp Creole.

(Uh. Oh. My prized seafood gumbo has a little bit of fresh tomato thrown in for color and sweetness, a typical Creole gumbo, says Chef John Folse. But I’m not bringing that up.)

2. Po’boys.

Shrimp. Fully dressed with Tabasco, or Crystal, depending on the place. I like those small shrimp — and the bread needs to be right. Crunchy on the outside and soft inside. I usually stop at Parkway when I go home.

3. Red beans and rice with smoked sausage and cornbread.

4. Jazz Fest food.

I go every year and get the crawfish bread and a softshell crab po’boy.

5. Popeye’s.

It sounds crazy, but New Orleans Popeye’s MOST DEFINITELY. It just tastes different. Particularly the spicy chicken. There’s something about the flavor and the crisp of the skin.


Crawfish bread. There's nothing like the kind you get at Jazz Fest.

Crawfish bread. There’s nothing like the kind you get at Jazz Fest. WWOZ

It’s all about that bay

December 9, 2014

Bay is a big part of Louisiana cuisine. You could make an argument it’s even more significant than cayenne pepper in terms of creating round, full flavor in so many of our emblematic dishes. Bay is what gives gumbo, jambalaya, red beans, countless soups and so many other one-pot dishes an herbaceous, sweet note. It plays well with everything from meats to vegetables to seafood. Fail to put it in certain dishes and something seems really amiss.

I have a very mature bay plant in my herb garden – it’s now more like a tree – and I frequently lop off the top growth. With our subtropical weather in South Louisiana, it grows fast enough for me to have to trim it twice a year. Here it is now – in December – with its little buddy lemon grass to the right.


After I trimmed it in September, I hung the fresh branches, laden with large, green leaves, in my outdoor washroom where it didn’t take long for them to dry. It’s pretty cool and dry out there. Commercial bay is dried flat, but I let mine dry the way it wants to. Sometimes that means curly and unruly.


Within a few days, I bring one branch into the kitchen, slide it into a tall vase and place the vase in the kitchen window. Several times a week, I reach up and snap off a few dried leaves and toss them in everything from butter beans to pot roast to spaghetti sauce. This week, it was homemade vegetable soup, heavy on the veggies, as you can see. Look how big those leaves get!

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And jars of dried bay make great gifts!

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Seafood gumbo secrets

November 23, 2014

Oh good gosh, it was cold this morning! I know my buddies northward are laughing at what a wimp I am, but it was 29 degrees when we woke up — way too cold for us thin-blooded Southern weenies. The only antidote is a steaming bowl of gumbo. I’m guessing it’s what everyone around here will be making this weekend.

My go-to gumbo is usually seafood (unless it’s a post-Thanksgiving turkey-bone gumbo), and I’ve played around with the recipe for years. Gumbo is inherently forgiving, but seafood – less so than chicken and sausage. Plus, it’s costlier to get wrong.

Lots of trial and error and plenty of mediocre batches have taught me what it takes to achieve a great seafood gumbo. Sure, dark homemade roux is important. So is using fresh Gulf seafood that you take the time to clean properly. But the most important ingredient in my opinion is patience: Don’t put the seafood in until your broth has had ample time to brew. Overcooking tender shrimp, crab and oysters leaches their flavor and sends their texture in a mealy direction. It’s the easiest way to ruin a batch of seafood gumbo.

Here are a few tips to making a fabulous version of this beloved dish.

  • Make your own roux and bring it to as dark a hue as you’re comfortable. Anything between dark brown to nearly black will provide optimum flavor and color. I don’t get too hung up on the overall color of the gumbo as long as the flavor is there.
  • Use my 1-2-10 rule. One cup of roux, 2 pounds EACH crabmeat, oysters and shrimp and 10 cups of seafood stock.
  • Buy your shrimp head-on, and make a quick seafood stock out of the heads and shells as you’re cleaning them and making your roux. Add onions, celery, carrots, garlic, peppercorns, salt and bay leaves and simmer for 30-60 minutes.
  • Combine the roux, chopped aromatic vegetables (onions, celery, bell peppers) and stock and let it simmer for at least 30 minutes. Taste to ensure the broth has plenty of flavor and is well-seasoned. Remove from heat. Then add the fresh seafood. There’s no need to turn the heat back on. The crab is already cooked. The oysters will curl and the shrimp will turn firm and pink in 1-2 minutes. Remember, they’ll continue to cook in the hot pot, and will cook further each time you reheat the gumbo.