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A chef shakes a bottle of Crystal hot sauce, red, into a bubbling pot of rust-coloured gumbo
The vital seasoning for Tom Zahir Browne’s gumbo: Crystal hot sauce.

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Gumbo Is Infinity

Tom Zahir Browne of Decatur sees himself as just one custodian of Louisiana tradition — and that means showing London that gumbo contains multitudes

Tom Zahir Browne has been cooking gumbo for years, and today he’s chopped, roasted, braised and boiled his way to another bubbling pot. But he knows it will never be his. “It’s not my food but I want to be a really fucking good custodian of it, because it has so much tied up in it. I’m not trying to change it or make it better.”

This was mid-October, at Quality Wines in Farringdon, where Zahir Browne’s paean to Southern food, Decatur, had taken over the kitchen in head chef Nick Bramham’s stead. During its nomadic seven-year life, one of residencies, chargrilled oysters, stolen vans and lockdown shrimp boils, Zahir Browne has always had two things in mind.

One: to act as a rejoinder to the cheesy, pastiched perception of Southern cooking prominent in London, which, he says, stems from the fact that “once you cross an ocean people are going to pull out the easiest things they can, based on easy assumptions.” He himself crossed an ocean after living and working all over Louisiana for many years, but left the assumptions over the Atlantic.

Two: to recognise and respect that that rejoinder could not exist without hundreds of years of history, tradition, and difference. Gumbo — one dish on a menu of what Zahir Browne dubs “Louisiana greatest hits,” refracted through Britain’s ingredients and London’s own difference — is perhaps the ultimate expression of that recognition. With its defined characteristics, but myriad permutations, gumbo is infinity.

Zahir Browne takes this as first principle. “Gumbo is not really one dish, it can cross a lot of different boundaries. It can range from soupy, brothy, shellfish-heavy, to thick, more country, meaty. West African influence of okra. When you’ve cooked a lot of gumbos you can find the style that you like.” Attempting to draw a single line of influence is reductive: Doing so erases the sociocultural complexity of a dish whose ingredients and finished product are key touch points in French, West African, and Indigenous pasts and present, intermixed by colonisation, enslavement, and migration. There’s seasonality, the topography of Louisiana and the American South, and personal tastes forged in home kitchens. Rooted boundlessness.

Accordingly, the gumbos at the three-week residency were not static. The first, with no thickening from roux, was made with prawns. It relied on a shellfish fumet — “£80 of langoustine bodies, turbot bones, monkfish bones, the best British seafood we could find” — and leaned more towards the Creole stylings of New Orleans dining rooms.

What followed, and is showcased here, was a duck and andouille gumbo, thickened with both gumbo filé — ground sassafras — and a roux, cooked out until brown and bitter and thick as tar. Both andouille and wild game, like duck, are staples of country-style gumbos, but the andouille is made in Hertfordshire and the duck flew in England too. Both chime with the closest Zahir Browne ever gets — considered, not evasive — to defining his terms. “A multitude of different proteins in a thickened, rich stock. In many ways defined by situation and place rather than ingredients.”

Zahir Browne is now on the lookout for his next move: a few more pop-ups before the year is out, and then, hopefully, a restaurant. He was on the cusp of opening a permanent operation in 2020, before COVID-19 arrived — a frustration that still stings, despite the overwhelming success of Decatur’s at-home seafood boils. He knows, though, that be it pop-up or residency, Decatur can only keep iterating to improve.

“There’s always been intense amounts of research and conversations with chefs — learning as much as possible and trying to apply it in the dishes. But ultimately, it’s probably reps: I’ve been doing this for eight years now.” There are many more years and reps to come.

A chef holds a peeled shallot over a metal bowl full of the peelings.
The “holy Trinity” of onion, carrot, and green bell peppers goes into both the duck stock and the base of the gumbo. To this end: it’s time to chop.
Three plastic containers, filled from left-to-right with diced celery; roughly chopped carrots, mushrooms, and celery; and sheaths of spring onions and carrots
They are diced for the gumbo base, and more roughly chopped to be roasted with the duck legs, developing flavour that will be captured in the eventual stock.
A metal gastro of duck legs, being salted from a height.
Barbary duck legs are salted before being roasted. Salt being sprinkled from a height? Someone should turn that into a meme.
Massaging salt into Barbary duck legs in a metal gastro tray.
Evenly distributing the salt.
The rough-chopped vegetables, ready to be roasted alongside the duck
The rough-chopped vegetables, ready to be roasted alongside the duck.
A closeup of a tray of roasted duck legs, carrots, mushrooms, celery, immersed in almost confit duck fat.
Duck fat is poured out of the metal gastro that housed the roasted duck legs and vegetables, into a clear stock jug.
A closeup of a chef’s hands dropping bay leaves into a metal tray of roast duck legs and vegetables.

Zahir Browne adds herbs — essential to the “green” flavour profile of gumbo — that would have otherwise burned in the roasting process. These include bay leaves, thyme, and parsley stalks.

A chef pours a large metal stockpot of water on top of the roasted duck legs, vegetables, and herbs, ready to be braised.
All stock needs water.
A closeup of a chef adding parsley stalks to the duck legs, water, vegetables, and herbs. They are green against the brown meat.
The parsley is the final flourish.
Michaël Protin
A plastic tub of coins of Andouille sausage, with white chunks of pork fat visible against the pale pink meat.
Andouille is key to this iteration of gumbo, which leans more towards “country” Cajun cooking, from southern Louisiana, and influenced by the migration of the Acadians. Originally from France, they settled in Acadie — now Nova Scotia — before being violently dispersed by British colonisers in the 1750s. Some migrated from their exiled homes to to what was then the Spanish colony, Luisiana, and became Louisiana. It is heavy on game, wild meats like duck and alligator.
The tub of andouille is poured into a large steel pan, the coins bouncing in as it is poured from a height.
Rendering the andouille releases not just flavour, but plenty of fat, in which the gumbo base can luxuriate as it cooks.
A chef scrapes diced onions into a steel pan filled with bubbling andouille fat.
The onions sweat in the rendered fat, before being joined by celery and green bell peppers to form the Holy Trinity.
A chef scrapes green bell peppers and celery into the pan full of the onions, which are now translucent and golden.
The celery and green bell peppers go in once the onions have been sweated down.
A chef spoons a beige, grated garlic paste into the peppers, celery, and onions, which are now sweated down in the steel pan.
When the trinity is softened, a garlic paste joins the party, ready to be cooked out.
A sprig of thyme is dangled over the pot of sweated-down onions, celery, green bell peppers, and garlic.
“Green herbs” are essential to the deeply savoury, at times resinous profile of this gumbo style. Fresh thyme precedes its dried form.
A chef dangles bay leaves over the pot of sweated down vegetables, ready to join the thyme.
Then bay leaves.
A close-up of a heaped teaspoon of cayenne and paprika being spooned into the gumbo base
Zahir Browne’s “Decaturains” spice mix follows, which includes cayenne, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, and dried thyme, as well as white and black peppers
A close-up of a glass jar of gumbo filé.
Then, a key ingredient: gumbo filé. Ground sassafras, this adds a root beer flavour and acts as a thickening agent. It comes from the Choctaw Nation, and would be used over okra when the latter was not in season, or simply by choice.
A close-up of thickened gumbo base on a spoon
The gumbo filé adds huge mucilaginous richness.
A metal gastro tray full of rich, fatty duck stock, with roasted vegetables and bones in its depths
As the base cooks down, the duck legs are done braising. They serve two purposes: to provide meat for the gumbo, and to create a rich, coating stock that will also be added to the final dish.
A tub of andouille sausage, cut into coins, is poured into the gumbo pot.
Having given up some of its fattiness and aroma to the base, the andouille is reintroduced to the gumbo.
A close-up of a ladle being drawn through the layer of duck fat on top of a tub of duck stock
Once the stock is strained off, a layer of precious rendered duck fat will rise to the top. Zahir Browne will reserve it, for future rouxs.
A chef shakes a bottle of Crystal hot sauce, red, into a bubbling pot of rust-coloured gumbo
Crystal hot sauce adds acidity, heat, and a little sheen.
A pan of dark brown roux, as dark as dark chocolate, on the stove.
Then, the all-important roux. Flour, duck fat, and andouille fat, cooked out until on the cusp of ruin, the precipice of burned. It will contribute thickness and a smouldering undercurrent of bitterness and complexity.
A close-up of a chef using tongs to pull duck leg meat away from its bones.
The duck legs fulfil their final duty: meat pulled from bone, for the gumbo.
A close-up birdseye view of the pot of gumbo, with the andouille sausage bobbing in the rich, rusted broth.
The gumbo awaits the duck.
Michaël Protin
A shallow, floral-patterned china bowl of the gumbo.
A shallow, floral-patterned china bowl of the gumbo, now with white rice and spring onions added. Michaël Protin
A chef in a black apron sits over the bowl of gumbo with a spoon and a glass of red wine. Michaël Protin

Just one expression of the myriad potentialities of gumbo.