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.