This was my 5th Got Gumbo? event benefitting the United Way and it’s one of my favorite annual evenings. At the Royal Sonesta, 15 restaurants provided up to 4 dishes each to compete for Best Traditional Gumbo, Best Seafood Gumbo, Best Exotic Gumbo and Best Vegetarian Gumbo as well as the People’s Choice for Best Dessert, Best Float (decorated table display) and Best Gumbo. That’s 15 restaurants, each with multiple chefs, competing in up to half a dozen categories each so you can eat yourself silly surrounded by fun table displays and charitable gumbo-lovers (United Way receives the $25 ticket price as well as the bar). And, of course, there’s a band – Rick Trolson’s New Orleans Po’Boys.
As I’ve said before, gumbo is the perfect metaphor for our city, our music and our culture – all of the ingredients work together without ever losing their individual flavors. It was great to run into friends like fellow Django Unchained actor, Spud McConnell and Ryan Gall, Executive Chef at TPC Louisiana who was on the judging panel with me for the annual Valero gumbo contest. It’s always a supreme pleasure to reconnect with Mr. Alfred Groos, President and General Manager Royal Sonesta and creator of Got Gumbo? 16 years ago.
Readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for Raymond Signal of the Superdome’s Centerplate who I first met at the 2011 Got Gumbo? when he blew me away with his duck, andouille and oyster gumbo with duck cracklins “that drove me from cloud 9 straight to heaven.” For years, Signal sponsored himself and last year he even cooked the vats of gumbo at home on his electric stove. This year, he went with a traditional okra gumbo. I worried because okra -vs- filé is a pretty long and contentious debate around here. But it was so good, I hoped it would overcome any anti-okra prejudices on the judging panel. I needn’t have worried as it was finally Raymond’s turn to collect a medal – 2nd place judge’s choice for Best Traditional Gumbo.
One of my favorites this year was the 3 Little Piggies Gumbo from Dickie Brennan’s Palace Cafe. With boudin and hog’s head cheese instead of rice, it was a dark, rich gumbo that shocked the mouth with flavor. Marriott’s 5 Fifty 5 reprised their winning bread bowl dish – and won Best Seafood Gumbo again! I finally got to see what all the fuss was about and – yep, it’s pretty great. I also enjoyed the seafood offering at Desire Oyster Bar as well as the one from Restaurant R’evolution (both housed in the Royal Sonesta).
The desserts were even better this year. People’s Choice Best Dessert went to 5 Fifty 5 for their super-fancy S’Mores with a shot of creamy marshmallowy goodness. I also really liked the Deanie’s Seafood Deconstructed Canoli and the Fried PB&J Sandwich with White Chocolate Bananas Foster Ice Cream from Desire Oyster Bar – fried banana slices spread with peanut butter and jelly and topped with ice cream. Other winners included:
Best Traditional Gumbo – Hyatt Regency’s 1718 Catering (I had the yummy seafood option – “An authentic seafood stock enriched with Fresh Louisiana Shrimp, Crabs, Crab Meat, Oysters & Crawfish, Andouille Sausage served with Cajun Rice & Mini Ciabatta.”)
Best Exotic Gumbo – Desire Oyster Bar
Best Vegetarian Gumbo – Desire Oyster Bar
People’s Choice Best Float – 1718 Catering
People’s Choice Best Gumbo – Charlie’s Restaurant
Congratulations to all of the winners – enjoy your bragging rights! But the big winners are the attendees who get to taste dozens of delectable treats from some of the city’s most amazing chefs bringing their best old recipes and new innovations to compete head to head for votes. Honestly, I don’t know why the whole city doesn’t show up for this one – except across town at the City Park Botanical Gardens, Gambit held their Food Review- over 30 restaurants featured in their publication… There’s just no way to do it all in NOLA. Like beads from a float, the riches are too plentiful to catch without letting a few “pearls” drop to the ground.