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Bowls and plates of food from Gumbo Social in San Francisco Meika Ejiasi

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It’s Finally Gumbo Go Time in San Francisco

Thanks to restaurants including Gumbo Social, it’s easier than ever to warm up with a bowl of gumbo this winter

Chef Dontaye Ball, better known as Mr. Gumbo, couldn’t tell you exactly how old he was the first time he tasted gumbo at his grandmother’s house in the Fillmore District. His grandmother always said eight years old. His mom believes it was more like four. But either way, to him, gumbo tastes like Christmas. Ball remembers the whole family elbowing into the kitchen and arguing about exactly what goes into the pot.

For a long time, good gumbo was hard to find in San Francisco. But thankfully, as we slog through this wet winter, San Francisco seems to be approaching peak gumbo. Brenda’s always made a serious bowl brimming with chicken, andouille, and okra. Boug Cali will be coming to the Ferry Building this year, bringing jars of seafood gumbo ready to grab and go. Meanwhile Gumbo Social opened in the Bayview last summer, where Ball dives deep into the iconic dish.

Many know gumbo as the official state dish of Louisiana, although versions simmer across the South. Ball’s grandmother grew up on a farm in Mississippi and cooked for a family in San Francisco for 20 years, making her a gumbo authority and a “fantastic chef,” according to Ball. Born and raised in the Bayview, Ball went to culinary school at City College, trained in France, cooked at Delfina, and worked in catering. At Gumbo Social, he’s not trying to recreate anyone’s grandmother’s stew. For him, gumbo feels more personal. “I firmly believe that every bowl should taste a little bit different than the last one based on how the person’s feeling,” Ball says. “The emotions, what they’re going through in life, come through in that pot of gumbo.”

The key ingredients to gumbo, in his opinion, include a roux of fat and flour; the “holy trinity” of onion, celery, and bell pepper; and “the pope,” or garlic. Some purists say the pepper has to be green, but the California chef loves colorful red and yellow. He insists on okra, despite a few haters. Okra originally came from West Africa, where it’s called “ki ngombo” or simply “gombo,” so it’s the name of the ingredient and part of the history of the dish. To bring out its best, he thinly slices, salts, and roasts the okra, which he says is essential to the earthy flavor and viscous texture of the stew.

Chef Dontaye Ball of Gumbo Social in San Francisco sears some seafood with a torch at his restaurant.
Chef Dontaye Ball of Gumbo Social
Meika Ejiasi

“I’m not the gumbo gatekeeper,” he jokes, “but I do like to talk shit.” There are a couple of controversial ingredients he can’t stand, specifically tomatoes and corn. “Corn is one of those things. It’s actually against the law. That can get you ten years in prison.”

The most important technique is to have patience with the roux. His grandmother relied on her cast-iron skillet and always used oil. (One time, an uncle washed it in water, and she smacked him with it.) His grandfather from Texas preferred flavorful lard or bacon grease. Ball uses a combo of oil and butter, to add a touch of toastiness from the browned butter. In big vats at the restaurant, he lets it gurgle for two and a half hours, until darker than mahogany. Many hours also sink into his stocks, which are enriched with chicken carcasses, ham bones, or shrimp shells, and simmer for up to 24 hours. On top of that, he smokes his own turkeys, another 8-hour project.

Building on that foundation of deep flavor, Ball makes several versions, including classic chicken and sausage, smoked turkey, and black-eyed peas (gumbo can’t be gluten-free, due to the roux, but it can be vegan, it seems). From there, he gets a little West Coast with the toppings, such as duck crisped like carnitas, smoked pork belly, and fried chicken wings. His uncles always argued over who got more shrimp or crab, so he offers blue crab most of the year, and promises Dungeness during the season (he’s between crab guys at the moment, so stay tuned). He’s even done a butter-poached lobster, presented in the shell, on fancy occasions.

Finally, his grandmother liked a sprinkle of filé — the ground sassafras leaves first used by the Indigenous people of the American South, which included the people of the Choctaw Nation; it was later appropriated by French chefs — which both thickens and seasons the stew with herbal flavor. His mother, however, always passed on the strong seasoning, so Ball keeps it optional in a shaker. A collection of hot sauces, many shared by locals, at one point reached 69 bottles, although now it’s down to a dozen. Ball recommends tasting the gumbo before hitting it with hot sauce, and he reaches for classic Crystal from Louisiana or local Lucky Dog from the East Bay for a bit of heat.

From the open kitchen, Ball watches customers dig in and sit back. He’ll often hear folks say, “Man, this brings me back,” or “Damn, I haven’t had a good bowl of gumbo in a long time.” Sometimes he can see the wheels turning, and especially if a customer comes in with strong opinions, it might take until the bottom of the bowl for them to figure out exactly what they like. “It’s a dish that’s a good representation of what America’s supposed to be,” Ball says. “A melting pot of different cultures.” He tastes the African ingredients, the Indigenous flavors, the French techniques, and several different perspectives. “Similar to jazz, we’re all playing together. It doesn’t matter who’s from where, we’re all making some music together.”

A bowl of gumbo from San Francisco restaurant Gumbo Social. Don Bowden

Gumbo Social (​5176 3rd Street) is open from noon to 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

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