Gregory Porter got a late start as a recording musician, but that was because he was busy flexing his chops on a culinary stage. His infatuation with cooking started during his teen years, and after college he ground his way through a variety of catering roles in San Diego, including a stint prepping vegetarian dishes with New Age guru Deepak Chopra. But it was when he moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2004 that Porter began to put it all together—he became a cook at his brother Lloyd’s restaurant Bread-Stuy (later named Bread Love). “I was the soup and salad man there,” he remembers. “People loved my black bean turkey chili, and Bed-Stuy fell in love with my borscht recipe after never having tasted anything like it before.”
Porter’s music career took off shortly thereafter, but his love of cooking never abated. Recently, when touring and recording were halted by the pandemic, he found a silver lining woven inside all the grief: He could spend time at home in Bakersfield, Calif., preparing food for his wife and young son. He also got the opportunity to host an online video series for the Zagat YouTube channel about his favorite recipes and the stories behind them, called The PorterHouse with Gregory Porter. Despite his initial anxiety—“It wasn’t easy to allow nine grown men into my house”—the show was a success.
One particularly iconic meal featured in the series’ third episode is gumbo, which Porter says helps him reconnect with family members both past and present. “I’m fascinated by it, because its roots are so varied,” he says. “There’s the French influence with the roux, the African influence with the okra, and even the Indians from around Louisiana, where my mother was from, with their local seafood and ground sassafras leaves, which is called gumbo filé. You gotta do the sassafras. It’s one of those flavors where you say, ‘Wow, what is that?’ and it tastes terrible on its own, but mixed into this dish it’s perfect.
“There’s cultural significance even in its name,” he adds, “especially today, in this era where people are trying to dig into something that connects them to this land, to this America, even to our American Blackness. This dish, this gumbo, is it.”
According to Porter, it’s more than just a meal—it’s a ritual, both to cook it and to eat it. “Think about the meat that goes into it, the shrimp and crab. Who gets the biggest piece of crab? Who gets the sausage? There was a hierarchy,” he explains. “Kids didn’t get no meat or shrimp. What they used to do for the kids is they would slice up little pieces of hot dogs in their portions, that was your protein, and the elders who were around got the best pieces of crab. The way I do it now, in my family, is my son gets crab, shrimp, all of it. I want him to know he deserves the best, just like me. I’m not saying they mistreated us,” he says with a laugh. “It was a sweet thing that my mother and grandmother got the best bits.
“It was such a thing. The smells, making the roux, putting it all together,” he says with revelry, recalling that the first time he had the dish was at his grandmother’s house. “The reason it sticks out in my head is when they put the crab in. The visual memory of this crab going into this steaming pot was like, ‘Whooof, what is that?!’ I was afraid the crabs would come out of the pot. But then they dished it up for me and my brother and sister and we had a pile of sliced up hot-dog medallions in there,” he says with a deep laugh. “But then you get the smell, and the flavor of some of the soup, and it tasted like seafood and I loved it. When I want to taste home, this is the recipe. This dish is about feeling my family, my mother, and remembering my brothers and sisters … and soup with hot-dog slices in it.”
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 lb. chicken wings
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. paprika
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
2 andouille or other spicy sausages
2 tbsp. gumbo filé (ground sassafras), divided
1 onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
5 sticks celery, diced
8 cups chicken broth
3 bay leaves
2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 lb. snow crab, rinsed and broken up
1 lb. stone crab, rinsed and broken up
1 lb. large shrimp, shelled with tails on, deveined
½ lb. small shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 cup okra, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Estimated cooking time: 2 hours
Start with the roux, which should take about 25 minutes to make. In a cast iron skillet or a heavy-bottomed pan, heat 1 cup oil over medium-low heat. Slowly whisk in 1 cup flour until you have a uniform consistency. Keep whisking over medium-low heat until roux develops a milk-chocolate brown color. Once the roux is completed, take off heat and set aside. “Never let it burn,” Porter orders. “No, no, no … you stay there, stirring, and it can take some time, with you just working the bottom of that pot. That nutty flavor that you’re creating with roasted flour is key for the broth.”
In a separate Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed soup pan, heat up 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add in chicken wings, garlic powder, paprika, cumin, coriander, and a pinch of salt and cook, flipping the chicken wings every so often for each side to brown evenly. Midway through, add in spicy sausage, the other 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and 1 tablespoon of gumbo filé. Continue to brown for a total time of about 15 minutes.
Add diced vegetables to the pan, stirring occasionally until they are tender, about 5 minutes. Working quickly, stir in roux, chicken broth, and bay leaves. Bring to a gentle boil, continue to stir over medium heat for 30-40 minutes.
Add crushed tomatoes, stir to combine, bring to a boil and lower heat to let simmer for 20 minutes. Once the tomatoes cook down a bit, fold in snow crab and stone crab and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.
Fold in jumbo shrimp and small shrimp, remaining 1 tablespoon of gumbo filé, and okra. Simmer for 10 minutes until just cooked through. Adjust thickness and flavor with broth or water and salt to liking. Serve with rice. “That textural thing you get from gumbo comes from the okra at the very end,” Porter notes. “It leaches out this slime that’s almost gelatinous. But mmmmmm.”