At the original Li'l Dizzy's Cafe (1500 Esplanade Ave., 569-8997), Wayne Baquet carries on a family restaurant tradition that stretches back to 1947 and an eatery called Paul Gross Chicken Coop. His parents later opened Eddie's, and that 7th Ward restaurant grew into a Creole food legend before closing in the 1990s. Baquet has operated several restaurants across the city since then and he opened Li'l Dizzy's in 2005. He'll be serving his signature gumbo and other dishes at the Treme Creole Gumbo Festival (www.jazzandheritage.org/treme-gumbo/).
What's the evolution of your gumbo?
Baquet: We have a Creole gumbo: hot sausage that we make ourselves, smoked sausage, crab, shrimp, chicken, all of that goes into the gumbo. It's a recipe that's been in my family since the 1950s, then my dad took it to the next level by coming up with a way to make the roux in advance to keep it more consistent with different cooks and at different restaurants. We have someone now, Tina Cockerham, she's been with us for 35 years and she's in charge of the roux, that's her thing.
Why do you think gumbo is so evocative of New Orleans?
B: It's the original Creole dish of New Orleans. It was a poor man's dish back in the day. You'd take scraps, you'd take seafood you caught yourself and you made something delicious from it. It's African, from an African word for "okra," but it's also French and it's Indian too, and that's the melting pot they talk about.
Is it hard to find good gumbo outside Louisiana?
B: I'll be honest with you, I definitely haven't found good gumbo outside Louisiana, but it's hard to find what I'd call great gumbo even in New Orleans. Too many restaurants want to fiddle with it and make it into a soup or a gravy. It's supposed to be a certain way. Now, my mother's gumbo doesn't taste like my wife's gumbo, and her gumbo doesn't taste like my dad's gumbo, but they all taste good and they all taste like gumbo. You put your stamp on it, but you can't change it up too much, and you have to use the right ingredients. You don't fiddle with gumbo. — IAN MCNULTY