mobile bay

Recipe: Mobile Bay Gumbo

I was born on the shores of Mobile Bay and I have spent more than 30 years living, hunting, fishing, cooking and most importantly eating beside its lapping waves.  This beautiful and historic body of water provides a bounty of food especially seafood and wild game.  This particular gumbo uses proteins found in or around Mobile Bay – duck, shrimp, oysters and flounder.  Dig it!

Mobile Bay Gumbo
Recipe Type: Soup, Main
Author: Stuart Reb Donald
Prep time: 10 mins
Cook time: 1 hour 30 mins
Total time: 1 hour 40 mins
Serves: 4-8
Ingredients
  • 4 duck breasts
  • Olive oil (if needed)
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 1 bunch celery, diced
  • 3 bell peppers, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound fresh okra, sliced
  • 1 gallon seafood stock (give or take)
  • 1 TBL oregano
  • 3 Bay leaves
  • 1 TBL thyme
  • Salt, pepper and/or Cajun seasoning to taste
  • 2 pounds flounder filets, 1″ diced
  • 2 pounds peeled shrimp
  • 2 pints oysters (with liquid)
  • Worcestershire Sauce to taste
  • Louisiana hot sauce to taste
Instructions
  1. Lightly season the duck breasts and put skin-side down in a heated gumbo pot and cook until fat is rendered and skin is crispy as all get out, roughly 7 minutes. Remove the duck meat but leave that glorious fat.
  2. Add olive oil (if needed) so that you have 1/2 cup of fat in the pot and then add the flour, season to taste and cook the roux until the color of chocolate (about 15 to 20 minutes) stirring constantly.
  3. Add the onions, celery and peppers and cook another 5 minutes.
  4. Add the garlic, okra and stock. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
  5. Add the herbs and season to taste.
  6. Dice the duck and add to the gumbo. Cook for 20 minutes.
  7. Add the fish and cook for five minutes.
  8. Add the oysters and cook for three minutes.
  9. Add the shrimp and cook until pink, about 5 minutes.
  10. Season to taste with Worcestershire Sauce and Louisiana hot sauce.
  11. Serve over rice.

Photo courtesy of Lynne Brown

Notes

If you can’t find flounder then sheepshead or even catfish will do.

Diary of a Wannabe TV Chef – PT 4

This is the latest installment in a continuing series that documents my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, the two most import elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.

Once more unto the breach…

My first night back in a commercial kitchen was memorable.  It is a Friday night and the restaurant is on about an hour wait. I am training and therefore have plenty of time to take in the sights and sounds of this old friend.  Tickets are ringing up, the expo (expeditor – person in charge of organizing food from the kitchen and sending it to the dining room; a mediator of the line) is barking out orders for a FOD (fish of the day) that is going on 23 minutes, servers are stealing each other’s salads in a failed attempt to salvage a tip at a table they have neglected, and the dish-washing unit is beeping because it needs more sanitizer. Heaven.

Hawaiian SteakOne of the servers comes into the kitchen with a Hawaiian Ribeye his customer has sent back. Here is the dialogue as it unfolded:

Chef: Why is she sending this steak back?

Server: She said it tastes sweet.

Chef: Of course it tastes sweet, it’s a Hawaiian Ribeye.

Server: She said she had no idea that it would taste sweet.

Chef: How did you describe the dish when she ordered it?

Server: I said it is an 18 ounce choice ribeye steak with Hawaiian flavors.

Chef: What are Hawaiian flavors?

Server: Uh . . .

Chef: What do you think we do, shave a live Hawaiian over the steak when it is done? It is an 18 ounce choice ribeye steak marinated in teriyaki sauce, honey, and pineapple juice, served with two slices of grilled organic pineapple! Because you didn’t take the time to learn your menu, I have to throw away a $37 steak!

The rest was unsuitable for print.

The restaurant is the last place that a boss can actually get angry at employee when they do something stupid that costs the company money. In an office setting, the chef would have been headed for anger management classes. In a kitchen, the chef is the law, the employee slams a few things down and mutters furiously about what a jerk the chef is. Three or four f-bombs later and all is forgotten.

As the months go by, I begin to feel my stride again. I am handling copious amounts of work on Friday nights as it is the Lenten season. Since many Catholics give up red meat during Lent, the pantry station is getting slammed with salads. It baffles me, if you have given up red meat for Lent, why are you going to a steakhouse for dinner?

New opportunities to learn keep popping up. For Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we do away with the menu and replace it with a lavish buffet. Buffets are new to me so I get my first real taste of batch cooking. The owners start having chef’s specials – each chef gets to contribute. Mine is an appetizer – Southwestern Spring Rolls with smoked chicken, corn salsa, and cabbage served with a spicy ranch dipping sauce

The chance to cross-train arises, so it is time to pick a new position to learn. I have worked the fry station at many restaurants so it can wait. I can go toe-to-toe with anybody on a broiler so there is no challenge there, thus I begin to learn the sauté station. If a kitchen were a rock band, sauté is the lead singer, the one everybody is looking at. The guy who gets the chicks. My skills grow each day I work in this kitchen.

But, I am just a part-time chef, here. I work Friday and Saturday nights only. I still work at the call center for my primary income. I am only a few months away from my five-year anniversary and the guaranteed pension and fully vested mutual fund that comes with that. It would be foolish to leave before then.

Then came Hurricane Ivan.

Just 25 miles from slamming Mobile, the deadly hurricane inexplicably changed directions, hitting the other side of Mobile Bay and pummeling Pensacola, Florida. It is now known in these parts as “the last minute jog.” Though our neighbors in Baldwin County and in Florida were in dire straights, Mobile was up and running, sort of.

The call center was on the same power grid as a fire/rescue and police station, so we were open for business just 36 hours after the infamous jog. Not everyone was so lucky. For that reason the company had decided to feed all employees and their families with whatever food was in the cafeteria. The catering contract at our site was in limbo. The old company had left the day before the storm and the new company was not scheduled to come in until the next week. They needed someone to run the kitchen.

Do you want to know one of the reasons why I love the culinary arts? Look in the eyes of a six year old child that has just gone through one of the most destructive forces of nature on earth, is now living without electricity, air conditioning, plumbing, or any creature comforts for the first time in their life and then hand them a pancake with a smiley face made out of chocolate chips.

The day of my fifth year anniversary with the rental company I mail out a dozen copies of my restaurant management résumé. The first interview does not come for two months. It is with a sports bar chain famous for their waitresses’ skimpy outfits. The interview process goes well. I am very eager to escape my cubical nightmare and return to my passion but the salary offer is an insulting $23K a year. I have to think carefully before declining the offer. The thing that really killed the deal was that management was forbidden from dating the very attractive servers in the skimpy outfits. Seriously, if you are only going to pay your managers chicken scratch there has to be some fringe benefit.

A few more interviews and finally the offer comes that makes the career change worth the chance. A well known fern bar is looking for managers. The training lasts 10 weeks in either Kansas, Nebraska, or Florida and pays a much more attractive salary. Overnight my pay doubles and my life changes forever.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry, pt. 3




This is part three of a three part series (dare I say exposé?) on the corporate restaurant industry.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry

The closing of so many chain restaurants is one of the few bright spots in an utterly dreary economic state. Corporate restaurants are a bane to American society. Making a buck is never wrong, but these companies have done so by enslaving workers, knowingly poisoning their customers and sabotaging small business. We should not be lamenting the fall of the corporate restaurant industry, but rather celebrate it by be prosecuting the CEO’s and politicians who conspired to create the nefarious beast.

America’s Modern Slave State

The onslaughts on the general public and small business are not the only transgressions of corporate restaurant chains as their workers (servers, bar tenders and the like) are the only profession in the entire nation that are not paid minimum wage. Try, if you can, to imagine how your life might change if the state you live in passed a law that said your employer now only has to pay your profession $2.50/hour. The rest of your income is solely up to the generosity of strangers. Additionally, the government makes you pay taxes on these charitable contributions regardless of whether or not you actually receive them. As if that were not enough, you also have to work every holiday without receiving overtime or holiday pay. And you can forget about sick-leave all together.

Now let’s sweeten the pot a little by informing you that if someone who is inebriated happens to enter your work area you are now personally responsible for every action that person takes until they sober up. Regardless of whether you provide them with alcohol or even conduct business with them in any manner you are still criminally liable for their actions.

It sounds preposterous does it not? This is the 21st Century; the conditions just described sound like something out of a Dickens’ novel. At best this is an extreme example of the deplorable human rights violations in some war-torn African nation. One thing is for sure, this could never happen in America, not with all this change and hope floating around.

Sadly the circumstances illustrated do exist today and right here in River City.

As it turns out the restaurant industry is exempt from US Federal minimum wage laws. Each state is free to set whatever minimum wage they deem for bartenders, bussers, servers, and even hostesses as little as $2.13 an hour. A few states are enlightened enough to guarantee these workers the same minimum wage as any other profession. Most do not. In fact only eight states currently require the same minimum wage for restaurant workers as everyone else. The remaining 42 states allow companies to legally pay their workers less than what economists and society have agreed is a fair wage.

In Alabama for instance the server wage is $2.13 an hour or one third the current minimum wage. Florida is scarcely better at $3.50 an hour. Montana and Minnesota have two minimum wages for servers (both are below the national minimum) – one for big business and a lower one for small. The corporations argue that this punishes them for being successful while small businesses insist the better servers opt for the chains leaving them to pick through the leftovers. In Nevada full time restaurant workers are actually forced to choose between a fair wage or health insurance.

A gratuity is a bonus for a job well done; a little something extra for going beyond the norm, or at least it used to be. By making servers rely on tips to pay their wages and then taxing those tips, the government has in effect made it a law that everyone must tip at least 10% regardless of the quality of service. Whether a 10% tip is left or not the server still pays taxes on it. Consequently, anyone who fails to leave 10% is in reality stealing from the server.

Some people do not know that the bulk of a server’s pay comes from tips and assume that restaurant workers make a fair wage like everyone else. And why wouldn’t they? After all, there is a federal minimum wage and excluding one profession from having to adhere is unethical.

Lobbyists working on behalf of the large restaurant cartels rely heavily on the argument that servers make very good money in the form of gratuities. In fact, that is the entirety of their argument – servers earn so much money on tips that their bosses should not have to pay them for their toil. So this begs the question, just how much money are we talking about?

If the money servers earn is as good as argued then surely they make in excess of $75,000 a year, maybe as much as $174,000 – the annual salary of a US congressmen. According to the US Department of Labor in 2006 the median hourly wage-and-salary earnings (including tips) of servers was $7.14/hour. In most cases, the hourly wage does not even cover their tax burden leaving them still owing the government money at the end of the year. The same government that says that their effort is not worth as much as other professions apparently does not feel likewise about their tax obligation.

Still many may contend that servers make great money for no more work than they do. After all, all they do is take your order and bring you food that someone else cooks and drinks that someone else mixes, right?

In addition to clearing their tables and cleaning them for the next party, they also have what is called side work. Side work consists of tasks that must be performed to keep the restaurant running smoothly. Many of these duties are simple and occupy little time like rolling silverware into napkins. Others include considerable labor like hauling heavy buckets of ice from one end of the building to the other, vacuuming large sections of food-embedded carpet, mopping floors, preparing foods, cleaning bathrooms, and scraping bubblegum from underneath tables.

Side work comes in three forms and almost every restaurant requires its servers a certain amount as part of their daily performance. The three types of side work are opening (performed before the shift), running (performed during the shift), and closing (performed after the shift). Although the restaurant must pay the server a regular minimum wage for side work performed prior to opening the same is not said for closing side work which typically constitutes the most arduous and time consuming chores. Federal law states that one hour after a server’s final customer leaves the employer must then pay the employee the standard minimum wage.

Thanks to the way the wage law is written employers are actually allowed to pay less than minimum wage for one full hour despite the fact that the employee makes no tip for that labor. Some companies deliberately exploit this loophole by piling extra work on the tip earners that previously was performed by higher wage earners. Although this practice is entirely unethical, remarkably it is legal.

Some families are on budgets that prevent them from spending very much. These people may actually tip the standard 20% but they are forced to streamline their order. A standard 20% tip on the least expensive item is better than nothing, but it requires the same amount of effort as the most expensive dish and in some cases more. A server at The Olive Garden for instance actually does more work for customers who order the economical soup, salad, and breadsticks than for those who order a more expensive entrée.

The Olive Garden is one of the concepts owned by dining conglomerate Darden Restaurants, Inc. out of Orlando, FL. Darden also operates Red Lobster, Smokey Bones, Longhorn Steaks, and Bahama Breeze making it a classic example of the typical restaurant corporation. Darden owns and operates more than 1,700 restaurants across North America employing roughly 160,000 people. Darden is, in terms of revenue, the world’s top restaurant operator.

But Darden is hardly the only player in the ultra-competitive multi-unit market. Brinker International, Inc. out of Dallas, TX which owns Chili’s, On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill is another titan of the industry with more than 1,800 restaurant locations in 20 countries. They, too, are one of the largest restaurant cartels in the US and as such are one of the largest employers of restaurant workers in the country.

Actual Olive Garden Check StubDespite working nearly 30 hours this Olive Garden employee took home nothing after state and federal taxes were applied.

On average a server who works roughly 30 hours a week and earns 15% in tips will have a weekly paycheck totaling zero after taxes. Not only does Uncle Sam dip into servers’ tips, but many restaurants make them “tip out” their fellow employees. Servers must share their hard earned money with hostesses, bussers, dishwashers, and even bar tenders. Tipping out allows business owners to also under pay non-tip earning employees by classifying them as tip-earners. A server’s “tip out” is determined by a percentage of their sales for the shift and ultimately denies them of anywhere from 15% to more than 50% of their daily earnings.

So if the same argument used to justify paying servers a substandard wage is applied to other professions then school teachers would have to choose between making a living wage and having medical insurance. Corporate executives would be making $3.50 an hour with the rest of their pay coming from board members stuffing dollar bills into an old pickle jar. That would include men like David Goebel, the former CEO of Applebee’s International Inc. who took home $2.7 million in 2006 while paying his servers less than $3 an hour.

Be sure to check out the first two parts of this series The Big Bad Wolf – Mom and Pop Under Siege and Biting the Hand that Feeds.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry, pt. 2

This is part two of a three part series (dare I say exposé?) on the corporate restaurant industry originally published in April 2009.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry

The closing of so many chain restaurants is one of the few bright spots in an utterly dreary economic state. Corporate restaurants are a bane to American society. Making a buck is never wrong, but these companies have done so by enslaving workers, knowingly poisoning their customers and sabotaging small business. We should not be lamenting the fall of the corporate restaurant industry, but rather celebrate it by be prosecuting the CEO’s and politicians who conspired to create the nefarious beast.

Biting the Hand that Feeds

Not only have chain restaurants assaulted locally owned restaurateurs by dishonestly manipulating pricing but they have done so at the expense of the nation’s health. The foods they produce are loaded with saturated and trans fats, copious amounts of unneeded sugars (this combination is the chief cause of our obesity epidemic) but they have also pummeled us with a bevy of chemicals that we are only now beginning to learn are more dangerous than a dirty bomb.

Because of negligible regulations in the Far East it is actually cheaper to sell foreign shrimp than domestic. What does this mean for the consumer? Cheaper prices. It also means poor quality and an increased health threat. The other victim is a loss of our collective identity.

Nowhere is this assault on legacy more evident than in the communities along Alabama’s coastline. Bayou La Batre, Coden, Alabama Port, and Heron Bay are all classic fishing villages. They are windows to our past not just as a community but as a nation. Prior to the industrial revolution America was an agrarian society, farmers and fisherman.

The flood of foreign shrimp on the US market has plunged prices so that shrimpers struggle to show a profit. Thusly, the American wild shrimp industry is in a crisis of Great Depression proportions. This comes on the heels of the decades old battle over TED’s (Turtle Extraction Devices) which, though protecting an endangered species, greatly reduce productivity on the boats.

As if all of this weren’t enough along comes hurricane Katrina. While the national media was focusing on the manmade drama in New Orleans places like Bayou La Batre were largely ignored. The Bayou’s hardship did not result from laissez faire but rather was purely an act of nature. And the destruction was even more absolute as residents lost both their homes and their livelihood.

Adding salt to the wound is that these are largely family owned businesses, another American tradition besieged by progress. Families that have fed their children, built their houses, and earned their living from the Gulf are now facing extinction.

What is worse, the big chains have known that their food was dangerous for decades yet they have gone on producing them and even going so far as to further deceive the public by creating so-called “healthy menu choices” that they know are anything but.

Although consumers have benefited financially from low restaurant prices, there have been casualties, literal casualties. Product quality particularly has greatly suffered from inexpensive menus. In order to lower food costs companies have been importing substandard products. Many of these imports fail to meet minimum USDA standards but are seldom inspected because of the sheer volume that is swamping our ports. The result is that less than 1% of the seafood imported from overseas is actually being inspected.

Imported, farm raised salmon for example is often teaming with the additive canthaxanthin a carcinogen which is band from use in the US. Foreign shrimp is full of another deadly chemical, chloramphenicol that causes human aplastic anemia, a lethal blood disorder. Once again, 99% of imported seafood is not inspected for these chemicals despite the peril. Moreover, domestic beef is given perilous amounts of growth hormones and poultry often contains the antibiotic compound roxarsone which contains arsenic.

As it turns out you may be better off walking around with a rod of weapons grade plutonium in your pocket than indulging in the all-you-can-eat shrimp at Red Lobster.

Be sure to check out the first part of this series The Big Bad Wolf – Mom and Pop Under Siege. Check back tomorrow for part three, America’s Modern Slave State.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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