Filmmaker Alyssa Rachelle Explores the Cultural Influences Behind Gumbo

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The lights were dim in the DeLuxe Theater as guests sat around banquet tables and stared intently at the screen. Projected in front of them a woman and a chef moved through the tight, hectic space of a restaurant kitchen as line cooks prepped for the evening’s guests. The two stopped in front of a bubbling pot and the chef began to stir.

“Gumbo has to be built,” the chef explained, guiding the interviewer through his recipe. “You can’t rush it. You taste as you go. You start with the roux and you build up.”

The camera panned over to the smiling interviewer, overlooking the whole process as she continued to make more inquiries about the cast iron pot bubbling with a dark chocolate liquid on the stove between them.

“You start with a bad roux, a bad foundation, and you just throw the whole thing out. A good roux takes time. Once you get it right you can build on that,” the chef shared.

Guests got the opportunity to taste the Southern dish.EXPAND
Guests got the opportunity to taste the Southern dish.
Photo by Datubo Macharry/Evesborough Creative Agency

Alyssa Rachelle, the woman on screen, has been building something of her own over the last two years and, like the gumbo on screen, it has been a deliberate and detailed process that has taken time. The crowd at The DeLuxe Theater had the opportunity to experience her finished product last week with the premiere of her documentary, Gumbo, written, directed and starring Rachelle. The film, an exploration into the geography and history of the Southern dish, came about when Rachelle wanted to learn more about the recipe from her family.

“I didn’t know how to make gumbo and, as a filmmaker, I wanted to videotape everything,” she laughs while taking a break from chatting with guests. “I thought maybe I can videotape my grandmother teaching me and my husband's uncle, who’s from Louisiana, can teach. Then we could have a cook off to see which gumbo is better. I started Googling more and more about gumbo and the different versions started to fascinate me. I went to school for journalism and that part of me just took over. So, I’m sitting in bed at two in the morning making out a list of people I should speak to on gumbo and that’s how the documentary began,” says Rachelle.

Rachelle surrounded by family and friends at the Gumbo premiere.EXPAND
Rachelle surrounded by family and friends at the Gumbo premiere.
Photo by Datubo Macharry/Evesborough Creative Agency

What began was a deep dive into the dish, as Rachelle’s film tackles the various styles of gumbo and its international history. Gumbo traces the dish's roots back through the well-worn path of Cajun and French cuisine, but then goes even further, showcasing the West African and Native American roots that are recognized, but not always chronicled in detail. The list that Rachelle created two years ago had a lot of key ingredients because she was even able to interview the recently deceased Leah Chase, Queen of Creole Cuisine and founder of New Orleans restaurant staple Dooky Chase.

“Everyone I spoke to kept saying you have to get her,” recalls Rachelle about the James Beard Award winning chef. “You can’t do a movie about gumbo without talking to her. We reached out and I was able to get in contact with the family through a mutual friend. When I got the chance to interview her, I was so nervous. I’m there sitting next to big media outlets like NBC and they call me up. You only get 15 minutes, but she was so warm and friendly. She just kept speaking about the history of gumbo and I’m so glad that we were able to document her thoughts before her passing.”

The screening of the film last week had the audience witnessing one of the last few interviews with Chase and they laughed as she quipped at what is and what isn’t gumbo and chastising President Barack Obama for trying to use hot sauce in her restaurant. The rules that exist around gumbo served as the basis for the film as viewers watched some familiar dishes, laughed at what chefs have heard people put in their own gumbos, and learned about the expansive history of the entrée. As someone with family from Louisiana — who will try any restaurant’s or home chef’s gumbo at least once (but rarely twice) — the film had some eye opening moments when showcasing gumbos utilizing centuries old recipes that use kale and tomato bases.

Rhonda Russell and Alyssa Rachelle have another project in the works.
Rhonda Russell and Alyssa Rachelle have another project in the works.
Photo by Datubo Macharry/Evesborough Creative Agency

As the chef said on screen, you can build on a good foundation and, for Rachelle, Gumbo is just that.

“We’re planning to do another event where we showcase the film and then we’ll start distributing the movie to the public. I’ve found that I love making documentaries. Chef Carolyn Shelton and I have another film that we were working on simultaneously with this one called 47 Years in the Back of the House, based on her book that pays homage to the black [chefs, cooks and butlers] that created recipes that people didn’t know about," adds Rachelle.

For more information about the documentary, visit alyssarachelle.com/gumbo.

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