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The ongoing debate about what dish best celebrates America’s food culture was settled in the mind of a San Francisco chef a long time ago. When Dontaye Ball first tasted his grandmother’s gumbo as a child, he fell head over heels. “I’m in love with it. If it were a woman, she and I would be married. I’m in a committed relationship with gumbo,” says the owner of Gumbo Social, a new Bayview restaurant.
Losing his job as a tasting chef at the start of the pandemic prompted Ball to start a pop-up business from the “love, memories and community” associated with his family’s gumbo traditions. He is on a mission to make gumbo America’s national dish, one bowl at a time.
“When people eat the product, and I’m watching them, you can tell something else is happening. It’s not just nourishment,” Ball reflects. “If it is a good bowl, you can see the wheels turning. I don’t know of any other dish that can get you going like that.”
Gumbo Social’s Joyful Opening
Gumbo Social’s owner celebrated the growing popularity of his bowls with the grand opening of a brick-and-mortar restaurant on June 3. The party started with hundreds of excited fans following the Gumbo Band in a second-line parade down Third Street.
Ball wanted the same joyful atmosphere the New Orleans brass band generates at the seafood boil he hosts in September. “The person who leads the band is the legendary David Hardiman. He was my jazz history teacher at City College. It was an honor to have him and his crew come and play some great music and bring an atmosphere of positivity that is needed,” Ball says.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed and other local officials joined in celebrating the positive buzz generated by the opening of Gumbo Social at 5176 Third Street. Chef Ball built a loyal following by selling gumbo, po’boys and other specialties at farmers markets.
The San Francisco Chronicle called his gumbo one of the best in the Bay area. Earlier this year, Bon Appetit put Gumbo Social on its list of “The 12 Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings of 2023.”
“It is truly an honor to be thought of in that way. It adds a little pressure but shines a light on the community,” Ball remarks. The culinary school graduate chose to locate his new restaurant in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood where he grew up. “I realized a few weeks ago that it isn’t just a restaurant for the community. It is something a little more. Folks will be able to see a part of themselves in this place. I think it is going to be really special.”
Ball, called Mr. Gumbo by his fans, considered more trendy settings for his first Gumbo Social shop. He ultimately chose to open in the former location of the Frisco Fried soul food restaurant known to residents of the predominately Black neighborhood. “We had an opportunity to come into a space that had some historical context for the community and had for a long time served the community. I felt it was the right location for us.”
Some 262 supporters helped the entrepreneur raise $34,000 for the new restaurant through Kickstarter donations. The individual contributions, which never topped $600, were a significant source of financing. Those donations, paired with grants from a Kickstarter fund, the city and local nonprofits, provided the assistance Ball needed to open Gumbo Social.
Grandma’s Gift to Gumbo Social
Catherine Harper’s gift to Gumbo Social was showing Ball the magic of the dish and how to put love in it. How much she gave to her grandson was evident when the chef appeared on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” in 2021. He choked up with emotion while sharing that his beloved grandmother had passed away that year.
She taught Ball how to make gumbo when he was a kid hanging out in her Bayview kitchen. “I can remember watching her and asking her a bunch of questions. ‘Grandma, why you using that black pan?’”
Ball recalls his grandmother teaching him to use a black cast iron skillet for his roux. He learned the importance of selecting quality ingredients for gumbo and properly cooling down the stew before refrigerating it. He will never forget how much Harper inspired him. “My grandmother was the best. She really taught me how to cook. She’s the person who taught me I could learn a skill, go to school and support myself on cooking,” says Gumbo Social’s owner.
Once he started making a living selling his creations at farmers markets, Ball learned how serious people are about a gumbo’s taste. “There have been days when the pot wasn’t what it needed to be. If it is not on point, people will call you out!”
The San Francisco native readily admits getting called out because his gumbo offerings break some traditional rules. That is why he avoids using Cajun or Creole when describing his version of Louisiana’s state dish.
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For example, he combines the flour for his roux with an equal mixture of butter and oil to add depth to his gumbo. “I think the butter adds a nice, nutty, rich flavor. Folks from Louisiana try to fight me on this, but I’m right,” he declares.
Gumbo Social’s owner has an answer ready if someone complains that his versions are not authentic gumbo. Ball mentions “The Little Gumbo Book: Twenty-seven Carefully Created Recipes That Will Enable Everyone to Enjoy the Special Experience of Gumbo, written by Gwen McGee and published in 1987, which details the dish’s origins as a melting pot of ingredients from French colonialists, enslaved Africans and indigenous people. The book includes gumbo recipes from different regions of the South.
In Ball’s view, all gumbo starts with the Holy Trinity of celery, onion and bell pepper. “We use a combination of green, red and yellow bell peppers. People give us a hard time for that. But I like the color and the variety of peppers because they add the balance of sweetness and earthiness,” the chef maintains.
A gumbo can be thickened with a roux, a mixture of fat or oil and flour browned to the desired color. Cooks can also use filé powder made from dried and ground leaves of sassafras as a thickener. Ball considers an ingredient native to Africa essential. “Gumbo equals okra. You can’t have gumbo without okra. All of my gumbos have okra. It’s against the law to make it without okra.”
Gumbo Social’s New Menu Options
Not everyone agrees with Ball’s okra rule, but he tries not to judge other renditions. “I tend to want to eat other bowls, so I’m always trying different ones. There are multiple styles of gumbo. As long as the color is right, and you are not putting corn or tomato in it, you’re fine,” the chef says.
Gumbo Social’s patrons can choose from various gumbo options at the new restaurant. The chef offers chicken and sausage, smoked turkey and vegan gumbo made with black-eyed peas, hominy, mushrooms and okra. He also plans to introduce a seafood gumbo.
The new shop’s add-on section lets patrons customize their bowl of gumbo. “If you are a pescetarian and don’t want to consume any meat, you can order a veggie gumbo and add shrimp, jack fruit or whatever add-ons we have that day.”
The chef’s famous grilled shrimp sandwich is on the restaurant’s menu, along with four other po’boy choices, including a plant-based selection. Red beans and rice, California greens, and vegan options Ball sells at the farmers markets are offered in the Bayview.
Starting in July, Gumbo Social will be open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Customers can choose to dine in or order takeout. Ball will continue the Gumbo Social pop-ups at the Outer Sunset Farmers Market & Mercantile.
Growing Gumbo Social
Gumbo Social’s arrival in Bayview’s commercial corridor could boost the energy surrounding other businesses. Ball hopes to see support coming from inside and outside of the community. “If the community can support it enough for us to be viable, then I think we are good. If it turns into a destination place, that’s kind of the cream,” adds the Bayview native and resident.
Eventually, the entrepreneur wants to expand Gumbo Social beyond its current presence in Bayview and at farmers markets. “Right now, we’re happy with getting this place open. But ultimately, we would like to expand into different areas to grow our presence and the love for gumbo throughout California,” says the owner.
Chef Ball believes Gumbo Social could become a franchise model to make his gumbo and po’boys a popular fast-casual dining destination nationwide. “I feel like those other opportunities will be there if we can make this successful. Deals tend to fall into your lap when you are successful. When the opportunity is right, we will be prepared.”
That would mean his grandmother’s dream of seeing more opportunities materialize for her family has come true. Harper moved from Mississippi to California to make life better for her children and grandchildren. As a single father, Ball knows how excited she would be about the new restaurant. “My grandmother would love the music. She would love the colors. She would love the respect we’re paying to our ancestors with the history of the building. She would be very happy.”
Harper would share the pride in Ball’s accomplishments. “Before she left this earth, she was proud of me. My grandmother was able to reap what she sowed while she was here,” he says. “Yeah, she would be so excited. She would be bragging to her church friends about what her grandson is doing now.”
One question remains about Harper’s opinions on the gumbo Ball makes from her recipe: Is his gumbo better? “Every time I make a pot, I think she’s looking down on me from heaven. My mom’s an excellent chef as well. She doesn’t say yea or nay, so I think I’m getting close,” Ball replies.
Ball plans to throw his next all-you-can-eat seafood boil party with the Gumbo Band for his 40th birthday on September 3. By then, he may have converted more people to his idea of making gumbo America’s national dish. “Gumbo is a true melting pot dish. It’s a dish that melds several cultures together. It’s a dish that talks about history. It’s a dish that can be made from affordable ingredients,” Ball explains.
According to World Atlas, no official national dish exists in the U.S. Many Americans consider hamburgers or hot dogs the best candidates. Still, Ball is convinced that the power in a bowl of gumbo makes it a better choice. “The bowl of gumbo has got that soul. It’s got the people. It’s got the history. It deserves to be America’s national dish!”
Tickets are available on Eventbrite for September’s seafood boil. National Gumbo Day is observed on October 12. Follow Dontaye Ball for updates on his Bayview eatery and farmers market pop-ups on Instagram.
You can also listen as he shares more of his story our sister podcast, Diaspora Food Stories.