Gumbo on Fat Tuesday: How Staff Meals Nurture Workplace Culture

A chance to share more than just lunch

In his book The French Laundry Cookbook, chef Thomas Keller writes about the importance of the staff meal and how cooking a seemingly lowly meal helped him become a better chef. He describes how he used whatever leftovers were available to prepare a meal for his large team before the evening service started. I sensed his joy in learning from the experience and how valuable this coming together to share a meal alongside co-workers is in creating a team culture that's needed in high-energy, fast-paced kitchens.

When you come together to share a meal with people at work, conversing, celebrating, laughing, learning and getting to know each other happens naturally. It's a time to relax, to take a break and focus on those around you. The environment becomes more open; you see each other on a different level. You see co-workers as family as you take time out to sit down and share in a simple experience. 

All-staff meals have become essential to the award-winning culture we've nurtured at my agency. I learned how important this was years ago, when a friend and colleague asked me to help celebrate Fat Tuesday by making gumbo for our agency of 250 people. I had made gumbo before, but for only five people at most. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to be part of it. I love celebrating Fat Tuesday, and I love feeding people. Today marks our seventh annual Fat Tuesday gumbo lunch, and it's become one of the most celebrated and beloved events at our agency. For many employees, it's their favorite workday of the year.

Pulling off this feat is not as difficult as it seems. I've never had formal training or worked in a restaurant before. Cooking is more than a hobby for me. It's relaxing, stress relieving and gives me a chance to be creative outside my job. The concept of bringing elements together to work in harmony is not unlike design and art. I like experimenting with flavors and perfecting dishes, but I rarely make the same dish twice in the same way. I love the freeness of substituting ingredients; I can start with someone else's recipe and make it my own by simply changing one ingredient. Or I can take the idea of a dish and recreate it into something completely different, but it's still delicious and great to eat. And as much as I enjoy eating the food I make, it fills my soul to serve my family, my friends and occasionally my team and everyone at the office. 

Since that first year, I've become more efficient, learning to write down and save the recipe for making this huge amount of gumbo. I grill the chicken thighs and andouille sausage on Saturday. And I prep and cook all the veggies on Sunday. I store everything in five-gallon buckets in the refrigerators at the office until Tuesday morning, when I divide it up into a series of turkey roasters and slow cookers, adding the chicken stock and shrimp. As the gumbo heats up and simmers, it fills the agency with the spicy smell of grilled sausage and Tony Chachere's Original Creole Seasoning. 

On Fat Tuesday, the line starts to form around 11:30 a.m., when the rice gets delivered (there's no way I can also make rice for 250 people). The line snakes its way back about 150 feet as co-workers celebrate, listen to zydeco music, laugh and eagerly await their turn to fill up a bowl with rice and gumbo. First-timers foolishly add Tabasco and more Tony's seasoning to their bowls before they've even tasted it, thinking it's only "Minnesota hot" and not true Cajun heat. They learn their lesson. We all come together in our agency café, sitting side-by-side at long rows of tables, a great mix of different departments and personalities.


Ed's Fat Tuesday Gumbo Recipe

Serves 250 

Ingredients

Boneless skinless chicken thighs (30 lbs.)
Andouille sausage (50 rings or 100 individual links, ideally from Kramarczuk's in Northeast Minneapolis)
Tony Chachere's Original Creole Seasoning
Olive oil (64 oz.)
Butter (4 lbs.)
Onions (24, diced)
Bell peppers (48, diced)
Celery (12 heads, diced)
Frozen diced okra (12 lbs.)
Diced tomatoes (12, 14.5 oz cans)
Shrimp (28 lbs, cooked, cleaned and shelled, no tails)
Chicken broth (16 quarts)
Tabasco sauce (2 big bottles)

You'll need one 40-quart pot or several smaller pots to cook the vegetables. I use lump wood charcoal to grill the chicken and sausage.

Saturday prep
Lightly coat the chicken with olive oil. Heavily season the chicken and sausage with Tony Chachere's. Grill ‎the chicken and sausage, chop into bite-sized pieces, mix together and store in 5 gallon buckets with sealable lids.

Sunday prep
Dice the veggies and sauté separately in butter and olive oil, seasoning with Tony Chachere's. I cook all the veggies separately. First the onions, then the peppers, celery and finally the okra. The okra gets slimy when you cook it, so I do that last.

Mix all the cooked veggies together, adding the diced tomatoes and refrigerating in 5 gallon buckets with sealable lids. 

Fat Tuesday prep
Mix equal parts veggies and meat in large pots/roasters/slow cookers. Add shrimp and top with chicken broth.

Slowly heat for 3 hours until hot.

Serve over rice and top with Tabasco and more Tony's (if you can handle it).

Note: You can use vegetable stock and leave out the chicken, sausage and shrimp if you want a vegetarian option. It's still delicious, but it's not really gumbo. 

Enjoy!

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Ed Bennett
Ed Bennett is executive design director of interdisciplinary brand design firm 10 Thousand Design.

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