When Brenda Buenviaje's three Bay Area restaurants all ground to a halt beneath the weight of the Covid pandemic, loyal customers were beside themselves. Facing the harsh reality of a spring without crawfish beignets, fried chicken and gumbo, the emails began pouring into her inbox, each pleading for the chef to share her beloved recipes.
"I had so many requests. I do try to honor those things, but it got overwhelming. I'm not a great typist," she laughs.
So Buenviaje pitched her 19-year-old son, Max, an idea: Since it wasn't likely the chef would be writing her long-awaited cookbook anytime soon, what if they showed people how to make some of her dishes in a web series. "He really took the bait," she says. "We rented some equipment and he directed me. He put the trailer together and I was like, 'wow, this is really great!"
Cook the Best Gumbo Recipe youtu.be
The self-described introvert's star turn on YouTube is somewhat ironic. Like other top chefs, she's gotten the calls to join the celebrity circuit but admits the idea kind of unravels her. "You gravitate towards what you do naturally and I don't naturally gravitate towards TV," she says.
Working with her son on a cooking series, though, was different. "When it's my son behind the camera, it's very easy to forget I'm not just hanging out with him," Buenviaje says. The opportunity to spend time with Max was a Covid silver lining she didn't see coming.
Even now that three out of four of her restaurants are open for dining—the new Brenda's San Jose is currently closed—Buenviaje plans to continue filming new episodes for Cook Like Brenda.
"There's another recipe that I'm really eager to share for the holidays: blackberry dumplings," she says. "That's something we would eat a lot of during the holidays because our freezer was always just filled with frozen wild blackberries that we had picked over the summer. That's a very fond memory of mine."
Blackberry bushes were just one of the abundant local food sources Buenviaje cherished during a childhood spent in New Orleans. "My parents, we always had a boat and we were often out catching our own crabs, shrimp, fish. Growing up, there was always a pot of gumbo at every gathering, especially during the holidays," she says.
Dishes from Buenviaje's Filipino heritage including pancit canton, a tossed noodle dish, and lumpia (which Buenviaje's mom called just "egg rolls") also made their way onto the holiday table, and they didn't stop there. "The Filipino food was not just special occasion, it was constant," she says. "There was always rice, adobo at least once a week, pork or chicken. I can remember my mom would send me to the garage to just roll pans and pans of egg rolls that we would fry off whenever."
These days, Buenviaje's more likely to prepare a good prime rib or a crab feast for a holiday gathering, now that gathering is once again on the menu. "My good friends are all vaccinated and when we do gather, because most of us have children under 12 who haven't been vaccinated yet, we all test and then we pod for a few days," she explains. "Over Labor Day weekend, which was also my birthday weekend, there were probably a dozen of us at my river house...it was so great to be able to breathe freely and relax."
Although Buenviaje isn't yet sure if French Soul Food will open for Thanksgiving Day, the restaurants will once again be selling their popular holiday meal kits. Last year, that included the makings for dishes like turkey with sage gravy, andouille cornbread dressing, almond green beans, cranberry compote, mashed potatoes and gravy, and biscuits. "It was a feast," says Buenviaje. "I took one home myself."
As for the gumbo, she has a recipe for that.
"The gumbo that we would make at home is a pretty classic seafood gumbo. My mom wouldn't start off making a stock but I would, and that would include the usual mirepoix (carrots, onion, and celery sauteed with butter), shrimp shells and/or small crabs that you want to throw in to create a little seafood stock," explains Buenviaje. "And then we'd make a dark roux, half fat and half flour, and we'd throw the holy trinity in there, onions, bell pepper, celery." When it comes time to add the okra, there's no shame in using the frozen version, the chef says. "When you parfreeze okra, it doesn't get as slimy. Defrost and rinse them under really hot water and that helps eliminate the mucus."
When the stew is ready, it can be eaten with different sides including rice and hushpuppies—Buenviaje knew one Creole family who ate theirs with potato salad at Christmas—but the chef likes to serve hers simply, with some crusty french bread and a chilled pilsner or kolsch.
// Visit Brenda Buenviaje's three Bay Area restaurants: Brenda's French Soul Food (652 Polk St, Tenderloin), frenchsoulfood.com; Brenda's Meat & Three (919 Divisadero St, NoPa), brendasmeatndthree.com; and Brenda's Oakland (4045 Broadway, Oakland), brendasoakland.com.
Recipe: Brenda Buenviaje's Seafood Gumbo
The chef/founder of Brenda's French Soul Food serves her gumbo with some crusty french bread and a chilled pilsner or kolsch.
For the roux:
1 cup lard, shortening or vegetable oil
1 cup all purpose flour
For the shellfish stock*:
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Shells from 3 lbs raw shrimp
1 small yellow onion, roughly chopped
2 to 3 large celery stalks, roughly chopped
1 carrot, washed and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 cup dry white wine
2 1/2 quarts water
3 bay leaves (The Spice Hunter)
About 12 black peppercorns (The Spice Hunter)
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp dried thyme (The Spice Hunter)
* If you don't want to bother with this step, it's ok to use 2.5 quarts bottled or canned clam juice or a store-bought seafood base.
For the rice:
2 cups long grain white rice
Water for rinsing
3.5 cups water
For the gumbo:
3 tbsp canola oil
1.5 lbs andouille sausage or any smoked pork sausage of your choice, sliced into ½ moons
1 tbsp dried thyme
3 bay leaves
2 heaping tbsp minced garlic
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 large celery stalks, diced
2 large green bell peppers, diced
1 1/2 lbs fresh or defrosted, frozen sliced okra cut into 1/4" rounds
2.5 quarts seafood stock
Roux to desired consistency and taste (about 1 cup)
2 whole dungeness crabs, precooked, carapace and lungs removed, bodies broken in 1/4s
1 tbsp salt
2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cayenne (The Spice Hunter)
3 lbs raw shrimp, peeled and deveined, shells reserved
Sliced scallion for garnish
Make the roux:
Simmer over medium flame, stirring consistently until it becomes the color of dark chocolate, about 45 minutes. Make sure not to burn it—burnt roux will make your gumbo bitter. If you have leftover roux after making your gumbo, it will keep in the freezer forever.
Make the shellfish stock (if using):
Heat oil in a large pot and add shrimp shells and chopped vegetables. Sauté for about 10 minutes until vegetables are lightly brown. Add wine and simmer for 1 minute. Add 2 1/2 quarts water and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower flame and simmer uncovered for an hour. Strain well through a sieve and discard solids.
Make the rice:
Rinse rice until water runs clear. Bring rice and water to a boil, lower flame, cover and steam over very low flame for 20 minutes.
Make the seafood gumbo:
In a large pot, heat oil then add sausage, thyme and bay leaves. Sauté until sausage is lightly browned. Add garlic, onion, celery and bell pepper, then sauté until vegetables become soft. Add stock and okra*, bring to a boil, then thicken with roux to desired consistency. Add crab and season with salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper; let simmer for 30 minutes. Just before serving, add shrimp to hot gumbo and steep until shrimp are cooked, about 5 minutes. Serve each bowl topped with steamed rice and scallion.
* If using fresh okra, par-fry slices in a lightly oiled pan over high heat. Make sure pan is not overcrowded or the okra will begin to steam and become slimy.
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For more festive dishes with global flavors prepared by top California chefs, go to 7x7.com/holiday-recipes.