What follows is a piece I wrote several months ago and have been unable to sell to any papers in the U.S. I’d rather not let it languish on my hard drive any longer!
Ask Matthew Scott, Madrid’s own New Orleans restaurateur, where in Spain he gets the peanut butter for his peanut butter pie and he’ll tell you: up until recently from an American expatriate who made and sold it.
“She just stopped making peanut butter,” he says. “But I bought the last eight boxes of three tubs. That should last me a year.”
Scott, a former architect who moved to Madrid over eleven years ago, opened Gumbo in the working class Malasaña neighborhood in 2003. Banking on the growing success of the restaurant, he’s now opened Gumbo Ya-Ya—a sister café/restaurant with a menu that’s a touch more refined—just a few blocks away.
Ya-Ya opened quietly last April; it was nearly a month before the critics caught wind of it. There was no sign, just a bright blue façade and paper signs hung in the windows with a pair of dancing alligators. But for people walking up Calle de la Palma, in a neighborhood with a long list of ethnic food restaurants and an equal number of trendy Spanish tabernas or cervecerías, it’s an eye-catching place.
On a Saturday afternoon shortly after it opened, more than a handful of people moved closer to read the sign, and a number came in for coffee or a beer. (Ya-Ya, in contrast to the original Gumbo, opens between meals as a café.)
The interior, with its blue and yellow walls, wood floors, and low lighting has a classy feel to it. There’s a record player turning out jazz in the background, and black swing-arm lamps light the intimate tables. (The lamps were being thrown out by a nearby library.)
Scott knows it might happen slowly, but people will come. Things didn’t start out easily with the original Gumbo restaurant—Creole cuisine was all but unknown in Madrid—but nowadays he speaks proudly of a burgeoning group of varied, mostly Spanish clientèle.
“You’ll have ladies in mink coats next to a gay couple from Chueca,” he says. Actors and writers from the hipster chic neighborhood come by, as well as “kids from down the street who share two starters.”
“I’m interested in good food,” he says earnestly. “That’s a really New Orleans attitude. Some of the best restaurants there are in the worst neighborhoods.”
The presence of drugs and prostitution is still manifest in some areas of the barrio, but it’s come a long way from when junkies lined the street as you exited a restaurant.
“A few years ago, it was strange that a restaurant would open in an area like this,” says Neza Alvarez, waiter and Scott’s business partner. “But at the time, it was the only [downtown] neighborhood with affordable rent.”
And now it’s hip. Malasaña is home to a large number of young people who have created an alternative atmosphere there, as well as some of Madrid’s increasing number of immigrant families.
“It’s changing,” Scott says.
Madrid itself has changed a great deal since Scott first made it his home about nearly twelve years ago.
A Tulane graduate with a degree in architecture, Scott had studied abroad in Madrid. He left New Orleans after graduation to study Portuguese in Lisbon. From there he headed to Paris, where he intended to stay three months, and ended up staying a year.
It was there that he really started cooking.
“I was an architect by day and a chef for an Italian banker at night, in exchange for a chambre de bonne,” he says.
It didn’t matter that he hadn’t studied cooking. His mother and sisters were always cooking, and, as he says, “In New Orleans you grew up knowing about food.”
After the stint in Paris, Scott headed home by way of Madrid. He’s still here.
His first jobs were cooking in a series of Irish pubs, without working papers. More restaurants and three years later, he made his breakthrough when he was hired as chef at Undata, which specialized in vegetarian cuisine for non-vegetarians. Positive critiques ensued and there was no looking back.
Five years after he arrived in Madrid, Scott says he decided he needed to see if he was serious about being a chef. He returned to New Orleans for three months, where he cooked at Bayona with Susan Spicer.
The experience was enough to convince him to return to Madrid and open his own restaurant. He spent about a year working in a number of high-class restaurants with renowned Spanish chefs “to work on his palate and practice Spanish tastes.”
From the very beginning, Scott knew he would open a New Orleans restaurant in Madrid (if it wasn’t a Spanish tapas bar in New Orleans). He says he was convinced that Creole cuisine, with its French, African, and Spanish roots, would appeal to the modern Spanish palate.
The raw ingredients for Scott’s creations were also within reach. He finds okra at the neighborhood market, as well as crabs and crawfish. He gets his andouille from the Germans and pecans (at 22 euros a kilo—“but it’s worth it”) from a store called Taste of America.
But the Spaniards provided one small challenge: they are known for disliking spicy food. Scott maintains that Creole food is “well seasoned, but not necessarily spicy,” but he still has to tone it down while trying to remain faithful to the flavors.
Ya-Ya’s menu, as Scott likes to describe it, is “more elaborate” than Gumbo’s. The fried green tomatoes (a specialty at both restaurants) have a remoulade sauce at Ya-Ya. The gumbo is made with chicken and smoked sausage instead of seafood. The entrées include fried soft shell crab and sole meuniere with lemon pecan butter to Gumbo’s shrimp and grouper creole and stuffed pork chop. Even the desserts are a little more complex: the pecan pie now includes chocolate and the cheesecake is topped with wild berries.
Scott appears to be succeeding in making “good food.” A restaurant critic passing through Madrid proclaimed Scott’s gumbo better than some in New Orleans itself.
Scott has received high praise in the Spanish press, as well. Metropolí, an entertainment guide published by the daily El Mundo, has written about Gumbo on numerous occasions, praising its originality.
“Practically no one in Europe knows about regional cuisine in the United States,” says Victor de la Serna, deputy editor of El Mundo. “It’s been a big revelation here. He’s got a strong base of Spanish customers.”
The Spaniards who come, though, Scott says, “have traveled.” Juan, trying Gumbo out for the first time on a recent weeknight, lives in the neighborhood and had eaten New Orleans cuisine in the U.S.
“They’re a little more open,” Scott says of his customers. “We get the tables of traditional Spaniards … but they just don’t like the food.”
Both restaurants are open for set lunch and dinner times (for the Spanish, that’s 2-4 p.m. and 9 p.m.-midnight).
Gumbo, C/ Pez 15, Madrid; Phone: (34) 91 532 6361
Gumbo Ya-Ya, C/ Palma 63, Madrid; Phone (34) 91 532 5441