It goes without saying that New Orleans offers some beautifully soulful and rich fare, and with Mardi Gras on the calendar next week, we’ve got gumbo on the mind. Whether you’re partial to Creole-style gumbo with okra, or you prefer its darker roux, okra-free Cajun cousin, there’s one undeniable similarity between them … they’re insanely tasty. We asked Herb Tassin, one of the culinary forces behind Music City’s (dare we say) best gumbo, Voodoo Gumbo, to tell us about the dish’s history and the secrets behind what makes his version so good.
To truly appreciate the intricacies and depth of flavor that gumbo offers, it’s important to have a little background on it. The official state cuisine of Louisiana, gumbo is indicative of the area’s melting pot nature. In fact, even a culinary historian might have trouble pinpointing its true origins, as the dish merges the ingredients and cooking styles of multiple cultures, including African, Native American, French and Spanish. Formally recorded gumbo recipes go as far back as the early 18th century, and it’s thought that the name can be credited to the West African word for okra, which is ki ngombo — shortened to gombo. While there are numerous variations of the dish, the broth is primarily based on three thickeners: okra, filé powder (made from ground sassafras leaves), and roux.
Gumbo’s multicultural influence has made it a pivotal part of many Mardi Gras celebrations, drawing crowds at festivals and cooking competitions and bringing the community together through a shared bond. After all, Fat Tuesday is traditionally the last opportunity to eat all of those rich, heavenly foods before the Lenten season’s fasting begins — hence, the inclusion of flavorful meats and seafood such as Andouille sausage, duck, crab meat, and even oysters. So, now that our mouths are watering, where can we find amazing gumbo in Nashville? That’s where Voodoo Gumbo comes in.
Humbly sandwiched between Mattress King and Sam’s Kabab Gyro in Bellevue Plaza, Voodoo Gumbo just might have the most delicious and talked-about gumbo in all of Nashville. Founded by brothers Herb and JT Tassin, the restaurant’s recipes can be traced back to their childhood. In a sense, nostalgia is their secret sauce. “Our mom is such a gifted cook and always enjoyed searching classic Southern and New Orleans cookbooks for new recipes,” Herb tells us. “JT cooked with her for years, sharpening his skills by helping to prepare family dinners and holiday feasts. He’s taken all he learned, made it his own, and elevated it to another level.” Though the recipes have been adjusted here and there, Mom’s home cooking appears to be the language that speaks to the oodles of Nashvillians who frequent the restaurant — including Mom herself. “She loves what he’s doing,” Herb says of his mom’s affection for JT’s culinary talents, “and that makes him very proud. Of course, she’ll tell us in a minute if she’s not crazy about something, but that’s another story …”
While both brothers started their careers in the music business, it seems their calling was ultimately in the food industry. “JT and I both loved working in the music business, but around 2010, it started to become clear that the shrinking record industry wasn’t going to reverse itself,” says Herb. “It’s daunting to contemplate a career change at 50, but standing still wasn’t an option, either. Fortunately, JT was an incredible amateur cook and especially adept at New Orleans dishes. We knew how much people love New Orleans food and that there were few Nashville restaurants offering anything comparable to back home. So, starting in 2014, we both began working in restaurants to gain experience.”
In some ways, the restaurant itself can be attributed to Hurricane Katrina, which brought most of the Tassin family to Nashville. “JT and our parents moved here in 2010, as a delayed reaction to Katrina,” Herb explains. “Unlike many of our friends in New Orleans, their home wasn’t badly damaged in the storm, but it did give them pause. In New Orleans, you grow up dodging hurricanes, and they almost always either miss or aren’t as severe as predicted. The aftermath of Katrina caused the type of damage New Orleanians had worried about for generations. JT and our parents were here with me for three weeks during Katrina and fell in love with Nashville, so when they felt the need to move, Nashville was a logical choice.“
Officially opening in May of 2017, the brothers began sharing their deep love for classic Louisiana fare with the rest of Music City. From étouffée to legitimate New Orleans po’ boys, the only struggle is deciding what to order off the menu. “Our house specialty is Catfish Atchafalaya,” says Herb, “which is a whole fried Mississippi catfish fillet, served over rice and smothered with étouffée. Our Fried Gulf Oysters and Amaretto Bread Pudding also receive very high marks from our guests.” Not to mention, the Hurricanes, which Herb describes as a “Category Three,” will have you moving along to the restaurant’s fun and funky jazz playlist in no time.
But it’s the gumbo that will really have you reeling. The menu features several options, with Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo topping the most-popular list — a fact that surprises Herb. “Surprisingly, our Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo is among our most popular and has been since we opened,” he says. “Chicken and Sausage Gumbo is popular in New Orleans, but it’s more of a gumbo that’s made at home. It’s on restaurant menus, but not a top-seller like it is here in Nashville.”
So why does Voodoo Gumbo have such a cult following? Herb swears it’s because they’ve had a ton of practice, and their food is a labor of love. “The answer’s the same as the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall … Practice, practice, practice,” he says. “We’re continually trying to improve every aspect of what we do. Gumbo is like so much in life: you gotta love it to make it.”
Perhaps the secret lies in the painstaking efforts they make to get their roux just right. “Gumbo has had a long evolution over hundreds of years, but Louisiana gumbo will start with a roux, which is a mixture of fat and flour,” explains Herb. “For gumbo, oil is preferred for its higher smoke point. The roux is cooked to the desired level of darkness, taking great care not to burn it.” While people’s preferences may differ in terms of the desired darkness of their roux (apparently, this subject is often a source of controversy), the Tassin brothers favor a medium-dark roux. “For some, achieving the darkest possible roux is a point of pride,” says Herb, “but we prefer a medium-dark roux that complements the flavors of the gumbo, rather than overpowering the dish — especially delicate flavors like seafood.” Add in the “Holy Trinity” — onions, green bell peppers, and celery — and the gumbo starts to take shape. “We also add red bells and garlic,” Herb continues. “People differ on whether gumbo should include okra, and they are quick to point out that the word gumbo is derived from the African word gombo, which means okra. But both versions are equally popular — we serve ours without. Lastly, everyone who’s heard the Hank Williams song ‘Jambalaya’ knows about filé. We don’t add filé powder to our gumbo, but it’s available by request.”
As you might expect, Mardi Gras is Voodoo Gumbo’s biggest day of the year. This year, despite the lack of elaborate and dazzling parades in New Orleans due to the pandemic, Herb and JT are still looking forward to the celebratory festivities. “We love feeding people and making them feel at home, but this year we’ll have the added responsibility of making sure that we celebrate in a COVID-safe environment — as we have during this entire period,” Herb says. “We want all of our guests to be happy and stay healthy. As we have all year, our curbside pick-up, takeout, and delivery services will be offering the same great service we offer in the restaurant.” So, call over to Voodoo Gumbo, get that order in, and laissez les bons temps rouler!
Happy Mardi Gras and bon appétit! All images courtesy of Herb Tassin.
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