Lucy Buffett on Gumbo, Gulf Shores and Living a Creative Life
Lucy Buffett is wearing a floppy hat to keep her windblown hair in order. Buffett, owner of the Gulf Shores institution LuLu’s, has just ferried herself and her girlfriends to the canal-side restaurant via boat. Now she’s sitting on the outside patio, drinking coffee and talking about her desire to spend the rest of the summer paddle-boarding. As soon as she finishes up her whirlwind book tour, that is.
The most recognizable restauranteur this side of I-10, Buffett has recently completed her second book, Gumbo Love: Recipes for Gulf Coast Cooking, Entertaining and Savoring the Good Life. It contains recipes for coastal dishes like margaritas and peel-and-eat shrimp (poached in tequila!), plus her advice for a "bright life and a happy kitchen." One tip: "Run towards what you fear; close your eyes, hold your nose, and jump into it."
LuLu’s began as a simple burger joint and bait shop on Week’s Bay in 1998, and then—after a cross-county move to the Intracoastal Waterway, five years later—grew into a laid-back, but always-packed, restaurant with one of the hardest reservations to get at the beach. The restaurant recently expanded to Destin, Fla., and soon will open a third location in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Edible Lower Alabama sat down with Buffett on the LuLu’s patio in Gulf Shores and talked about what makes Gulf Coast cuisine special, what gumbo and Indian curry have in common, and the surprising way she wants to spend her fall.
Edible Lower Alabama: When outsiders think about food from this region, New Orleans comes to mind. How would you explain Alabama, Gulf Coast cuisine to people who are unfamiliar with it?
Lucy Buffett: Northern Gulf Coast cuisine, where we are, is Southern food with a real emphasis on seafood. And it has the Cajun and Creole influence, which migrated here from New Orleans all of the way across to the [Florida] panhandle. We have beautiful farmland just inland. So you marry all those together and you get some really fun dishes. Fried blue crab claws is one of those delicacies that is completely a Gulf Coast dish.
We really enjoy the creative expression of cooking here. And a lot of folks cook because it’s part of how they entertain. Grilling and fishing are also part of our recreation. Yesterday, I saw some people shrimping just with a net off the back of their boat. It’s why people gather. It’s how Southerners celebrate, and it's how they grieve.
Has your understanding or definition of this cuisine changed over time?
Both of my cookbooks really just feature the classic, Gulf Coast dishes that I grew up with. However, I took an aerial view of the entire Gulf of Mexico recently and realized all these other cuisines are going on here, from Old Floridian to Cuban to Mexican to Tex-Mex. We also have Vietnamese shrimpers in Mississippi; Asian cuisine has become more available. All of those cuisines are having some influence on what we do here now.
You say Gumbo Love is a love letter to this area. Why is gumbo specifically the best way to express that love?
Well to me, it’s a piece of my family tradition. It’s a piece of many families’ food culture, food tradition along the Gulf Coast. I always say, gumbo’s not the first thing I learned to cook, but it's the first thing I learned to master. I had to cook at a very early age to feed my family. And I just picked up making gumbo because that's what my grandmother did. I practiced it over and over again, and if I was going to have a family gathering, they’d always ask, “Are you going to cook the gumbo?” It's the thing I became known for.
So people cook it partly because of tradition, and part of it is because they cook as a way of expressing their love. It certainly was mine. It's my way of expressing my love for my family. That’s why it’s so personal. And for me it was my talent. It was my creative expression. It is my art. That was special to me too. I was satisfied not to have to prove myself in some other discipline.
There’s a saying that every household in India has its own curry recipe. Is that a similar idea behind gumbo?
Without a doubt. Everybody's is a little different. And the thing about gumbo is it's so flexible. You can use so many different ingredients. Even when I cook a gumbo, I'll use the same recipe, and it'll turn out a little differently every time. It has to do with how far I take the roux, and if I actually make a shrimp stock from scratch or I use bottled, or I use chicken broth…
LuLu’s has been open, in a few locations, since 1998. Why do you think it’s had such longevity?
I'm blessed, but I've also worked really hard. I'm self-taught on everything. For years we didn't even do inventory, so I never knew what my cost of goods were. So I taught myself Excel so I could do inventory sheets. I built a business in a very small town where food and beverage wasn't considered a very noble profession.
And everybody has... instead of saying they drank my Kool-Aid, I say they've eaten my gumbo. If you want to work here, you’ve got to love what you're going to do. You have to buy into the fact that we don't do anything mediocre. We have to care about each other and take care of the customer. We're all in it together. This place may look leisurely, but it is a highly professional environment.
But I tell people, if you all take care of Lulu's, I'll take care of you. I instigated a lot of benefits and insurance way before it was a mandated thing, because I believe people need that. As a single mother, I needed that. I wanted to create a business that I would want to work at. I'm going to write a book about that.
Why did you choose to expand LuLu’s to Destin and Myrtle Beach?
Now, my motivation is not how many of these LuLu's can I get open before I die. My motivation is to keep making opportunities for my LuLu's family. And of course for my own livelihood.
Destin seemed like the natural second location. It’s still the panhandle and the cuisine is pretty similar to what I do here. It's not all just heavy, heavy food. It's some of the lighter items. Myrtle Beach’s market is the closest market, demographically, to Gulf Shores. However, instead of the 6 million people who come to visit the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area, they have 16 million. And they made me a very, very sweet deal to come up there and do it. I think it's going to be amazing.
What are your plans for the fall?
I'm going to kind of back off of overseeing the restaurant. I have an incredible team that can handle the expansion. I don't know how many cookbooks I'll write, but I'm going to write that one other book for sure. And then I decided I'm going back to college and get my degree. I really want to get back to creating.