Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes gumbo as “a soup thickened with okra pods or filé and containing meat or seafoods and usually vegetables.”
The dictionary’s definition wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But ask Chef Gregory Johnson, and he’d tell you there’s a lot more to the soup than meets the eye.
“Gumbo means: take her, take you, take me, take everybody and put it all inside one pot. Then, you got a mixture of different things. That’s where gumbo came from.”
Johnson, the owner and head chef of “On the Bayou,” has seen firsthand how gumbo can bring communities together in New Orleans. The Milwaukee native lived there for 25 years, only to be “swept back up” to Milwaukee in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“I had no choice,” Johnson recalls. “Hurricane Katrina came along and that was a real bad day because I didn’t have money in my pocket. I had money in the bank, but I couldn’t get to it because all the banks were closed, all the ATM machines depleted.”
Johnson says he remembers hearing people say they’d ride out the hurricane the same way they’d done so in the past. But, as we now know, this hurricane was different.
“I remember the guy that does the weather was actually crying,” Johnson says. “I see that, and I told my family, ‘we gotta go.’ I’d never seen a weather reporter cry on TV before.”
Johnson says a woman who knew his aunt gave them $300, enabling them to make their way out of New Orleans. They started by driving to Florida, but police officers were directing traffic further north. That’s when Johnson suggested going all the way to Milwaukee. By the time he and his family arrived, he had $10 in his pocket, the clothes on his back and half a tank of gas. He had to wait a month before he could return to New Orleans.
“I tell you, a lot of people forget about Rita,” he says. “Because Rita came right after Katrina and flooded it again, so now you gotta wait double time. What Katrina didn’t mess up, Rita did.”
After Johnson returned to New Orleans and saw the conditions and the damage to his home, that’s when he decided to make Milwaukee home once again. His employer in New Orleans, the Marriott, set him up at one of its Milwaukee locations. He soon left for the Hilton, and a couple years into that job, he met his future wife, Janice. The two began catering together on the side, and soon, they were selling dinners out of the house to barbershops and businesses. From there, they got business cards and a website and their business grew.
“One day, the health inspector came and knocked on my door and say, ‘what kitchen you working out of?'” He recalls. “‘I’m working out of my house.’ ‘Oh, that’s illegal, you can’t do that. You gotta find you a commercial kitchen.’ So I found me a commercial kitchen out in Pewaukee.”
Johnson says his friend then approached him about getting a food truck. They would take it downtown and sell gumbo outside of the Milwaukee County Courthouse and the U.S. Bank building, festivals, etc.
His food truck business eventually drove him to his future restaurant space, after he noticed a FOR RENT sign while he was riding down the street in the truck. Fast forward to Fall 2017, when On the Bayou opened its doors in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Johnson hopes his food can not only help spur the revival of the area, but also bring people of all backgrounds together over a common passion: food.
“Food is a universal-type thing,” Johnson says. “Everybody needs to eat. Everybody loves to eat good food. That’s why that happens down there [New Orleans]… I’m seeing more of a ‘gumbo’ happening in my restaurant now. I’m seeing Asian people, white folks coming in, black folks coming in. That’s what New Orleans is all about. People coming together, having a nice time, enjoying each other’s company because we all are humans in the end. There should be no barriers… we should all be able to come together, eat good food and enjoy each other’s company. Then when you leave, you go to your house, they go to their house and maybe you’ve made a friend in the process.”
On the Bayou is located at 2053 N. Martin Luther King Dr.