In the kitchen with…
Chef Gustavo del Real of
The Gumbo House
By Amy Newman
“Why did I get into cooking? That’s easy,” Gustavo Del Real, chef and owner of The Gumbo House in Anchorage, says with a hearty laugh. “I have a lot of bills to pay and I have no idea how to work.”
He’s joking, he says, but talk to him for just a few minutes and it quickly becomes apparent that the disclaimer is unnecessary. Having spent almost three decades working his way up the food chain in restaurants throughout California and Alaska, while holding down the odd construction job on the side, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows more about work than Gustavo.
Today, Gustavo is working harder than ever. Since his brother Roberto left the business in 2015 to open a mobile catering business, Gustavo runs both the original Gumbo House, located in the gumball-pink house on the Delaney Park Strip, and a second restaurant located in a South Anchorage strip mall. And he does so with a singular purpose – to make his customers happy.
“When they finish the plate and say they love it, it makes me happy,” he says.
Growing up in Mexico and California, Gustavo spent more time eating his mother’s Mexican cooking than he did in the kitchen himself.
“She’s a better cook than I,” he says with that same full-bellied laugh. “If we cooked like my mom, we’d be rich.”
He says people are often surprised that he doesn’t own a Mexican restaurant. Part of the reason is economics. Uneaten chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants end up in the trash and, having grown up poor, food in the garbage “feels like a slap in the face,” Gustavo says. He says he often takes leftover food to the homeless, to avoid the waste.
The other reason is market driven. When he and Roberto decided to open a restaurant, they wanted to bring something new to the Anchorage food scene. In 2006, what Anchorage lacked was Cajun food.
The menu, with its core offerings of gumbo, jambalaya and po’ boys, has remained relatively unchanged, a constraint imposed by each restaurant’s small kitchen, Gustavo says. It is a point of consternation with him because it limits what he can offer his customers – and pleasing them is the guiding force behind everything he does.
“The customers own the place,” he says. “I’m the employee for everybody.”
He takes that role seriously. The few additions that have found their way on to the menu over the years – like the calamari and blackened shrimp po’ boys – were direct requests from customers. For catered events, he’s willing to cook off-menu whenever possible.
“We’re focused on gumbo and jambalaya, but we can do a little bit of everything,” he says. That “everything” may include traditional Cajun dishes, like a shrimp or crawfish étouffeé, traditional Mexican food, such as beef barbacoa or menudo, and even Italian.
This desire to please lets him fulfill his customer’s wishes, even if only for one day, and stretch his culinary skills as well.
The willingness to move outside one’s comfort zone when it comes to food is something Gustavo encourages. He often recommends new dishes to customers he sees ordering the same item, giving samples in an attempt to get them to at least try something new, even if they continue to stick with what they know and like.
It’s clear that much of Gustavo’s love for the restaurants stems from the customers. The restaurants are open seven days a week, and you’ll usually find him at each one, every day, for at least part of the day. To him, the restaurant is more than a job.
“People ask me when my day off is. I say, ‘Every day is my day off, because I come to the job to have fun,’ ” he says. “It’s a gift to be here, to be with everybody. That’s my second home.”