SOMERVILLE, NJ - Bill Simonitis drove up from the Jersey shore Sunday with two gallons of homemade Gumbo YaYa in the back of his car, hoping for a good showing against the local competition in Verve Restaurant’s annual Gumbo Cook-off.
It was worth the trip, as Simonitis drove home the winner, beating out five other competitors’ Gumbo stews.
Verve owner Rick St. Pierre charged $10 for the all-you-can-eat Gumbo buffet, with the money raised donated to the Matheny School in Peapack. Verve’s Mardi Gras celebration will conclude with a “Fat Tuesday” celebration during which Mardi Gras masks made by the residents and students at Matheny School will be sold to the highest bidder, with all proceeds donated back to the school.
Simonitis, an attorney with a practice in Scotch Plains, said he based his recipe on one he had found searching online, but as any self-respecting chef will do, added his own twists.
“I backed off a little bit on the heat,” he said, concerned that a brew too spicy might work against him.
The six entries from Simonitis and his competitors - Rich Reitman, Les Floyd, Brenda Sasso, Steve Canata and Brian Waggenspack - were representative of the most popular variations.
A bowl of hearty Gumbo is a culinary fusion of African, Native American and European cultures and commonly associated with Louisiana, featuring Cajun or Creole variations.
Gumbo is a savory stew made with a variety of meats or shellfish combined with an array of vegetables and herbs.
Gumbo can be as thin as soup or as thick as gravy. The proteins might be chicken and crab or sausage and shrimp. The stew might be thickened with okra, with filé (powdered sassafras leaves), with a dark roux (a blend of oil and flour cooked slowly until well browned), or any combination of the three.
Simonitis described his Gumbo as “more Cajun than Creole,” a blend of chicken and sausage seasoned with salt, black pepper, Cayan pepper and Thyme.
He was also a gracious winner.
“There were no losers today,” he said. “Everybody’s a winner. This is a terrific cause,” he added. “A restaurant that gives back to its community says a lot about the owner.”
Though Simonitis hadn’t met Verve owner Rick St. Pierre until yesterday’s contest, it turns out that they do have a strong connection.
Simonitis was the attorney for Ed Tozzi, the previous owner of the building St. Pierre now owns. Tozzi had operated the Court Tavern before selling to former Somerset County Freeholder John Kitchen, from whom St. Pierre bought the building.
Verve will be celebrating its 20th anniversary later this year.
Simonitiis promises he’ll return next year to defend his title.