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Keith Manson, Michael Watanabe and Kira Kratzer serve Peeves Public House’s version of gumbo during the Vineyard Farmers Market’s Gumbo Throwdown on Feb. 7, 2015. Peeves’ gumbo is made with sausage from Fresno State. (Paul Schlesinger/The Collegian)

Cajun spices and jazz music fill the air at Fresno gumbo cook-off

The food was a religious experience on Saturday for more than 200 hungry judges at the Vineyard Farmers Market’s 8th Annual Gumbo Throwdown.

“For our gumbo, we used the Holy Trinity – the bell peppers, onions and celery, and we even added the Pope in there; that means garlic,” said Café Via chef Brenton Pollock, whose chicken, sausage and shrimp gumbo took first prize.

Pollock was one of four chefs representing local eateries dishing out spicy Cajun soups in front of the market, which runs every Wednesday and Saturday at the corner of Blackstone and Shaw avenues.

Vineyard Farmers Market Executive Director Felix Muzquiz said the event is a way for the local chefs who frequently buy produce at the market to showcase their culinary chops. The cook-off is also designed to get people into the Louisiana spirit before Sunday’s annual Mardi Gras parade, which Muzquiz organizes each year in the Tower District.

“My reasons for putting this together are mostly selfish,” Muzquiz said. “I really love gumbo, and there aren’t a lot of places in town to get it. This way, the gumbo comes to us.”

Chef Michael Watanabe of Peeve’s Public House explained the labor behind this mobile feast.

“It took my six hours just to build the roux [gumbo’s thickening agent],” Watanabe said. “I would sit on the couch for 10 minutes, then check the roux – for hours. Once it started to brown, I had to stand over it constantly to keep it from burning and ruining my gumbo.”

Watanabe’s gumbo, which he said was made from all local ingredients, including Fresno State Cajun sausage, took second place in the competition.

The judges, who each paid $8 for a 4-ounce portion of each gumbo, voted Fresno State neighbor Guri’s GrubHouse & Taps’ gumbo into the third slot. Humphrey Station, an old stage coach stop-turned-restaurant in the Clovis foothills, took fourth. .0

The smell of rain and gumbo wasn’t the only thing to fill the air from 10 a.m. to noon, as Viper City Brass Band belted out New Orleans jazz standards, funk hits and a brass-infused cover of the Eurythmics’ hit “Sweet Dreams.” Children from the audience even used tambourines handed out by Viper City to sit in with the band for a few jazz medleys.

A few unlucky people were turned away after the four gumbo pots went dry around 11:30 a.m.

As they handed out their last gumbo portions, Sean and Donna Dunn of Humphrey Station shared what makes the event special.

“This is a great way for people to get together and taste great food made with local ingredients.”