Before he joined Tailgaters and was named the 2010 Gumbo Contest Champion at the Alameda County Fair this month, Crump was the executive chef at his own restaurant in New Orleans. After attending culinary school and working as Emeril Lagasse’s sous chef – before he was famous for “Bam!” – Crump fulfilled his dream by opening Sierra’s, a café he named after his daughter. While business was good, Mother Nature had different plans for Crump’s future, and when Hurricane Katrina’s fury hit New Orleans, Crump lost not only his business but his home as well.
Like others who lived in the area, Crump expected Katrina to be like any other hurricane, so rather than evacuating, he stayed at home. But after the levees broke and the water began to rise, Crump retreated to his attic and eventually punched a hole in the roof so that he could await rescue while standing atop his home in knee-deep water.
“I spent 10 days on my roof waiting for help, but no one came,” Crump recalled. “When the waters finally receded, I waded through the waters as dead bodies floating along bumped into me as I moved forward. That’s all I could do. Keep moving forward.
“Some people I knew decided to stay and wait for government relief, but I wasn’t about to stay. I lost everything, and it was time to move on.”
Knowing he could share his passion of cooking anywhere, Crump traveled to Georgia before spending a few years working in restaurants throughout Florida. Following the advice of a tourist he met while watching a space shuttle launch, Crump decided to relocate a third time to West Virginia to open his own place, Lagniappe, in the town of Clarksburg, but he soon found it was too difficult to keep a restaurant flourishing when heavy snows keep customers away.
“Katrina was traumatic, but with a strong will and trust in God, I was able to survive,” Crump said. “After everything that has happened, I honestly believe that everything happens for a reason. If it hadn’t been for Katrina, I would have never wound up in West Virginia, where I met my wife. And if I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have been introduced to East County, where I now have the opportunity to share Cajun cuisine and my award-winning gumbo with the Bay Area.”
Crump’s sister-in-law lives in Oakley and persistently insisted that the newlyweds should move to California, where they wouldn’t need to worry about snow. Crump and his wife Ebidoere relocated to Oakley in January and began searching for a place to open a restaurant. Surprised by the high rental costs in the Bay Area, Crump decided it’d be more reasonable to work for someone else for a while and put his restaurant ambitions on the backburner.
After a brief stint at Mike’s Beef ‘N’ Brew in Oakley, Crump decided to rethink his options. He stopped by Tailgaters one evening to sample some of the happy hour specials and soon struck up a conversation with Tailgaters owner Bill Lohr. Crump left with an application and was hired two days later.
“We hit it off right away,” Lohr said. “Our last chef had just left, so to find someone with 36 years of experience was phenomenal. Le’Roy is truly a godsend. People call me all the time to tell me how much they love the new chef. I couldn’t be happier with my decision (to hire Crump).”
The joy is mutual. Crump is thankful Lohr was willing to take a risk on a guy he’d just met, trusting the Tailgaters kitchen to a stranger. But Lohr said hiring Crump was a no-brainer: “I have a good way of reading people, and I liked him from the start. Tailgaters is kind of in a transition right now. I’m always looking to improve the business, and I had been wanting to take a new look at the menu to see what items should be replaced because they just aren’t selling. And Le’Roy has some really good ideas. Some of the Cajun dishes he’s introduced will be incorporated into the new menu for sure. And his award-winning gumbo will be offered daily.”
Crump has been testing the waters with Tailgaters’ customers, and so far the customers have been pleased. He’s been whipping up small batches of his classic Cajun cuisine to try it out on the Tailgaters crowd, and he often sells out.
“It’s good and bad that we sell out each night,” Crump explained. “It’s bad because it might give the impression that we don’t have enough food to go around, but it’s good because a lot of people are trying the food and they seem to really like it. Now that I’m getting a better feel for the Tailgater crowd, I will adjust the amount I make so that there is plenty for everyone.”
Tailgaters offers three daily Cajun specials: a soup, a seafood meal and a non-seafood meal. So far, Crump has served up such dishes as fried catfish, jambalaya, blackened chicken, alligator bites and crab cakes.
Crump said he’s aware that a lot of people share a common misconception about Cajun cuisine, assuming that the meals are spicy hot, but crump said Cajun cooking is all about spice – not the hot. In fact, the New Orleans “Cajun Trinity” consists of pepper, celery and onion, with an occasion appearance by Trinity cousin garlic. Otherwise, Cajun food is an art form of blending just the right herbs and spices to create an intoxicating flavor that keeps you begging for more.
One of Crump’s happiest discoveries is that people in California enjoy a variety of foods. “When you think of Californians, you assume they are very health conscious vegans and vegetarians, but I’ve come to find that the people here are meat-and-potato people – my kind of people.
“People are a little hesitant to try Cajun food because of the misconceptions or the thought of eating alligator, but once they try it, they come to realize that there is more to eating out than burgers and steaks. There is a world of flavors to explore, and I feel blessed to have the opportunity to share these meals with the Bay Area, especially nice communities such as Brentwood and Oakley.”
If you’re new to Cajun food, Crump suggests blackened chicken/steak/fish. “It’s blackened because of the seasonings. I’m not about to serve you burnt food. It’s the blend of seasons that gives the meat a darkened color, and it is a wonderful way to introduce your palate to this type of food.”
To make sure his food is the best it can be, Crump samples every dish before it goes out. If he makes a few gallons of gumbo, he taste tests it, and if he’s satisfied, he asks two other people to offer their opinion to make sure it’s just right.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the kitchen staff and the wait staff,” Crump said. “This is such a great group of people to work with. It’s great to collaborate with them and try out new ideas with the kitchen manager. When I was hired on, Bill shook my hand and said ‘welcome to the family,’ and this place feels like home. I’m glad to be a part of the Tailgaters family.”
Crump said he’s fallen in love with East County. The area reminds him of growing up in Ponchatoula, La., where he learned to cook by watching his mother and grandmother bustle around the kitchen. He was serving five-course meals by the time he was 12, but he never thought he’d be sharing his skills in California.
“In the past five years, I’ve been through a lot of transitions, but coming to Oakley and Brentwood has been the happiest of them all. I love living in Oakley. The people are so friendly here. I’ve never seen so many friendly people. People offer such great hospitality here that it reminds me of New Orleans. You walk down the street and people smile and say ‘hello.’ It’s been a wonderful experience, and I look forward to being here for many years to come.”
To sample Crump’s cooking, visit Tailgaters, located at 8065 Brentwood Blvd., or contact Crump about catering opportunities by calling him at 925-864-9247 or messaging him at firstname.lastname@example.org.