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Alabama People: Lucy Buffett

We caught up with Lucy Buffett, owner of the popular Lulu’s restaurants in Gulf Shores and Destin, as she was about to begin a promotion tour for her new cookbook, GUMBO LOVE, Recipes for Gulf Coast Cooking, Entertaining and Savoring the Good Life, a follow-up to her first book, Lulu’s Kitchen, a Taste of the Gulf Coast Good Life.  The Mobile native and sister of singer Jimmy Buffett, Lucy spends her time between homes in Perdido Key and Key West, loves to cook for her friends and family (including her grandchildren), and after a two-year book-writing process, says she is ready to get back home to the beach. — Lenore Vickrey

What does the title GUMBO LOVE mean?

It has translated into a philosophy, especially for all the people who work around me and with me in this Cinderella story we call Lulu’s, that started so small with me, my two daughters and six other people.  It’s a philosophy about life, love, respect, kindness and trying to be in the moment and trying to self-improve. I’m the cook of the family. I found that cooking was kind of my gift. My art. It became my meditation, my health. It’s an evolving concept.  Gumbo love is more than just a salutation now!  In our world, we’ve adopted it into our corporate culture. It’s spreading the gumbo love!

How do you split time between Key West and Gulf Shores?

With all my business interest in Gulf Shores, Lulu’s is my baby and my home. For years I lived in Fairhope, that’s where my grandchildren are. A year or so ago we bought a lot on Perdido Key and we’re building. Then I bought this little place in Key West. I’m up there (on the Gulf) all summer long and here (Key West) in the winter months. I’m an Alabama girl at heart.

Tell us about the cookbook process.

So we’ve been working on the book for two-plus years.  I always knew I needed a second follow-up cookbook. I wanted to do it a year after the first one but you know, life gets in the way. Business happened. We opened a restaurant, Lucy B Goode, next to Lulu’s, and that didn’t work. Then we decided to open Destin. What really spurred us was outside interest from a publisher. Then I got an agent. So that required a year for a book proposal to write. And then the book took about a year to write. So I’ve been up against a tough deadline to get it released before the summer. It’s been an ongoing big team effort to get this going. I feel like I’ve been in the last five laps of the Daytona 500!

When was the first time you ever ate gumbo?

It has to be at my grandmother Buffett’s house in Pascagoula, Mississippi. It is her recipe that that my recipe is based on. I’ve updated it a little bit. They all used bacon grease. Back in those days, everything had to be seasonal. She cooked gumbo every Friday of her life. So I probably had my first gumbo by the time I was four.

Making gumbo can be intimidating. What advice do you have for someone who’s never made it before?

Fix a drink! Do it as a party thing.  Because food is a connector for people. You get a bunch of folks together and it’s not difficult. You just have to prepare everything, but everybody’s pitching in. Some one’s peeling the shrimp. Someone’s chopping the onions.  Of course, now I can do it with my eyes closed. You just keep going and that’s what makes it fun. Now roux can be intimidating. You have to stir it for a while. I end up knowing about when to take mine off by the smell.

Other than your own restaurants, where is your favorite place to eat (anywhere in the U.S.)?

When I’m in Key West, my favorite is Louie’s Backyard. In Alabama, and when I’m at home, believe it or not, I love to go to the Flora Bama Yacht Club. The chef there is really great, really funky. If I’m Birmingham, I’m going to one of Frank Stitt’s places, and I like Chris Hastings’ place too, Hot and Hot. He’s a good guy. I don’t drink any more, but there’s nothing like that bar at Highlands Bar and Grill.

What’s for dinner tonight?

Sushi takeout, because I’m getting on a plane at 6 in the morning! You know what’s interesting, I’m kind of addicted right now to boneless chicken thighs. I put a recipe in the cookbook for cumin chicken thighs. Last night I made those with roasted vegetables and a nice big salad. That’s so not Creole, but it’s my little thing I’m doing right now. I keep these chicken thighs around, so if I get hungry and have a sugar craving, I’ll eat one of those chicken thighs. I’m never going to give up sugar all the time, I’m never going to give up dairy, and I’m never going to give up Daddy’s fried chicken. It’s his recipe (and it’s in the cookbook). It’s like a balance. I can’t eat like I used to eat, but what I can do is have it every once in a while. I think fried food has gotten a real bad rap. It’s delicious, it’s joyful. I don’t think having it once a week is bad.