Sebastian Aubert first came to New York from his native Guadeloupe in search of rare funk, soul, and jazz records to take home to fuel his burgeoning career as a DJ. He never left. Today, he is the chef and owner of Kaz an Nou in Prospect Heights, where he seeks to recreate the flavors of the French Antilles with his own modern touch. We stopped by for a taste of his dombrés crevettes, a traditional dish of shrimp and dumplings in a smoky, spicy sauce.
So Sebastian, what should we try today?
The dish I want to make for you is our Dombrés crevettes. It’s a very traditional dish in the French Antilles in the Caribbean, where I am from. Basically, it’s shrimp and dumplings in spicy sauce.
I was born in France, but my mom is from the island of Guadeloupe, and that’s where I grew up. I’m not a trained chef. I didn’t go to cooking school or anything. But my mom used to cook very, very well, in a way that combined a lot of French technique with traditional Caribbean cuisine. Here at Kaz an Nou, we try to do exactly this.
The dombrés crevettes is a very good example of what we’re trying to do here, because it’s a dish that’s very typical and very traditional on Guadeloupe and all over the French Antilles.
The idea of the dish is just what it’s called – in English, it means shrimp and dumplings. Caribbean dumplings, not the Asian kind. The dumplings are kind of like gnocchi, but without the potato in them. They’re just little balls of flour. At home we like them really big. We like to chew on them. But here we make them smaller. Then we make a really nice spicy, flavorful sauce and we simmer everything together for a long time to really concentrate the flavors.
The problem with this dish in my opinion is that back at home, when prepared the traditional way, it is not very presentable. The flavor is amazing, yes. It’s very good. But in the Caribbean it’s always made with everything together – the shrimp with the shells and heads on them still, the dumplings, the tomatoes and all of the spices – in a big pressure cooker, so when you serve it it’s like a brown, messy thing. [laughter.] It’s not so nice to look at.
So I found a way here to make it a little more presentable without sacrificing any of the flavor. The flavor is the same, so I am very happy with it. The way I broke it down to make it more presentable? We don’t stew the shrimp themselves with the sauce. We cook them to order just before serving the dish. The sauce and dumplings cook for a long time – a few hours at least, so we start to make that in the afternoon, and then we cook the shrimp to order at the last minute and serve them in the sauce.
Of course, in the traditional preparation, the sauce gets much of its flavor from the shrimp. The way I found to retain the shrimp flavor in the sauce while still being able to cook the shrimp to order, was to start with a broth.
For the broth, I start with the shrimp. I clean the shrimp and put them aside to cook later. Then I take the shells and I chop them so they can let out all of their flavor, and I put them with the heads in a really hot pan with a little bit of oil. You get a little char on them so you get that nice smoky flavor. When they’ve gotten nice and dry, with a nice char on them, I deglaze with some white wine, which is a very important part.
And then I start adding the veggies – very typical veggies that you’d use in any soup or stock. A little bit of celery, turnips, carrots, parsley. A little bit of leeks, and scallion as well. Onions. I don’t put any garlic in there. That comes later. I put some herbs – rosemary, thyme, bay leaves.
So all of this, after cooking everything for a little while, we use to make the broth. We focus a lot on this broth. It’s the broth that really carries that smoky shrimp flavor that is at the heart of the dish through to the plate. Everything simmers for a few hours in some water until you have a broth that’s really, really flavorful, with the shrimp, the herbs, a lot of vegetables, the wine and that smoky flavor from the charred shells in there. It comes out very full of flavor, very shrimpy. When it’s ready, we strain it out and then we start to make the sauce.
When we make the sauce, we start with a roux, a really thick sauce almost like a paste. First we sauté some parsley, garlic, onions, a little bit of scallions, and some Scotch bonnet pepper in some oil. We call the Scotch bonnet the ‘piman’ in Guadeloupe, and we use it in everything. That’s what gives the sauce its heat.
We really try hard here not to make our food overly spicy, to get the level of the heat just exactly right so you always have balance, so everything can work in layers, and so you can taste all of the flavor and all of the steps of the cooking. Ok, yes it is spicy, but there are a lot of other things. We are careful, so in this dish, the heat comes gradually and it doesn’t linger.
So we have all of those things in the pan, and we get everything nice and brown, then we add the butter, a little bit of wine, some flour and a little broth. It gets very thick with the flour and then you have your roux. To the roux, we slowly add a little bit more broth, and then the tomatoes. We use cherry tomatoes to make it pretty, and a little bit of tomato puree. The tomato adds a lot of flavor, and gives the sauce a nice pink color.
We stir everything and then we add some more broth to thin it out. We let it sit and simmer for a while, to start to reduce. While the sauce simmers, we roll out the dumplings, and after a little while we add them to the sauce. It’s important for the dumplings to simmer in the sauce for a while – a couple of hours. In that time they release some of their starch and absorb lots of flavor. The sauce absorbs the starch and that’s when it really starts to come together to just the right level of thickness and concentrated flavor that we want.
With this dish, this sauce really, it’s very, very important to let it simmer for the right amount of time, so everything can find its right place. If you try to rush it, maybe you will taste the tomato too much in one bite, or the Scotch bonnet too much in another. If you give it its time, all of the flavors blend together and find their place. That’s what you want in this dish. You start with many different things, and you want them to all come together in harmony in the sauce.
At the end, when it’s reduced and ready, when it’s done really, I squeeze a lime over the sauce. It adds that nice little acidity that brightens it a little bit, which is really nice with that smoky shrimp flavor and the spice of the Scotch bonnet. But not too much lime – it’s very subtle.
The last thing we do is we butterfly the shrimp and cook it to order, the we put the sauce with the dumplings on the plate and we put the shrimp on top them and everything is complete.
Like I said, it’s a very traditional dish, so the flavors are kind of unique over here in the States. I realized when I came here that Americans are not very familiar with that mix of flavors. The shrimp and the Scotch bonnet, with those combinations of thyme and scallion and onion and everything definitely makes for something that’s pretty unusual around here.
It’s a really good dish. There are a lot of flavors, a lot of ingredients. Before all, it’s a shrimp dish, but you also have the bitterness of the herbs, the heat of the Scotch bonnet, and the shrimp brings an interesting kind of sweetness to it. It’s nice. And the dumplings, since they cook in the sauce, they have a lot of flavor and they bring another texture to the dish.
It’s a very typical dish of the French Antilles. There, everything is stewed together in one pot. Here, we prepare it a little differently, and I’m happy I was able to find the way to keep all of the ingredients and all of the flavors just the same as they would be at home, but to make it a little more presentable, a little nicer.
How did you end up here, with a restaurant in Prospect Heights?
It’s a funny story, I think. It does not have much to do with food, actually. I grew up with very good food because of my mom, like I said. My mom is a true gastronome. Even though she raised my brother and I alone, by herself, she always struggled to make good food for us. I got used to it. I got used to her high standards.
When I came here, it was because of music. I used to be a DJ. I used to collect records, old jazz, funk, and soul records, mostly. So it seemed logical for me to come to New York to look for records to bring home to Guadeloupe. That’s why I came.
But you know, things happen. I ended up staying a little longer than I had anticipated, and getting a job in the restaurant business. I started as a waiter, but I always had an eye on the kitchen because I had a little bit of knowledge about cooking and good food. Eventually, I was working as the manager of a restaurant, and a couple in Manhattan who wanted to open their own restaurant noticed me and gave me a chance to join them.
It was a tiny place in Soho. After we opened, they left to go to Miami to open another restaurant, leaving me behind to manage things. It became my little baby. That’s when I started incorporating my flavors and recipes into the menu. That’s how this all started. Eventually we sold the place.
I came to Brooklyn and got married, and opening another restaurant seemed like the logical thing to do. I had learned how to run a restaurant, I think I had become pretty good at it, and it was something that I really liked to do, so I decided to keep doing it.
This restaurant is a little more personal than that first one. It’s a little more like a family. My wife and I run things. We cook together. We design the menu together. Most of the flavors come from my heritage, my childhood, so there’s a little bit of French cooking and a little bit of Guadeloupe, often in the same dish.
We call this place Kaz an Nou, which means ‘our house’ in Creole. We call it that because it is our home. This is where we spend almost all of our time. We arrange the room so it feels like a house where we might live in the Caribbean. It’s like our living room, with our kitchen right over there in the back. I’m passionate about music, fascinated with records. So we have records here and we play them on the turntable. My wife is a musician. She plays the saxophone. Sometimes she plays here. We always have music here. The music is good. The food is good. That’s the idea. Everything here is what we like.
Kaz an Nou is located at 53 6th Ave, between Dean and Bergen, in Prospect Heights.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.