Pull into the Ralphs parking lot on the corner of Manchester and Western any day, and prepare to see a line of food trucks cramped into the Southwest corner. Most afternoons include crews from Trap Kitchen, Belly’s Sliders & Wings, and Happy Ice. As shoppers social distance for entry to the grocery store, those waiting for food truck orders remain in their cars until the order is ready. There’s a steady stream of customers during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s even busier for Calvin Johnson’s — known as Chef Grubby — Bleu Kitchen truck, who slings a staple that sells out daily: gumbo pot pie.
Johnson is one-third of the self-proclaimed South LA ‘Foodminati’ who launched Court Cafe in mid-2019. With partners Taco Mell’s Jermelle Henderson and Keith Garrett of All Flavor No Grease, the trio opened a breakfast and lunch restaurant that leans towards savory dishes and big portion sizes on the border of Westchester and Inglewood. All three still operate their respective businesses. But Johnson found new life this year with his gumbo recipe topped with puff pastry. “It’s a blessing to sell our food,” says Johnson.
If there were ever a time for comfort food, now is it. Americans are making carb-heavy recipes like sourdough bread, high-calorie cream sauces, and whole roasted meats at home. And nostalgia plays a major part as the world practices social distancing during the current coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson usually makes the pot pie around the holidays as a seasonal dish and stops producing them in January. But the demand kept increasing for this compact frozen item, which requires heating in a home oven. Johnson started making them four years ago when a friend returned from New Orleans and talked about her favorite dish: a crawfish pot pie.
“As soon as she described it to me, I wondered how I could put a gumbo in a pot pie,” says Johnson. “I researched it and there was a lot of troubleshooting to get the roux right. Once I got it, it’s been a top-seller ever since.”
Johnson blends spices and aromatics to bell peppers, onions, celery, smoked sausage, crab meat, chicken, and shrimp. He then ladles the gumbo into a foil container, tops it with puff pastry, and freezes them en maase.
For preparation, pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees, and allow 30 to 45 minutes for the laminated dough to turn a gorgeous shade of brown. Johnson’s gumbo packs a spicy punch, and is big enough for one person. Some customers buy the $16 dish in bulk to store away in the freezer.
The Bleu Kitchen truck first opened in 2017, but prior to that, Johnson spent six years cooking from his home with wife Sunni. He simply wanted to make dishes that stand out. “LA is the capital of the culinary arts industry,” says Johnson. “But in the black community, folks were just selling the same food.” This year will be his personal best. As of yesterday, Johnson’s team has sold an astounding 1,312 pies, grossing nearly $20,000 since late-December.
Johnson also makes a popular version of garlic noodles, inspired by Vietnamese chef Helene An from Crustacean. Just like the pot pie, the noodles sell out within hours. “My wife’s been to Crustacean, she thinks mine are better,” laughs Johnson. “My best friend’s mom used to make this dish called fried spaghetti, and I thought they tasted like garlic noodles. I put my twist on them and gave them more flavor. I’ve been selling them for six years. When business would get slower, I would just make noodles and they would bring me right back up.”
After deep frying the noodles, they’re layered with a protein of choice. One can also order the massive everything option with steak, shrimp, chicken, and broccoli. “There’s a big Asian community in the South Bay, and once I got the stamp of approval, I knew it was good,” says Johnson. “People can’t believe it’s coming from a black guy.”
Johnson’s face is an animated presence on the side of the truck, which parks in or near the Ralphs parking, while his brother Domo Johnson runs the show. It’s best to arrive early, but check Bleu Kitchen’s Instagram to keep track of the schedule and availability.