Food for the Soul

By Cynthia Liu

Food for the Soul

Glen Gator Thompson is the affable chef-owner of Gators Neo-Soul Cafe in San Mateo, just a few blocks down the street from Draegers. The casual and warm dining room and Southern-style hospitality makes diners feel as if they are visiting a friends home.

Neo-Soul cuisine is a lighter, healthier version of the soul food that Gator grew up eating. Raised in Oakland, Gator is a California boy at heart. Whenever possible, he uses organic, local and sustainable ingredients, such as Niman Ranch grass-fed beef. For his fried chicken, he eschews the deep fryer and instead, takes a boneless, organic Rocky Jr. chicken breast, marinates it in buttermilk, coats it with seasoned flour, sautes it in a small amount of oil and finishes it in the oven. The chicken is crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. His crabcakes are griddled with just a bit of oil, rather than fried, and depending on the season, served with a candied yam-pecan puree or Cajun tartar sauce and mango-jalapeno cole slaw.

Why are you called Gator?
"In the military is how I got my name, Gator. 15 of us went to St. Petersburg, Florida, to go to the alligator wrestling pits. After 16 shots of tequila, they talked me into getting into the pit to wrestle the alligator. I got the alligator on its back and won some money."

How did you get into cooking?
"At age 8, I made fried chicken and spaghetti. I got up at 3 AM to cook so no one would see [unsupervised kid might burn the house down] and I wanted to surprise everyone. I had watched them [the adults] cooking, so I figured I could do it."

"I started cooking professionally at age 14 at the Holiday Inn. I was a line cook and cooked brunch for the Oakland Raiders every Sunday." He then worked at Hungry Hunter and Antonios Italian restaurant in Oakland before joining the army. After being discharged, Gator cooked French food at La Salle Cafe in Sacramento, followed by Jazzman, Art of Pasta, which combined pasta with jazz.

In 1994, he went to work at Oliveto in Oakland, under Paul Bertolli, the former Chez Panisse chef who makes his own artisan balsamic vinegar, salami and pastas. After two years, Bertolli asked Gator what he wanted to do and Gator replied, I want to try to become the Paul Bertolli of Southern Cuisine.

Along the way, Gator opened a Creole-Mexican tacqueria in Pittsburgh, creating gumbo burritos and alligator chili verde. Of these two seemingly disparate cuisines, Gator said, the spices go together. He was then lured to San Francisco in 1997 to be the executive chef at Jessies Cajun-Caribbean, followed by executive chef at Storyville jazz supper club.

Glen GatorAfter his Creole-Californian restaurant, Alcatraces, closed in 2002, Gator took a three-year sabbatical to eat his way around the South and really understand his Arkansas (near New Orleans) and Mississippi roots. Even though my family cooked Southern food, I didnt know it. His relatives took him to eat delicacies such as barbecued squirrel and smothered possum. I told my cousins, The only time I want to see possum is on the side of I-580; Im from California.

But you serve alligator at your restaurant grilled alligator patties with Havarti cheese and caramelized onions in a Pinot Noir and horseradish gravy isnt that as exotic as possum?

"Alligator isnt strange! Its a healthy meat. Its low in cholesterol and has no fat."

As a result of his intensive soul food research, Gator ballooned up to 390 pounds, his cholesterol skyrocketed to 320 and he became borderline diabetic and borderline hypertensive.

In 2006, Gator had bariatric surgery, also known as a gastric bypass, at Stanford. After the surgery, he was put on a puree diet for two weeks. He complained to his doctors about the bland, institutional food This food youre telling me to eat, I can see why people dont stay on the diet. The ingenious chef then made his own puree with roasted halibut, fava beans and asparagus.

Gator then took some concepts from the South Beach diet and began infusing healthful ingredients with robust flavors and cooking them with low-fat techniques. His weight went down to 220 pounds, his cholesterol dropped to 122 and he is now healthier than he was even before he went on his Southern eating spree. His doctors were so impressed, they made him the spokesperson for Stanfords Bariatric Surgery and Diabetes Program and asked him to write a cookbook for them.

What are some things you do to make your food healthful?

"We use a brown, red and wild rice blend instead of white rice, or even brown rice.

Dont mess with margarine. Of everything out there, butter is best. It breaks down in your system. Just use it in moderation. Replace some butter with oils that are good for you. I make a roux with sunflower oil instead of butter and use the roux to finish the dish, so I use less of it. We dont use Canola here. Canola is better than most of the trans-fats out there, but its not a healthy oil. We use grapeseed, olive and Saffola oils.

I use wildflower honey instead of molasses. I season with Kosher salt and pink Himalayan sea salt, which has more natural minerals in it and more flavor, so you need less.

Go to the store, get the stuff that doesnt have nutritional panels [i.e. not processed] and cook it yourself. Dont think the hour you spend cooking is a waste of time youre adding it to your life."

Gator is teaching a class in San Mateo on July 30, 2008. Below is his recipe for barbecue shrimp.

Chef Gators Barbecue Shrimp & Grits
Serves four

  • 1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined with tail intact (about 2 dozen) teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • teaspoon dried rosemary
  • teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne powder
  • 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • teaspoon salt
  • 1 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • bottle beer
  • cup scallions, sliced
  • 3 cups water
  • teaspoon salt
  • cup quick-cooking grits

To prepare the grits, bring water and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan and then slowly stir in the grits. Cover the pan and reduce heat to low. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm.

To prepare the shrimp, first combine the thyme, rosemary, oregano, cayenne, salt, and pepper in a small bowl and mix together. In a large skillet on high heat, add one stick of the butter, the Worcestershire sauce and the mixed spices. Stir to melt the butter. After the butter is melted completely, add the shrimp. After two minutes, flip each shrimp over to cook on the opposite side. After another two minutes, add the beer and remaining butter. Cook for another minute and then remove from heat.

Portion the grits into four small bowls and then position four shrimp in the center of each bowl on top of the grits. Drizzle the remaining sauce over the shrimp and grits and garnish with sliced scallions.

Glenn Gator Thompson © 2008