As a child, Dontaye Ball learned from his grandmother that cooking is an act of love. Born and raised in the Bayview, Ball stirred his first roux—the base for gumbo—with the matriarch of his family, who moved from Mississippi to San Francisco in the 1960s as part of the Great Migration of Black southerners to Northern cities.
“I joke with my father that if I get a cut on my arm, a little gumbo will come out of my veins,” he said, laughing.
Now, Ball is on the verge of a delicious homecoming. On June 3, he’ll lead a brass band in a second line parade through the streets of the Bayview to celebrate the grand opening of Gumbo Social—his first brick-and-mortar restaurant.
The soul food kitchen will showcase the same Creole stews that inspired Ball’s nickname, Mr. Gumbo. He makes a traditional chicken and sausage gumbo, one with smoked turkey—keeping Muslim and Jewish diners in mind—as well as a vegan gumbo with hominy, black-eyed peas and roasted mushrooms. According to Ball, it’s difficult to find restaurants that serve greens along the Third Street corridor in the Bayview, and he hopes to change that—one plant-based gumbo at a time.
Ball’s emphasis on vegetarian cooking also hearkens to his grandmother’s Mississippi roots. As he told The Standard, his grandmother grew up on a farm, where many of the meals were plant-based simply because her family was sparing about killing their chickens and hogs. Similarly, these days Ball said he’s seeing more and more African American residents in the Bayview shift to a plant-based diet.
“I don’t really like the word inclusive,” he said. “It’s impossible to be totally inclusive, but I do like options. We want everyone to be able to take part in Gumbo Social.”
After graduating from culinary school, Ball helped open Pizzeria Delfina in 2005. More than a decade later, after starting a family and working a stint at Google, he launched Gumbo Social as a pop-up in 2018. He said he still remembers the free community event at Cafe Envy in the Bayview, where he first served his gumbo to around 200 people.
“I was a big believer in letting people try the product and asking for their feedback,” he said.
It was on that day that the idea for a build-your-own gumbo bar was born—a concept he’s bringing back to the Bayview at his new eatery.
It was also around that time that Ball’s alter-ego, Mr. Gumbo, was born. Always a fan of superheroes and supervillains, he said he wanted a codename and felt that Mr. Gumbo lay somewhere in the moral middle.
“If we look at the villains, there’s usually a trauma that activates their purpose,” he said. “The villains are way cooler than the heroes.”
During the early days of the pandemic, Ball also joined a cohort of entrepreneurs working with the Grubhub Community Fund and the Feed the Soul Foundation to launch their businesses through a grant and a series of professional consultations.
Though Ball said he considered locations in buzzier neighborhoods, like the Mission District storefront that belonged to Michelin-starred AL’s Place before it closed in August 2022, it was difficult to identify a spot that he could afford.
“The math wasn’t mathing,” he said.
From there, the decision to open in his home neighborhood became an easy one, Ball said. He was already acquainted with the owner of the previous restaurant, a soul food outfit called Frisco Fried, so his homecoming fell into place—something Ball said surprised even himself.
“I remember when I was young, I thought I was never going to open a restaurant in the Bayview,” he said. “When you grow up in a place, you don’t necessarily know how special it is until you leave or until someone else tells you it’s special.”
Ball told The Standard his goal is to make the Bayview a dining destination. That wasn’t his objective when Gumbo Social first launched, but as he continues to share the news of his forthcoming restaurant with friends and neighbors, he said more people are envisioning it as a second home.
“They’re telling me, ‘This is going to be our place,’” he said. “They’re already calling me to plan their birthday parties.”
He likened that sense of collective investment to the rotating hot sauce bar he's hosted at farmer’s markets throughout the city, which spotlights local makers. He plans to carry on that tradition at the new restaurant.
With Gumbo Social opening in a matter of weeks, Ball reflected on the role his grandmother has played in his culinary career, which he said traces back to the reason she made a home in the Bayview in the first place.
“It was a fresh start for her, and she chose to raise a family in a place where someone like myself could someday have an opportunity to be amazing,” he said.
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