Betty Berrysmith concocts her own vinegar-based barbecue sauce that she uses to baste this pork butt.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MOLLIE KIMBERLING
Spend a moment studying — or, better yet, tasting — the vibrant, flavorful fare chef Betty Berrysmith cooks up at B’s Table, the home-cooked meal pickup service she runs from her house in La Quinta, and you’ll realize that she packs each seemingly familiar dish with unexpected elements — a mash-up of regional influences and twists on traditional specialties.
Berrysmith dubs it CaliSoul cuisine — soul food laced with local California produce, with a sprinkle of her Southern heritage and a dash of her Pacific Northwest upbringing.
Take, for example, the dish for which she’s best known: her glorious gumbo. Berrysmith’s mother and father, who hailed from Mississippi and Louisiana, respectively, would make their own version of the classic meat-and-seafood stew at home in Seattle, where they raised Berrysmith and her siblings.
“I remember standing by the side of the stove and looking into that pot of gumbo and watching and smelling,” she recounts. “I spent decades trying to duplicate that smell.
"Gumbo is all about using what people have available, no matter where you are. Dungeness crab isn’t what they’d use in the South, but that’s what they were using in their gumbo in Seattle. And it has such great flavor. To this day, it’s what I prefer to use.”
Though she learned to cook in Seattle, her culinary career began after she arrived in Southern California in the 1970s. There, she started creating what’s now her signature gumbo. “People here influenced me to make what I call a cleaner gumbo. It has authentic taste but no pork or beef,” she explains of the creation that includes chicken andouille sausage, roast chicken, shrimp, and that Dungeness crab. “People from all over the country have tried it and they’re amazed to find it still has such an authentic flavor.”
Berrysmith moved to Los Angeles to study fashion design, but eventually took a job as an administrative assistant at Kaiser Permanente. While there, a friend offered to pay Berrysmith to make a pasta salad she could pass off as her own at a potluck. She obliged, and soon others were requesting some of her signature dishes, including the gumbo, for their own get-togethers and dinner parties.
With a bona fide side gig as a caterer up and running, Berrysmith realized food was her true calling and entered a two-year culinary arts degree program at age 40. Despite some trepidation about going back to school alongside classmates half her age, she says, “It turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.” She bonded with a handful of other “older” students, taking advantage of everything the program had to offer, from culinary conferences to mentorships to volunteering. “I think the teachers recognized that we really wanted to learn, and we weren’t there to goof off like some of the younger kids, so they provided a lot of opportunities to us.”
Berrysmith spent a few years in food service for film and commercial shoots, catering on the side all along, and occasionally cooking for the likes of Muhammad Ali and the rock band Heart before becoming the chef and kitchen manager for the more than 50 priests who lived and worked on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. In addition to cooking their regular meals, she created elaborate feasts for visiting Jesuits, all while absorbing all the culinary knowledge she could, from pairing wine with global fare to incorporating her specialties into daily menus.
“These were educators from all over the world and they were well-traveled, so we were preparing all kinds of food,” Berrysmith says. “There were European influences, French Classical influences.”
Another blessing from her educational experience was meeting her now-wife, who was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the time, and where Berrysmith moved for several years. Though the self-proclaimed “West Coast girl” couldn’t wait to return home, she mastered Carolina-style specialties while there.
“I got a lot of exposure to new dishes and got to be immersed in that cuisine,” she says, referring to the Carolina barbeque and sides like yellow grits. “That’s still what I use now when I do shrimp and grits.”
The couple moved to the Coachella Valley a decade ago. Berrysmith started cooking at an Indio community school until she gained a following as a caterer. With the passage of a bill in late 2019 that allows microenterprise home kitchen operations, Berrysmith launched B’s Table in the fall of 2020 to create prepared meals from her home that customers could order via Foodnome, an online marketplace for home-cooked food. She started, of course, with gumbo, offering her signature version and a vegan variety she first invented for the “Gumbo Gala” fundraiser she organized for The L-Fund, a local nonprofit lesbian assistance organization.
In the plant-based version, she swaps out the roux’s butter for vegetable oil and fills the pot with a cornucopia of seasonal veggies that might include green beans, edamame, yellow squash, and purple cauliflower. The vegan dish has been a hit at B’s Table, giving many non-meat eaters the chance to finally try gumbo.
“I always want to make things colorful,” Berryman says. “That’s where that fashion design background comes in. You eat with your eyes. I see so much Southern food that is just piled on a plate, but I think it’s very important to make food look good and enticing.”
Her offerings were just what many locals were looking for during the height of the pandemic shutdown — healthy, comforting food they could enjoy at home. The model continues to prove successful, too. Berrysmith adds specials to her menu seasonally, highlighting cold dishes like crab tostadas and niçoise salads with grilled salmon or cauliflower steaks in summer, and her scratchmade cakes and pies — including a spiced maple sweet potato and crunchy bourbon pecan — around the holidays.
The B’s Bird Dinner — a platter of roast chicken and sauteed greens from her garden plated with sweet potato casserole and a killer cornbread muffin — has also become a customer favorite. “Roast chicken has gotten a bad reputation because it’s something that people overcook,” Berrysmith says, “but I’ve perfected it.”
Sometimes, she’ll smoke a pork butt on her backyard smoker to whip up the pulled pork sandwiches she serves on glossy brioche buns. “It’s a nod to my father-in-law, who raised pigs on his farm in South Carolina,” she says, adding that, in true Carolina fashion, she concocted her own vinegar-based barbecue sauce that she uses to baste the meat. “They’d do a whole hog in the wintertime.”
Thanks to Berrysmith’s fresh take on dishes, she sells out of most everything she posts.
“People kept telling me, there’s no soul food around here, especially on this end of the desert and they’re happy to see it. Soul food was historically created out of what was being tossed away. We created it out of nothing. And now it has a wider appeal. It’s not just African Americans, my customers are really diverse. To me, food that comforts you and is like arms wrapped around you is soul food and that can be different things,” says Berrysmith, admitting that the excellent reviews she receives continue to humble her. “The feedback has been really wonderful. Everybody has been really enthusiastic and supportive of my small business. I have been so fortunate and so blessed.”
You can find B’s Table at foodnome.com/B’s-Table.