Govind Armstrong’s Wild Dungeness Crab Okra at Lobster is both one of Los Angeles’ most comforting and luxurious dishes. It’s bursting with crabmeat, Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage, organic chicken, buttered jasmine rice, and the kind of deep, rich and complex flavors that can only come from slow cooking.
“It’s not really one of those dishes that’s going to win a beauty award or anything, but this dish is all about substance and flavor,” said Armstrong, executive chef and director of operations of The Lobster, a historic restaurant that dates back to 1923 and is located on a bluff that overlooks the Santa Monica Pier and the Pacific. “And you feel so good after eating it. It’s not like the type of okra that’s going to weigh you down. It’s just very, very clean, but it hits all the right notes.
Creating okra is a three-day process that results in something deeply flavorful and rich in umami. There is a seafood broth made from crab shells, shrimp shells and shrimp heads. There’s also Mary’s Organic Roast Chicken Broth. These broths, which include mirepoix and herbs, take two days to prepare before they are combined. But Armstrong isn’t finished: He intensifies the flavor by frying about half a dozen whole chickens and leaving them in the simmered broths for four hours. Then the fried chickens are removed from the liquid and used for the staff meal at the Santa Monica restaurant. His dedication to The Lobster okra is the culmination of a rich and influential career.
Armstrong, 52, who was born in the Inglewood area of Los Angeles and started working at Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago on the Sunset Strip at age 13, cooking okra for his personal enjoyment since his twenties .
“I loved having a basic understanding of what the dish is and just being able to make adaptations,” he says. “I have always enjoyed the process.”
Armstrong’s background was in French and Italian cuisine, but he had an affinity for Southern cuisine. He read cookbooks and became a fan of pioneering Southern chef Edna Lewis. And when Armstrong worked at Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco, he befriended another young cook, Wayne Greiner, who was originally from New Orleans and who had worked for Emeril Lagasse at Commander’s Palace as a teenager. Armstrong and Grenier discussed okra at length.
“He was raised on okra and had some fun and insightful experiences,” Armstrong said.
But it was Armstrong’s experience at Post & Beam, the pioneering South LA restaurant he opened with restaurateur Brad Johnson in 2001, that made him a full-fledged gumbo chef. Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills is a black-owned business that flourished in a predominantly black community. It is also the legacy of Armstrong and Johnson. The restaurant is now run by Chef John Cleveland, whom Armstrong mentored and continues to check out regularly.
“Post + Beam is one of those restaurants that will never go anywhere,” Armstrong says proudly. “Every community needs an anchor point. He needs a restaurant that is for the people.
At Post + Beam, Armstrong hosted okra nights with crayfish okra, blue crab okra, shrimp okra and okra and other variations.
“There was a great woman, a regular one of mine, who came mostly with granddaughters or great-granddaughters,” says Armstrong. “She was the sweetest woman and just loved to eat and tell stories, a true southerner in that regard. She had spent many years in New Orleans.
This woman, Edith Bell, had previously worked as Muhammad Ali’s private chef. She invited Armstrong to her home.
“I would get there in the morning, and she had half a dozen cooked eggs and a pound of bacon and oatmeal, toast and orange juice,” he says. “It was all literally fair to me. She would tell stories, and we would hang out and cook. And it definitely changed my okra approach a bit, just in terms of the timing of adding ingredients. It’s like making a curry. You don’t throw everything in one jar, you walk around and come back. It’s really about trying to layer all the ingredients together.
Prior to this advanced okra course, Armstrong developed his skills alongside some of LA’s best.
At Spago, Armstrong worked under the direction of pioneering Californian cuisine chef, Mark Peel, who died in June. He remembers preparing vegetables, perfectly but very slowly. He laughs when he thinks about how a former Spago pastry chef named Nancy Silverton still laughs at him for the tedious job he did when he was 13, when his mother had to drive him from home. their San Fernando Valley home at his summer job. He’s pretty good at chopping mirepoix for his okra now.
The highlights of Armstrong’s career and his influence on the LA culinary scene are significant. At Chadwick, the garden-focused restaurant he and Ben Ford opened in 2000, he’s served Santa Barbara spotted shrimp, fresh Dover sole, and the restaurant’s own vegetables and herbs while young cooks like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have familiarized themselves with the kitchen. In 2004, Armstrong was named one of People the 50 most beautiful people in the magazine.
Now at the Lobster, where he landed in 2017, he’s running a massive operation that receives 600 to 800 pounds of lobster a day and isn’t slowing down. Armstrong is also working on a new annex to The Lobster, a Santa Monica food trailer with lobster rolls, ceviche, raw vegetables, burgers, hot dogs, beer, and cocktails.
Even after all this time and achievement, he’s happy to go the labor-intensive route in the kitchen and whip up 12 quarts of roux for his three-day okra.
“The okra we have at Lobster is really consistent,” says Armstrong. “It’s probably one of the best I’ve done. I’m just proud of it and proud to teach people the steps and the different techniques that go into creating something that looks basic but is really super complex.
He is also proud that Bell is enjoying the okra he is currently making.
“I still have to get the seal of approval from her,” says Armstrong. “So every once in a while I have to invite her to The Lobster to have okra on me and just to give me the go ahead. She loves okra. It’s obviously different than what she showed me. But she knows that everything is going to evolve and I’m going to put my seal on it, and she totally approves.