The whole thing starts with something called browned roux, formed of the greatest hopes for fat and flour, carefully refined until just the right consistency. The rest of the ingredients offer a little something for everyone -- sausage, okra, celery, crawfish or even chicken, all enshrouded in a mystery of spices. They're smothered on low heat until the mixture begins to take on a new identity. And with every simmering minute, the pot thickens.
Making gumbo is a high-risk proposition and reward comes only with intense patience and meticulous attention to detail. Once things take a bad turn, there's no fixing it. The jig is up.
Bad gumbo isn't even worth talking about. But good gumbo, well, folks have been known to do all manner of things for that hot, steamy heaven-over-rice. And Mark Antoine Foster makes some damn good gumbo. Or at least he did until last year, when investigators figured out what else was cooking, and one of the most acclaimed Cajun-Creole chefs in the West became a federal fugitive.
It was a perfectly regular September day in 1998 when Mark Antoine Foster walked into the Paseo Padre branch of Wells Fargo Bank in Fremont. Most often, Mark would be at the other end of the state, in the kitchen of his Cafe N'Awlins in Burbank.
But this day he had business to do involving the accounts of his brother, Patrick Foster. Mark was no stranger to the tellers at the Fremont bank. In particular, he was known to Lydia Gomes, a career banker with the quiet, orderly nature to show for it. She had first met Mark about two months before. Mark had shown Gomes a Power of Attorney, a small, square legal document that empowered Mark to do whatever he pleased with his younger brother's bank accounts. Patrick had even called the bank to verify that Mark was acting on his behalf. Of course, no one knew then that Patrick was likely calling from a federal correctional institute.
So, throughout the months of August and September, Mark would show up at the bank a couple of times a week, depositing piles of checks and withdrawing cash. At one point, Mark had Gomes open checking and savings accounts in his name, and began transferring money between his and Patrick's accounts, occasionally walking out with thousands of dollars in hand.
Mark generally possessed a cheerful disposition that complemented his round cheeks. With a scant 170 pounds on his 5-foot, 11-inch frame, Mark seemed a little thin for a man who made a living creating fine gumbo and other treats from the Bayou. Then again, maybe he just had active genes.
In any event, Mark was pleasant and professional when he stepped up to the teller window this day to withdraw money. He thought he'd successfully transferred $150,000, half into Patrick's savings account, and the rest into Mark's own checking account, and was now taking out some money.
He was in for a surprise. Gomes told Mark that the bank could not give him the money. Patrick's accounts had been frozen by the federal government. Stunned at first, Mark regained composure, and walked out of the bank. Gomes never saw Mark Foster again. The next time she saw Patrick Foster was about a year later, in October, 1999, when she sat on the witness stand of the United States District Court in Oakland.
The brothers Foster, it turned out, were con artists of the first order, in the eyes of federal authorities.
Barely a year apart in age -- Mark and Patrick are 42 and 41, respectively -- the Fosters were born and raised in New Orleans. And by all accounts, they possess a hefty helping of both the polite manner of the South, and the duplicitous underbelly of the Big Easy.
While Mark was a rising star in the kitchen, a renowned chef of delicious Cajun-Creole cuisine, Patrick cooked up fraudulent investment schemes, generally solicited through the mail.
It is unclear exactly when Mark became involved in his brother's swindles, which were of the classic Ponzi variety. Cash was solicited from investors who were promised outrageous returns on their money. Early investors might actually be paid ridiculous profits, the better to lure in more investors down the line.
Together, the brothers were accused of swindling hundreds of people, from all over the country, out of more than a million dollars. Earlier this month, Patrick Foster was convicted of 27 counts of mail fraud, his third federal rap, and will be sentenced early next year. Mark Foster, meanwhile, left town as soon as he learned the jig was up, and has eluded federal authorities since.
Mark Foster liked to tell customers and "foodies" that he learned to cook in the mid-1970s at New Orleans' Maison Dupuy Hotel, under the direction of Chef Paul Prudhomme, a Cajun food giant in every sense. Mark's verbal résumé also included stints at some of the finest restaurants in New Orleans, Commander's Palace and the Court of Two Sisters among them.
Given his age, that would have put Mark working in a restaurant kitchen as a teenager. "Chef Paul" doesn't seem to remember him, but the big guy has worked with probably hundreds of people during the past two decades, and perhaps Mark was an enterprising young man.
A sketchy history of legal documents has Mark living with his mother in Los Angeles in 1983, where he started something called United Gospel Inc. And Mark was in Boston in the early 1990s, when he was pursued by the state of Louisiana for child support. The years in between remain as mysterious as the exact seasoning in his shrimp Creole.