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New Orleans Chefs Frced to Get Creative as Gulf Seafood Supply Dwindles in Wake of Oil Spill

From Brett Anderson, The Times-Picayune: As the local supply of oysters dwindles, Galatoire's executive chef Brian Landry explores more options. Drago's Seafood Restaurant in Metairie is now offering up charbroiled mussels, left, along with the restaurant's famous charbroiled oysters in hopes that if there is an oyster shortage, customers will have a comparable flavor.

He may line up suppliers on the East and West Coasts and import the 40 to 50 pounds of oysters the restaurant serves every day, he said. Or, he may try something completely different:

Chicken livers.
"There was an item on Galatoire's menu for many decades that was called chicken livers en brochette," said Landry, who stumbled upon the potential oil-spill menu substitute while researching his restaurant's century-plus history. "That's an option for us."

There may be no better example of how severely the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is threatening the craft of New Orleans cooking than the fact that the standard bearer of French-Creole cuisine has considered substituting the organ of a farm animal for the meat of a mollusk.

And it doesn't end there. Landry also said he's toying with the idea of flying in Dover sole in the event the local finfish supply can't keep up with his customers' demand for meuniere and amandine.

"That is a fish very common on French menus," Landry said. "I think it would be a very easy transition for us to make given that that's the classic French poisson meuniere."

Relative to the scope of the catastrophe, the changes to south Louisiana's regional cuisine have been small thus far, and most people working within the local food business are still hopeful that they will be temporary.

But uncertainty surrounding the health of Gulf fisheries, spurred by price and supply fluctuations made more alarming by the lack of progress in plugging the leak, has forced local chefs and restaurateurs to prepare for a future where a distinctive centuries-old cuisine could look and taste as if it came from someplace else.

It's in our DNA

"Our whole DNA is set up for scouring our local bounty and using that with our flavor profile and our perspective," said  Adolfo Garcia, whose restaurants include the Latin-Spanish seafood restaurant RioMar. "With this problem, they're taking away one of our biggest assets and tools: to run a restaurant with local seafood."


As live video of oil exploding from the Gulf of Mexico's floor has joined crawfish boils, Mardi Gras parades, Jackson Square and flooded shotguns atop the list of the region's defining images, overstressed leaders have taken to emphasizing that the disaster is imperiling not just the environment and the economy but an entire culture.

The word holds broad meaning in Louisiana. But everyone in the region, particularly in New Orleans, knows which branch of the culture appears to be in desperate need of protection.

Milady Canales fillets drum that was caught in the western Gulf at the New Orleans Fish House on Thursday. Chef Adolfo Garcia of Rio Mar is concerned that the availability of drum from the Gulf of Mexico is threatened by the BP oil spill.

"This could be something that could change Louisiana for 10 to 20 years," Garcia said. "It's like that morning when you discover a relative has cancer and they've been given six months to live. What do you do? You hang in with them as long as you can, but at some point you know you're going to be burying them."

Oysters take the hit
Oysters continue to be the most vexing link in the indigenous seafood chain. Shuttered harvesting areas have destabilized price and supply for weeks, a problem exacerbated by the significant number of oyster boats being redeployed to help rein in the oil.

Some local restaurants, including Charlie's Seafood -- where oysters are now available only by request -- and Parkway Bakery & Tavern -- which quit serving oyster po-boys in early May -- have altered their menus in response. The effect elsewhere has been unthinkable, partly due to the apparent swiftness of its arrival.

Last Sunday, Sal Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster Company, worked the crowd at the first-ever New Orleans Oyster Festival, boasting at midday that the two-day event had already moved an estimated 50,000 freshly shucked oysters. On Thursday he was handing out pink slips to longtime employees as the country's oldest oyster processor and distributor ceased its shucking operations. P&J, which has dealt in Louisiana oysters exclusively on all but the rarest occasions for 134 years, is now sourcing from outside the Gulf.

Thursday was also the last day Drago's served raw oysters on the half-shell at its two New Orleans area locations. The restaurant is still serving its char-grilled oysters, but as of three weeks ago, the famous dish was being offered alongside a new alternative: char-grilled mussels from Canada prepared the same way.

"When we saw that oysters were starting to get tight, we had to put our brains together to come up with an idea," said Drago's owner Tommy Cvitanovich. "It's prepared the same way: same butter, same garlic, some cheese, same bread for dipping."

Other chefs are less focused on replacing oysters than meeting the current skyrocketing demand, as diners overcompensate for the prospect of a life without them.

"I'm serving more oysters en brochette than I ever have," said Pat Gallagher of Gallagher's Grill in Covington, referring to a signature French-Creole dish. "I think customers are thinking they're not going to be here forever. And if we get any speckled trout, it flies out of here."

Oysters remain a concern for executive chef Darin Nesbit at the Bourbon House, which is famous for its large, prominent raw oyster bar.
Darin Nesbit, executive chef at the Bourbon House, said he has been encouraged by the only marginal price increases he's seen from his seafood suppliers as well as the undiminished availability of redfish and drum. Both he and Landry mention having recently purchased 200 pound shipments of fresh-caught Gulf shrimp from Ray Brandhurst, the shrimper whose family sells seafood at the Crescent City Farmers Markets.

Oysters, however, remain a concern at the Bourbon House, which is famous for its large, prominent raw bar. The restaurant has always showcased Gulf seafood exclusively, and the Oregon oysters Nesbit recently sampled were not to his liking. As an alternative fallback measure in the event of a local oyster drought, the chef and proprietor Dickie Brennan have discussed bringing in scallops to shuck and broil to-order at the raw bar.

"That's kind of a last resort," Nesbit said, "but it might be kind of cool." READ MORE

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