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Gulf Coast Chefs Wrestle with Spill

With fisheries closed, restaurants are short of oysters and fighting misconceptions

Mitch Frank
Posted: June 15, 2010

Tommy Cvitanovich is still serving his world famous charbroiled oysters at both locations of his New Orleans restaurant Drago's. But he's not serving raw oysters anymore. So much fresh water is being pumped into Louisiana wetlands to try to keep oil out that he believes they don't have the perfect briny taste. Frank Brigtsen, chef and owner of uptown bistro Brigtsen's, took oysters off the menu today. They're getting too pricey and too rare. At Antoine's, the legendary French Quarter restaurant, executive chef Mike Regua still serves Oysters Rockefeller, but he recently bought 3,000 pounds of shrimp and put them in a special cold storage unit, worried that fresh shrimp will be too scarce and too expensive in coming months.

As BP struggles to control the ruptured oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, chefs up and down the Gulf Coast are fighting their own battles—struggling to help their seafood suppliers, laboring to keep fresh fish on the menu and trying to dispel rumors and misperceptions that could damage the image of Gulf seafood for years to come.

The Louisiana state government has closed a wide swath of fisheries in its southeast coastal parishes and the federal government has closed off portions of the Gulf to fishing. There's still plenty of seafood on menus in New Orleans, but not as much. "Whereas we would normally have six types of fish on our daily menu, we now have two or three," said Ti Martin, whose family owns Commander's Palace. Shallow water fish like Drum and Sheepshead are harder to find. Shrimp and oysters in particular are becoming pricier and scarce. The city's oldest oyster-shucking operation, P&J Oyster Company, has closed down temporarily for lack of product.

Brightsen took a drive down to Grand Isle recently and saw waters once filled with boats that are now empty. His catfish supplier has no workers—they're all busy helping with spill-cleanup efforts. He worries about the long-term effects on coastal parishes, where the economy is centered on fishing and petroleum.

Long-term damage to Louisiana seafood's image is another big concern. The state provides a third of the country's domestic seafood. New Orleans cuisine was built on fresh fish. Any suspicion that the supply is unsafe could be devastating to a $2.3 billion industry. And people here are particularly sensitive to national misperceptions. "Until [the Saints won] the Super Bowl, people thought the streets of New Orleans were still flooded," said Martin. "Now we have this." Further east, coastal communities in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle depend on tourism, but beachgoers are becoming increasingly rare, except for cleanup crews.

Just hours after meeting with President Barack Obama in Gulfport, Miss., on Monday morning to discuss the latest developments, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal went to Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter to call on BP to establish a $457 million seafood-testing program. Joined by restaurateurs like chef John Besh and restaurant owner Ralph Brennan, Jindal said, "We want everyone to know the best seafood still comes out of the Gulf."

There have been reports of restaurants outside of Louisiana taking Gulf fish off the menu, or at least removing the word Gulf. "God bless 'em," said Cvitanovich, "but it shows a lack of knowledge." Several state and federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, are now testing the seafood. "It's the world's most tested supply of seafood," said Martin.

No one seemed to be afraid of the seafood at the New Orleans Oyster Festival, held on the first weekend of June in the French Quarter. Part of the proceeds from the festival went to the "Save Our Coast" program. Locals and tourists eagerly slurped down treats from local restaurants while watching the Tremè Brass Band perform. But the event also had the atmosphere of a last supper, a fleeting chance to celebrate the local bounty of seafood. "New Orleans chefs are some of the most inventive people on earth," said Cvitanovich. "Look at what Paul Prudhomme did with blackened redfish. We will figure this out."

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