About a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans restaurateur Tommy Cvitanovich introduced a new signature dish at his restaurant: charbroiled mussels from Prince Edward Island. “Ninety-five per cent of the tables here order charbroiled oysters,” he says of the original signature at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant. “So when we were faced with the possibility of losing our supply, we had to come up with something.”
Cvitanovich is just one of many Louisiana chefs and restaurateurs scrambling for local seafood in the face of what seems like a never-ending oil spill. About a third of the Gulf’s federal waters have been closed to fishing, and many of the shrimpers and oystermen who could work on open areas of the coastline have signed up with BP to help in the cleanup. Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board says the US$2.4-billion industry is “devastated.” Production levels for shrimp are at about a third; oysters, a quarter. Morale is at “a record low.”
As a result, local chefs are adapting their menus and dreaming up alternatives for a possible future without the raw ingredients that have come to define Louisiana Creole cuisine. Melvin Rodrigue, the general manager at Galatoire’s—a New Orleans institution—says the restaurant has purchased 10,000 lb. of shrimp “as a backup” in case supply is further depleted. His head chef is also thinking of reintroducing an old dish: chicken livers en brochette to replace oysters en brochette. For Rodrigue, this dish shows the capacity of New Orleans chefs to adapt to anything. “Unlike Katrina, this [spill] is much more of a sleeping giant. It’s something that we will deal with for many years to come.”
At Bourbon House, where the focus is on local seafood, executive chef Darin Nesbit has already faced difficulty in getting flounder, and he may have to fly in Dover sole for amandine. “One of the great things about Gulf seafood is that it’s readily available and chefs in this part of the country don’t have to do a lot to make the food taste great.” He adds, “If we have to start going outside of the Gulf, then it’s not going to represent New Orleans food.” But he’s thinking ahead: he has lined up sources in Texas, and as a last resort, he’ll go to the East and West Coast for seafood.
Costs, meanwhile, are going up. Adolfo Garcia, chef and owner of the Latin- and Spanish-inspired RioMar seafood restaurants, says the price for a gallon of shucked oysters rose from US$35 to $50 or $60 since the spill. The executive chef at another New Orleans restaurant, Commander’s Palace, says his costs for shrimp have risen 40 per cent. Other restaurants have opted to serve oysters only by request, or not at all.
Of course, the oyster shuckers that supply these iconic New Orleans eateries are also victims. In June, the oldest continually running oyster company in the U.S., P&J Oyster Company, halted shucking. Sal Sunseri, who co-owns the 134-year-old operation, says he had to lay off more than half his staff—many of them family members—after the oyster beds that supply him shut down.
“We’ve had a few peaks and valleys,” says Sunseri, “but never a man-made catastrophe like this. I am usually very optimistic. I believe in God and I believe in miracles. But [even with a miracle] we know that it’s going to take over 20 years to have productive oystering again.” One of Sunseri’s suppliers, Mitch Jurisich, is a third-generation oyster farmer. “We’re always hopeful,” he says, “but until they stop this well from leaking, the hope fades every day.” He and his brother are business partners with sons who they dreamed would get into the family business. “But right now, those plans are on hold.”