Brian Landry doesn’t know precisely what he’ll be serving during a special seafood tasting coming up next week at Borgne, and Tenney Flynn acknowledged that some of the menu specifics for a similar event he’s hosting at GW Fins later this month will come together at the last minute.
“We don’t know what we’ll get because, well, that’s fishing,” said Landry, who is a partner with chef John Besh in Borgne. “We’re not talking about walking into the supermarket and getting your boneless, skinless chicken in a package.”
He’s also not talking about ordering your ordinary array of seafood from a restaurant purveyor. Instead, these upcoming events at Borgne and GW Fins, like a similar event held earlier this week at Carmo, are spotlighting underutilized seafood species. The menus will rely on what the fishermen these chefs have tapped for the task can haul in.
But while Landry and Flynn aren’t sweating the menu particulars at this point, they also aren’t going into these events blind. As avid recreational fishermen, both chefs are well acquainted with just how much variety the Gulf has to offer beyond the relatively narrow band of mainstream seafood species.
Landry is hoping to secure tilefish and barrelfish, Bermuda chub and croakers to fry, grill, serve raw or make into ceviche, and maybe some Gulf squid as well. Meanwhile, Flynn readily reeled off possible preparations of blackfin tuna poached in olive oil, stringray sautéed with brown butter and capers, smoked mullet and fried croaker.
“That’s the PBR course,” Flynn said, referring to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. “Fried croaker and beer is a pretty good pairing.”
The two dining events will follow different formats, with a happy hour sampling of small plates at Borgne on June 24 and a multi-course seated dinner at GW Fins on June 30. But both are working toward the same purpose.
“There are so much seafood out there that we just don’t have a commercial market for,” said Landry. “If we can use more of it then we’re not overfishing the same species that always get targeted. We’re supporting the fishermen because they get to sell more of what they catch and we get to serve and try more variety at the restaurant.”
The events are being held in conjunction with the Eat Local Challenge, the annual happening that asks participants to spend June eating foods produced within a 200-mile radius of New Orleans. One of the underlying goals of the Eat Local Challenge is to demonstrate just how much food diversity we have close at hand. That includes seafood beyond the usual Gulf species normally sold at local restaurants and markets.
“If you look at the Gulf, we grow seafood better than anywhere else in the U.S. and it’s all right here in our backyard,” said Flynn. “I think even people who have lived here their whole lives don’t know all that’s out there.”
Semantics matter with this unfamiliar fish. Landry doesn’t like the term “trash fish,” for instance, since it implies lower quality. But some fish pick up the trash fish tag because they’re harder to clean or yield smaller fillets than more highly-prized catches. They can be just as delicious on the plate, however, and Louisiana menus are now full of fish that was once considered trash fish but have made the leap to premium seafood status. Sheepshead, now a staple at many restaurants, was long regarded as trash fish. Redfish followed a similar evolution a generation earlier.
“People have preconceived notions of what they like and don’t like,” said Flynn. “But almost anything is good if it’s fresh and properly prepared.”
In keeping with the Eat Local Challenge theme, then, the chefs will seek to highlight the potential of seafood that is routinely discarded because there isn’t yet a commercial market and supply chain leading it from the boat to the plate.
“Hopefully, next year we’ll be talking about which fish no one had before that are now regularly on local menus,” said Lee Stafford, co-founder and organizer of the Eat Local Challenge. “That’s how Eat Local has grown. Each year the things we talk about as ‘introducing to people for the first time’ become more and more familiar and just part of what’s available year-round.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.