Get your gumbo! New Orleans chefs defiant over oil impact

In this city's bustling restaurant kitchens, iconic home to beloved Creole seafood dishes, top chefs insist fresh Gulf produce can still be enjoyed even as oil threatens the region's way of life.

While the local catch is certified safe, chefs and tourism bosses remain worried for their bottom line, and about the public perception of seafood caught in the Gulf of Mexico amid the worst-ever US environmental disaster.

The oil disaster "definitely took the legs from under some of us," brooded Anthony Spizale, executive chef of The Rib Room at the city's Omni Royal Orleans hotel.

"If our seafood gets taken away from us, our whole scope of food changes."

But as he sauteed a gleaming white drum fish ahead of the lunch rush in the heart of the historic French Quarter, Spizale, a jovial New Orleans native, sounded like a passionate advocate for his industry.

"Right now, I am able to get any seafood I want, all local - just apart from the oysters," Spizale said as patrons tucked into dishes with names like Creole seafood gumbo - a traditional Louisiana stew and culinary touchstone for the region's French, African and Caribbean cultures.

Also on the menu: crab cake short stack and spit-roasted wild-caught Gulf shrimp.

"We're taking what's coming out of our region, and that's what we serve our guests right now," Spizale said. "The message is: our seafood is safe to eat."

Yet prices continue to rise "drastically," according to Spizale. Drum fish went from 6.95 dollars a pound before the spill to 12 dollars a pound now; crab, at 11-12 dollars a pound, spiked to 19 dollars.

Concern is high for Gulf tourism as a whole, which US officials warned this week could take a 22-billion-dollar hit from the oil spill - with recreational fishing and sea-based culinary delights making up the industry backbone.

The industry is of national importance, too: the fertile Mississippi Delta provides for some 40 percent of US seafood production, and Louisiana waters yield one third of the domestic seafood consumed in the United States.

After the devastating 2005 hurricane season, the fishing and shrimping infrastructure was all but wiped off the map. Then, at the end of April this year, following the catastrophic well blowout on a BP-leased rig, millions upon millions of gallons of crude began gushing into the sea.

"We were looking (Hurricane) Katrina in the driving mirror, everybody was recovering from it... and the oil spill came," J. Stephen Perry, chief executive of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, lamented recently at an international food festival in the French town of Dijon.

New Orleans alone, famous not only for its cuisine but a vast array of musical and cultural attractions, brings in millions of visitors each year, with a tourism landscape that generates up to seven billion dollars annually and employs some 70,000 people.

The spill's effect on Gulf seafood and its reputation is also trickling down to a younger generation most in need of a break in the culinary world.

Sister Mary Lou Specha, director of Cafe Reconcile, near the heavy tourist traffic in the French Quarter, works to bring at-risk youth from the city's poverty-stricken projects into a career in cooking.

But the 16 teenagers in Specha's latest class are victims of a double dose of difficulty: the stinging US recession followed by the aftermath of the oil spill.

"We are still trying to place them," Specha said of her May graduates, but restaurant shifts are being cut back.

Louisiana's seafood, she told AFP, is "available and it's fresher than it's ever been because it's being tested so much. Is there some danger? Yes. But I know, from the people I trust in the business, that there's more safety checks now to ensure we are all serving a quality product."

The worry remains that oil droplets are being consumed by marine life, potentially threatening the seafood supply for humans.

Meanwhile, Dooky Chase IV, proprietor of a landmark New Orleans restaurant that bears his name and which has been twice visited by President Barack Obama, was in Dijon pushing Louisiana seafood's global brand, but lamenting the oil's impact.

"Some of the chefs are already changing their recipes," he said. "We have to adapt."

But the city known as the Big Easy is famously resilient.

"If we can survive Katrina, we can go through anything," said Chase.



Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Ashdown Group: Project Accountant (Part-Qualified Accountant) - Manchester

    £23000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Project Accountant (Part-...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat