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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.