As the saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea—so why go halfway around the world to find them?
With more focus on sustainability and menu transparency, seafood sourcing has become an important issue for chefs and restaurant operators. Many are discovering the benefits of buying and menuing fish and shellfish from domestic waters.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to use pond-raised shrimp from Asia when we have beautiful wild shrimp right in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Cody Carroll, chef-owner with his wife, Samantha, of Hot Tails and Sac-a-Lait, two creative Cajun/Creole restaurants in New Roads and New Orleans, Louisiana, respectively.
Not only is this popular and sustainable species fresher and available nearer-to-hand than imported shrimp, it’s also got the kind of flavor that such iconic specialties as gumbo, shrimp po’boys and BBQ shrimp (shell-on Gulf shrimp smothered in garlic butter and seasonings) were developed to highlight. The same is true of all the seafood on both restaurants’ menus.
“We’re supporting our hardworking fishermen when we purchase their products,” says Carroll, who grew up farming, fishing and hunting in Louisiana, and aims to showcase the kind of food he’s cooked and enjoyed all of his life.
“Part of our mission is to educate customers about the foodways of Louisiana,” adds Samantha Carroll, including its rich culinary traditions as well as ingredients such as crawfish, crab, catfish, alligator, okra, grits, red beans, Acadiana honey and mirliton (a pear-shaped, squash-like vegetable that’s also known as chayote).
And there’s no denying that customers—visitors and locals alike—want to eat these foods. Chef Mike Brewer is building his career on this premise. In late 2015, he was hired to bring some “soul” to the menu at Manning’s, a popular sports bar in New Orleans once known for standard game-day wings and nachos.
“This is the kind of food locals expect to eat and visitors want to try when they’re here,” says Brewer. Brewer’s new menu features such elevated bar food as catfish fingers with bacon-fat tartar sauce and Louisiana Crawfish Mac ‘n’ Cheese, ramped up with smoked Gouda and sharp cheddar cheeses.
He’s also introducing more specialty sandwiches, in particular the city’s iconic po’boys, which are not only perfect handhelds but also expected in any local restaurant. “How can you not have a shrimp po’ boy on the menu?” he asks. His spicy, signature version features wild Louisiana shrimp tossed in Crystal Hot Sauce beurre blanc with ham, pickled okra and five-pepper jelly.
Admittedly, sourcing wild domestic seafood can present seasonal challenges, but there are utilization strategies that can help. As Cody Carroll says, a menu signature such as Sac-a-Lait’s Lost Fish can be made with speckled trout, flounder, yellowtail snapper or any other tender, quick-cooking domestic fish filet. As for shrimp, summer’s Louisiana white shrimp give over to brown shrimp in the winter, and both products freeze well.
There’s also the issue of familiarizing staff and educating guests about different species. This is especially true for that growing contingent of chefs who are looking for ways to more effectively use lesser-known domestic species such as sheepshead, a member of the porgy family that can grow up to 20 pounds. In fact, Mike Brewer captured the 2015 King of Louisiana Seafood title with a recipe for Sheepshead Nachos.
“We have a board in the kitchen for the waitstaff to use in their descriptions,” says Brewer. “The sheepshead description says, ‘Sheepshead eat crab, shrimp and other shellfish, and they are light, delicate and flaky.’ Who wouldn’t want to eat that?”
Who indeed—consumers continue to clamor for fresh seafood dishes whenever they appear on a menu, regardless of the restaurant’s concept. And the more domestic seafood is promoted as a premium, sustainable product, the more likely consumers are to seek it out.
This post is sponsored by Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board