The Food and Wine Classic is not generally an event where people discuss the nation’s pressing crises or environmental disasters. A brief exception came Friday afternoon, as New Orleans chef John Besh treated a crowd of journalists pool side at the Sky Hotel to a seven-course feast of Louisiana crawfish dishes and nodded, albeit momentarily, to the massive BP oil spill that is killing the Gulf Coast’s ecosystem and crippling its attendant seafood industry.
“Crawfish are raised inland,” he told the media guests. “You have no worries whatsoever.”
Crawfish breed in fresh water rice fields, in areas that are in some cases hundreds of miles from Louisiana’s battered shores. None are at risk of being hit by the oil spill.
Oysters, shrimp and other Louisiana staples, on the other hand, are being decimated by the day. The dwindling supply of safe, affordable Gulf seafood is changing not only the fishing industry that has long been the backbone to countless coastal southern communities, but also altering gourmet menus in New Orleans restaurants like Chef Besh’s.
Besh is at Food & Wine promoting his new cooking show, “From Inedible to Incredible,” which premieres Monday on The Learning Channel. The Gulf Coast native and 2006 James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast winner runs six New Orleans restaurants and prides himself on using local ingredients.
He sat down with the Daily News after yesterday’s media lunch to discuss how the oil spill is transforming fishing and fine dining in New Orleans, 59 days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon began spewing oil.
For now, he said, uncertainty is the norm. “Until the well is actually plugged and we can begin the work of mitigating the damage, it’s anybody’s guess as to how we can recover,” he said.
He is still serving shrimp and oysters in his restaurants, and by his estimation 50 to 60 percent of the Gulf’s waters are still safe for shrimping. And Besh encourages fans of shrimp dishes to get their fill while the waters are fishable.
“How long that will remain the case is anybody’s guess,” he said.
The oil-spoiled shrimp phenomenon has translated into higher prices, and less available supply. According to the most recent reports from the shrimping industry, wholesale Gulf shrimp are currently selling at $6.50 per 21-to-25 count batch, a 44 percent jump in price since the April spill.
“I still use them,” Besh said of the Gulf shrimp. “I just charge a little extra, and maybe use a little less. For years we’ve been blessed with an overabundance of cheap seafood. Now we’re having to manage our menu and all of our products in a way that much of the country has had to do for years. We’ve been spoiled for a long time.”
Oyster beds are faring far worse for now, with 60 to 80 percent of them on the Gulf Coast already destroyed. Widely regarded as the world’s best crop of oysters, the shellfish nexus at the mouth of the Mississippi River is dying.
“Those are the areas that are inundated with the oil right now,” Besh said.
But the oysters and shrimp that are making it to dining tables in New Orleans — and to tastings in Aspen this weekend — he promised, are safe.
“The waters have never been more scrutinized, the product has never been so thoroughly checked,” Besh explained. “We have everyone from state officials to federal and local agencies all over that. So I’m not worried about any product in the marketplace being corrupted, in any way.”
And while cooking is Besh’s life’s work, he says he is more concerned about the men and women who pull fresh fish out of the Gulf.
“These are coastal communities that have been supported by the fishing industry only, period,” he said. “Whether it’s crab, shellfish, oysters or kingfish, coastal Louisiana depends on that economically and culturally. It’s the cultural aspect that kills me. If we’re not careful we could lose a good portion of our culture.”
He says nobody in the restaurant industry, or any other industry, can yet accurately predict the long-term effects from the spill, or contemplate the scope of damage until after the leak is plugged. And he says the best most of us can do, for now, is to buy and eat what seafood is still coming out of the Gulf — a job most any of the gastronomes in Aspen this weekend can handle.
“My mission right now is to support those people that still can get out there and make a living,” he explained. “There’s a strong phobia resonating, that everything that’s coming from the Gulf is tainted. And that’s just not the case.”