For the past year, Louisiana seafood experts have had engaging conversations about the Louisiana coastline aboard fishing boats. These individuals who have an active stake in the sustainability of the Louisiana coast weren’t coastal scientists or researchers, but Instead, according to this article from Nola.com, they were chefs from famed New Orleans seafood restaurants meeting with the fishermen who stock their very kitchens. The program that regularly brings together Louisiana restaurant professionals with the fishermen who harvest their seafood is a New Orleans-based program called Chefs on Boats.
The planned meeting between fishermen and restaurateurs isn’t simply for the novelty of it, but it’s an opportunity and an actively growing effort to connect the two coast-concerned parties with the aim of building a collectively better understanding and making stronger allies as the Louisiana coast grapples with historical change.
Centered around a well-intentioned and simple goal to quite literally “get people on boats to see firsthand the work of fishermen and the challenges facing Louisiana’s coastal environment from land loss and climate change,” the Chefs on Boats project is aimed at bringing restaurant people of all types, such as line cooks, managers, bartenders, chefs, and owners straight to the source so that they can bring that experience and knowledge back with them to their French Quarter kitchens.
The Chefs on Boats project is representative of an evolution of a nonprofit effort that formed quickly in 2020 calledChef’s Brigade. The Chef’s Brigade nonprofit is a “united coalition of independent restaurants, purveyors, and chefs working together under a culinary brigade system to feed healthy and amazing food to the citizens, front line responders and healthcare workers of New Orleans on a daily basis.” Initially forming when the pandemic closed restaurants and imperiled hospitality businesses, the grassroots Chef’s Brigade group began to pay otherwise idled restaurants to cook for the pandemic’s essential workers such as first responders and health care workers.
By its conclusion, the program had supplied approximately 3.7 million meals to those in need, and Troy Gilbert, the co-founder of Chef’s Brigade had built a reliable network across the restaurant industry, causing him to think about bringing many seafood professionals together. Gilbert characterized this transition by saying, “we had 90 restaurants in the program that I was talking to once a week, and it blew my mind to discover the disconnect they had from the seafood industry. In New Orleans, we consider ourselves a maritime people, but we built all these barriers to the water around us and there’s a disconnect, including with chefs; it just made sense for us to do this.”
Dana Honn, the founder of the New Orleans-based tropical restaurant and bar Carmo, recently participated in an oyster harvesting outline along with Lindsay Allday and Jeff Spoo, both oyster sommeliers over at Sidecar Patio and Oyster Bar. Honn reflected on the experience by stating that the restaurant people who make their living through the seafood heritage of Louisiana essentially have a nonexistent relationship with the “people who make it tick.” Honn said, “it’s shocking how little information is provided to people in the culinary field and how much they want to learn. There’s a gap, and this (program) is a step in the right direction.”
Since beginning the project only last year, over a dozen trips have taken place, meaning approximately 60 restaurant professionals have been taken out to the source of their livelihood. Although the general design of Chefs on Boats is small in scale with each outing limited to only a half dozen occupants of partnered captain Richie Blink’s skiffs, the close quarters allow more one-on-one time between the restaurant workers and fishermen. Blink appropriately emphasized the importance of these outings by saying, “these waters, the seafood industry, the fishing families, it’s part of Louisiana culture that makes us who we are. It looks like it’s going away but there’s still that can-do spirit, and I think that will get us through these challenges.”
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