NEW ORLEANS — Celebrity Chef Frank Brigtsen coated the squid in a perfect blend of seasoned cornmeal then dropped the batch into a vat of oil at Charlie's Seafood, a beloved neighborhood joint.
After a lifetime in Louisiana, 38 years as an architect of Creole cuisine inspired by the gifts of the Gulf of Mexico, this was one of the first times he had served diners fried calamari.
Before BP oil's endless flow threatened the supply and upped price of fish and shellfish by up to 30 percent, a hankering for southern fried seafood at this 60-year-old landmark would have yielded a heaping plate of crispy Louisiana oysters.
"‘Charlie's is a place that celebrates Louisiana seafood and here I am frying calamari from Rhode Island," says Brigtsen, an award-winning chef who also owns his eponymously named contemporary Creole cuisine restaurant uptown. "I feel like somehow I am betraying my customers by not giving them oysters. I feel like I am wearing someone else's clothes."
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The enemy that gushes from a broken well day after day has taken a toll on the region’s culture, now starting to alter centuries of Creole culinary traditions born and perfected in Lousiana. That heritage, built from a gumbo of indigenous ingredients and ethnic influences, helped to christen New Orleans as an epicurean capital; no other American city is as closely linked to or shaped by its palate. The sudden collision of a seafood scarcity and a regional menu built upon the magic of the local catch has forced marquis chefs and down-home cooks to rethink Creole dishes. They hope changes are temporary — but they’re also inspired by the challenge.
"Just about everybody here is chatting about what will happen to our cuisine and what are the alternatives. People are starting to venture into other seafoods," says Poppy Tooker, a local food writer, historian, instructor and master chef. "Food is everything to us, so something like the oil spill truly threatens our culture."
In a state that delivers nearly a third of the nation’s domestic seafood supply, some standard Creole dishes have already been removed from menus — here and across the nation — including the popular po’ boy, a manwich stuffed with fried oysters or shrimp or other seafoods.
Chefs are rushing to the reading room at the New Orleans Public Library downtown, scouring vintage cook books for authentic Creole recipes that don’t require Gulf seafood. They’re in kitchens experimenting with substitutes including mussels, scallops, carp, alligator and the lowly but fresh-water crayfish, recruited to step into the shoes of crab or shrimp. And still others are conjuring the spirit of Creole cuisine by using familiar seasonings and marinades to flavor other meats and seafoods.
Some of the signature Creole dishes already starting to evolve. In the same week BP failed to stop the oil leak with a containment cap, Brigtsen — with a bit of sadness — replaced his signature baked oysters topped with a white bachamel sauce with baked scallops.
Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, famous for its char-grilled oysters, has introduced char-grilled mussels. And Galatoire’s executive chef Brian Landry is considering returning to a dish served at the restaurant years ago: chicken liver en brochette, a stand-in for oysters en brochette. ‘‘Any great cuisine is based on local ingredients. Here that has become compromised so we are challenged to find new ways to prepare our foods that are still part of the tradition,’’ says Brigtsen, whose upscale eatery is a renovated Victorian cottage on the Mississippi River bend. ‘‘A lot of us are so spoiled because we grew up here and have always been surrounded by great seafood. It’s absolutely engrained in our culture. Seafood here is a birthright.’’
As the slick’s power and path became clear, those who love to cook and those who love to eat Creole dishes knew they would have to adapt.
‘‘You could almost live without the architecture here. You could maybe live without the music, only because so much of it is already recorded. But the thing that defines us every day is what we choose to eat, so within a month or so of the spill, chefs began calling us looking for old recipes,’’ says Liz Williams president of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, whose very existence says something about the role of cuisine in this city.
‘‘We are lucky enough to have a strong tradition to work with.’’
They were referred to the museum’s public reading room headquartered in the library, where a trove of 5,000 books dating back to 1910, offer resources as much for scholarship as recipes. Now those volumes offer inspiration for the newest chapter in the evolution of Creole cuisine. But it takes the lively Tooker, who has built a career on the finer points of Louisiana foods, to offer the most colorful anecdote of how the oil spill affects the business of eating here.
‘‘The other day I was at this restaurant. They were already so squeezed for finfish that they were only offering it during dinner hours,’’ she says. ‘‘So anyway, the waiter comes over and whispers that they have some filets in the back and he is sure the chef would make something for me. I thought, ‘dear Jesus, this could be our future.’ I felt like I was in a fish speakeasy!’’
Still, Tooker is confident that the Creole culinary way — its biggest ingredient is the proud make-do attitude — will survive. And thrive.
‘‘As long as we have celery, bell pepper, yellow Spanish onion, okra, Creole tomatoes, eggplant and garlic, we can make an authentic meal,’’ Tooker says. ‘‘As long as we can make a roux, we will be fine, no matter what happens.’’
At the iconic Commander’s Palace, opened in 1880 and still offering the quintessential New Orleans meal, executive chef Tory McPhail refined a signature dish. As the seafood supplies dwindled, he purchased 300 pounds of fresh whole shrimp from the docks, four times more than normal. But what to do with all those shrimp heads?
‘‘I roasted them at 400 degrees then ground them until they looked like sawdust. We made a stock from it and used it in our shrimp maque choux which made the flavor sharper and more intense. Really good!,’’ says McPhail of the restaurant, whose alumni include Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. ‘‘In some ways, this is an exciting time to eat because it is forcing us to think outside the box. Out of necessity, some really cool things can happen.’’