A late night over a hot stove in his kitchen at the Bourbon House did nothing to dampen Darin Nesbit’s enthusiasm for a dawn trip to seafood heaven.
“I can instantly tell the difference between Gulf seafood and others’,” he said. “It’s the salinity in the oysters. The shrimp come from farther out in the water, and they taste sweeter; the crabs are fat and rich. You can’t get this stuff anywhere else. As a chef, to get the product directly from the harvesters is my goal.”
Like many restaurateurs and chefs throughout south Louisiana, using locally grown or raised ingredients is central to the way Dickie Brennan runs his empire of New Orleans restaurants — Palace Café, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, Bourbon House and the newly opened Tableau. He helps his top kitchen brass forge personal relationships with those who grow and harvest food. The third-generation restaurateur organizes regular trips for his chefs to meet suppliers on their own territories to further a better understanding of the rugged lifestyles of those who provide them with their raw ingredients.
“This is about relationships between real human beings,” Brennan said, “not just placing orders and having them filled.”
With Gulf seafood featured prominently on the menus at all four of Brennan’s restaurants — it comprises 70 percent of the offerings at Bourbon House alone — cultivating ongoing relationships between his chefs and the people who actually pull the raw ingredients from the water was the goal on a recent sweltering summer morning that had Nesbit and his fellow chefs up early and eager to join the caravan of SUVs departing Palace Café on a westerly then southerly route into the part of the state where the land becomes a series of webs strung though the waterways. Accompanying Brennan and Nesbit were chefs Alfred Singleton, of Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse; Brendan Muetzel, of Palace Café; and Ben Thibodeaux, of Tableau.
“Today, sourcing as locally as possible is a big trend, and everyone talks about it,” Brennan said on the drive to Dulac, then Montegut. “It was always just a given for me. It’s how I was raised and taught to run a restaurant.”
In the mid-1970s, chef Paul Prudhomme manned the kitchen at Commander’s Palace, the Brennan family’s legendary flagship restaurant. Brennan overheard his father, Dick Sr., speaking to the chef. “Paul, I’ve never seen an almond tree in Louisiana, but I can’t walk down the street without slipping on pecan shells. Why don’t we make a fish pecan instead of almondine?”
Dickie Brennan was impressed by the simple logic of adapting a classic dish using ingredients with local roots. When he helped his family open Mr. B’s Bistro in 1979, Prudhomme included a little known species of Gulf drum his seafood purveyor had told him about — redfish.
Today fish with pecan meunière and any number of redfish dishes, including Prudhomme’s wildly popular blackened version, are standards in Louisiana’s culinary canon. Now classics, these dishes came to be because Prudhomme used what was locally available, economical and plentiful, and he was willing to try something different.
“There’s so much in the Gulf that we are not even aware of and you only learn about it from talking to the purveyors,” Brennan said. “Just recently, someone was telling me about some kind of shrimp that’s filled with roe. I want to know who’s harvesting that, where they’re harvesting it. It’s a specialty product that these guys have never brought to market, and we could be the first ones to do it. It could be the beginning of something big — a Louisiana shrimp version of she crab soup or something like that. Getting connected with our purveyors and looking for new products is what today is all about.”
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