Jeremy Conner has a passion for the waters of the Gulf of Mexico that is evident in everything he does. His tale is one that never strays too far from the Gulf. Kicking off his culinary career in Pensacola, Florida before moving to Lafayette near the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Conner’s unique bi-coastal living has divulged the many treasures the Gulf holds.
Perhaps most unique about Conner is how he turned his passion for the Gulf and its bounty into a career. Starting with his Humble Fish pop-up dinners, followed by crafting finishing salt from the waters of the Gulf with his wife under the moniker Cellar Salt Co., to his newest creation Spoonbill Watering Hole & Restaurant.
When looking to do a series on Gulf seafood we wanted to show the current state of the industry: those who harvest its bounty; the restaurants that use sustainable Gulf seafood practices; and their favorite recipes using traditional and non-traditional Gulf seafood.
What follows is not only one man’s love for the waters where he grew up, fished, cast netted, and crabbed, but also a portrait of an industry in an unprecedented state of change. The struggle is to adapt an established market in a world of modern conveniences to one responsive to environmental as well as economic pressures. It teaches us one lesson: When the treasures of the Gulf are at stake, it’s all worth it.
Words by Jeremy Conner. Images by Denny Culbert.
Words by Jeremy Conner. Images by Denny Culbert.
I grew up in a community near the beach in Pensacola, Florida. Like most kids, I played sports and video games, but Pensacola is a paradise that offers another glorious pastime: fishing. After school, I’d hurry on my bike to my friend’s house from which we’d walk to try our luck in a small canal.
Trespassing in a boathouse (to this day we reminisce about it as “The Aluminum Dock”), we were guerrillas fishing one of the best secret spots in the Panhandle. We were careful to prepare our redfish, flounder, or speckled trout in the carport so my friend’s mother wouldn’t be mad that we made the house smell like fish. We filleted and blackened them in cast iron or battered and fried them in the Fry Daddy. Eating fish caught minutes before, we feasted and were mildly aware we were consuming our portion of paradise.
Those afternoons, we fished the tidal flow in and out of the canal and caught what was within reach, but the Florida panhandle is more of a paradise than we realized even then. As we grew older, our fishing territory expanded along with our appreciation for the bounty of the Gulf. We both ended up with jobs cooking in restaurants, preparing that bounty for locals and tourists alike.
I cooked at restaurants during college for more than a while, but after a particularly crushing higher mathematics lecture, I realized I was wasting my time and money. I was already doing what I loved, so I applied for graduation, took my associate’s degree, and cooked my butt off. I was all-in.
Nearly 20 years later, I’m still cooking, Gulf seafood is still my passion, and the only thing that’s different is the portion of the coast I now call home. I moved to Louisiana eight years ago, but it took a while for me to fall in love with my new environs.
When I moved here to Louisiana, I anticipated a seafood experience similar to my youth. I was initially disappointed. I went fishing and applied my Florida techniques and methods but found little reward. I was looking for the same catch I had known in my youth, but I couldn’t find it. Where was the bounty?
I soon found it. I learned that crabs stack on top of each other at the marshland weirs. A limit of shrimp can also be taken by simply throwing a small cast net from those weirs. I discovered the diversity and the magnitude of the Louisiana oyster fishery, each harvest area with its own soul. I realized the bounty was everywhere. I came to love Louisiana waters for their own virtues, and I fell in love with the Gulf all over again.
I love that I’ve been able to experience the Gulf’s bounty in both Louisiana and Florida, and I love bringing that widened perspective on seafood to my menus. Recently, I decided that I wanted to share that love with diners on a deeper level. I’ve met many of the people who fish our waters, and I want to share their stories with my cooking.
I’ve taken up the challenge to combine my two passions—cooking and the Gulf—and I get to share them both with everyone. I now spend my time cooking up seafood centric dishes at Spoonbill Watering Hole & Restaurant. Once again, I’m all-in.
Working as a chef means manipulating details. In my cooking, I love taking an aspect of a meal that is often taken for granted by diners and elevating it to the point it cannot be ignored. The most mundane ingredients, like rice, butter, or just the bread brought to the table, can become a focal point if enough passion for quality is applied. The pantry is no exception.
I like salts. Many home cooks use one or two types of salt almost exclusively during the cooking of the food. Salt applied to food after cooking typically is done with a shaker full of processed, iodized, granulated salt, adding nothing to the flavor of the food or the experience of eating it. More likely, this salt is used to correct a perceived error in seasoning, but the right salt can be the finishing touch that makes the dish.
There are sea salts from all over the globe, salts pumped from ancient underground ocean beds, and salts whose grains are coated in clays indigenous to the area in which they are made. They come in different sized granules, and some are not granules at all, instead formed in a flake-shaped crystal on the surface of the water during evaporation, which gives it an amazing, crispy texture and a gorgeous appearance.
The intricacies of flavor due to differing mineral composition and the specific texture of a salt grain on the palate serve to augment the flavor experience of the food itself. When these “finishing salts” are added to a dish just before it is consumed, a transformation takes place, and when a dish is skillfully composed with a specific salt’s unique flavor and texture in mind, magic happens.
I’ve used finishing salts in professional kitchens for years. I’ve used Fleur de Sel from Brittany, Maldon from England, as well as black and red sea salts, colored with the soils from the islands where they're sourced, from Hawaii. Just as the characteristics of wines from different regions are said to differ because of the terroir of the source, salts from different coastal regions vary because no two coasts are the same. Each exhibits its own “merroir.” At some point a few years ago, the notion occurred to me that Gulf of Mexico sea salt might be tasty, especially on indicative regional cuisine. Eventually, my wife and I set out to create a flake finishing salt that captured the flavor of the Gulf, and Cellar Salt Co. was born.
Acadiana’s predominant food culture consists of rustic Cajun heartiness with its dark rouxs, simple fare and the bold spice of Creole cuisine, resulting largely from colonial era mercantilism and its cultural pot-stirring. Taking a wider geographical view, however, common threads begin to appear and link the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. The aggregate effect is the emergence of a uniting cuisine of seafood and related fare--a flavor of the Gulf.
As with any cuisine, the food culture of the Gulf Coast developed first from the abundant available ingredients. The resulting techniques, flavors, and indicative dishes are products of the foods readily available to the residents of coastal areas, specifically the foods taken from inshore and offshore waters in quantity season after season. As it turned out, our effort to capture the flavor of the Gulf required little more than to extract the minerals from the water just as they were with very little manipulation. Our salt is crisp and briny with pleasant hints of marine minerals, and the flavor bursts on the palate when the crystals yield with their delicate crunch.
But what would make someone want to handcraft a product with such an abundant and cheap replacement easily available in any supermarket?
As a chef and a transplant to Louisiana, I am particularly enamored with the region’s recognition of seasonality with respect to food. We embrace the change of the season and welcome the new bounty it brings. Our calendars are largely divided in terms of seafood availability, and we seem to know instinctively when crawfish, crabs, shrimp, and oysters are at their best. I’m also in love with the culture of craftsmanship and pragmatic providence that remain from the challenging past of Acadiana’s people.
I see it on local menus that replicate the masterpieces of economy of the Acadians, with dishes that elevate peasant food and lowly ingredients to the elegant classics known to diners everywhere. I see fellow chefs eschewing the conventional food distribution systems in favor of local products. Local businesses started by young passionate people offer handmade products that celebrate our area’s rich culture and heritage. There’s really nothing like a unique handmade product that tells a story with its very existence. There’s no substitute.
It turned out that the question of why I should make salt when everyone’s already got salt was irrelevant. We aren’t packaging salt; we’re packaging the Gulf. To anyone who loves food and loves living on the Gulf Coast, there’s really no substitute for the flavor of home.
Louisiana shrimp are probably the most ubiquitous example of the bounty of the coastal waters of our state. Shrimp, in general, as famously lauded by Bubba Blue, lend themselves to countless preparations, and we savor them amidst a variety of flavor profiles. They cook quickly, are easy to store, and are at home at all dining occasions, from backyard boils to formal dinners. Some of the more well-known dishes including shrimp, like Shrimp Creole and New Orleans-style BBQ Shrimp, have even reached iconic familiarity outside of Louisiana. There’s really only one requirement to cooking great shrimp: the shrimp simply must be as fresh as you can possibly find them.
Beginning in May and tapering down in July, the season yields literal boatloads of shrimp making their way to the marketplace. They're caught in trawls in near-shore waters by fishermen like Lance Nacio. He’s been fishing shrimp out of Montegut, Louisiana, since 1997 when he began with a boat, the Anna Marie, using the same method many shrimpers still use today.
In ’97, the Anna Marie was a conventional ice boat (this refers to the way the shrimp are traditionally chilled and stored on board). The trawls cast wide on the outriggers of the boat and taper into the portion of the net where the shrimp are ultimately captured. They’re landed on the deck and then simply packed on ice until the boat returns to port and the shrimp are unloaded. Once on land, the shrimp are graded for size, and most are frozen in blocks of water, usually containing a solution of preservatives, with a few shrimp being sold impeccably fresh at or very near the dock.
Shrimp contain enzymes that begin to alter the integrity of the tissue almost immediately after death. Freezing halts this process, so any time spent in a thawed state is a ticking clock counting down freshness and, therefore, quality. Many vendors sell shrimp that they have thawed from their block-frozen state so that customers don’t have to wait before cooking. Some of these vendors, both roadside stalls and brick-and-mortar stores, unscrupulously market these shrimp as “fresh.” The block freezing of shrimp once they reach the dockside processing facility is a long-established practice. Nacio has a better idea.
In 2006, Nacio made a bold move. He converted the Anna Marie into a fully integrated processing boat. This means that the shrimp are caught, chilled, frozen, and packaged on board the boat, mere minutes after they are caught.
As for the preservatives, there’s no need for them. Tripolyphosphate and other chemicals are used in the conventional method, not only to preserve the shrimp from decay, but also to make them freeze and thaw with less damage to their texture when using the block method. Nacio’s freezer isn’t like those used on land. It’s a plate freezer that reaches temperatures as cold as 40 degrees below zero.
Nacio's shrimp packages are slim and wide compared to the traditional block. Shrimp are pre-chilled then placed on the plate freezer only an inch or two thick. They freeze very rapidly and are packed in slim boxes on board. There’s no extra water added either, so there is some space between the shrimp in the package. This makes the thawing process much faster, as well, resulting in thawed shrimp of impeccable quality. When a cook thaws Nacio’s shrimp, the seafood is chemical free and taste as if they were just caught.
Nacio said his methods are unique, and he’s not just talking about his plate freezer. By-catch has long been a concern of shrimpers as the nets catch all sorts of sea life in the paths of the boats. This is especially problematic for sea turtles, some of which are endangered, because they can drown in the pull of the boat if they are caught in the trawl nets. Regulations require TED’s (turtle exclusion devices), which allow turtles caught in the nets to escape, but Nacio has employed TED’s that surpass the required specifications. In addition, fish, squid, and other by-catch not eliminated by exclusion devices go on Nacio’s plate freezer instead of being wastefully tossed overboard. He sells his by-catch on the seafood market as food and to fishermen as bait. Nothing is unnecessarily wasted.
Nacio sees himself as a steward of the waters that provide his living and way of life. He’s added a second boat to his operation, the Marrissa Jolie, and he says he is in it for the long haul. He wants to see our coastal bounty survive for future generations.
“The industry has downsized 30-40 percent,” he said, primarily due to imports, but those fishermen who remain are slowly shifting to new methods as he did. He’s offering a product of superior quality that tastes like it was caught minutes ago.
If you want the freshest shrimp or any food from the land or sea, get to know your fisherman and your farmer. Meet those responsible for the production of your food and build a relationship with them.
“The [Mississippi] river has been shaping the flavor of Caminada Bay for a long time. I love the aroma of the oysters, like a special perfume of wild flower mixed with sweet and salty flavor.”
Gossen has become such a fan of the newer techniques that since the laws were changed a few years ago allowing these techniques in some state waters, he’s helped a fourth generation oysterman, Jules Melancon, start farming beds with cages. He and Melancon have planted oysters in one lease in particular that once was dry land with palm trees. The year they began their new farm, a barge ran through it and destroyed that first year’s harvest, but they persevered, and last year, Melancon sold 100,000 of his off-bottom farmed oysters to one restaurant in New Orleans alone.
In a set of four beds near those farmed by Melancon, another farmer raises off-bottom oysters with a slightly different technique. Marcos Guerrero, along with his son Boris, moved to the Baton Rouge area from Ecuador, looking for land to start an organic farm. After an unfruitful search for the right piece of property, he said they turned their eyes to the sea.
Guerrero implements a floating cage system that keeps oysters about 12 inches below the surface. That depth isn’t as salty as deeper waters, but Guerrero said that’s where the food is.
“Most of the nutrients are found in the first 12 inches of water,” he explained.
Guerrero also raises his oysters to a larger size than some other oystermen. He starts with “seeds,” baby oysters that are about 1.5 mm in size and are purchased from a lab. He grows them in a nursery on shore until they are about 6 mm, and that’s when they go in the cages. Since he likes bringing larger oysters to market, he waits until the oysters are around three inches long before harvesting, cleaning, boxing, and shipping to famed New Orleans oyster distributor P&J.
When you talk to Guerrero about his oysters, you can feel his passion, and when you eat them, you can taste it.
“The [Mississippi] river has been shaping the flavor of Caminada Bay for a long time,” he said. “I love the aroma of the oysters, like a special perfume of wild flower mixed with sweet and salty flavor.”
Gossen said he thinks the success stories of Melancon and Guerrera are one way of finding the silver lining in the erosion of Louisiana’s coastline.
“I believe that’s going to be our future with the erosion and all the coastal problems,” he admitted. He also said the off-bottom techniques allow more fishable oyster areas and new entrants into the market. That’s fine by me. In my opinion, we can always use more Louisiana oysters.
In the reality-TV and magazine-cover framing of Louisiana seafood, it’s easy to miss the many species taking a backseat to stories about, and recipes for, the ubiquitous shellfish triad of shrimp, crabs, and crawfish. In fact, outsiders thinking of quintessential Louisiana foods might not consider our proximity to the diverse Gulf of Mexico and the vertebrate abundance available from its inshore, reef, and pelagic fisheries. The storyline tends to overlook the majestic and delicious specimens from the Gulf in favor of their counterparts from the marshes and wetlands. But if you don’t discuss fish when you talk about Louisiana seafood, then you’re only telling half the story.
Traditionally, a varied array of fish has been available to hungry folks in Acadiana from the nearby salty waters of the Gulf. The inshore species, such as flounder, speckled trout, and redfish, inhabit the coastal marshes and bays. These fish are the most accessible to recreational fishermen and are some of the most plentiful on dinner tables.
The snappers, groupers, and other reef species abound on and around our Gulf oil structures and other reefs. They are fished near the bottom of the water offshore and offer a beautiful large-flake meat that is mild, sweet, and versatile in the kitchen.
Several tuna species appear seasonally in their migrant schools and are easy to reach in deep water aboard vessels launched from Venice where the continental shelf drops off quickly from the mouth of the Mississippi River. They are joined in the open water by pelagic predator species, such as wahoo, mackerels, and swordfish. The flesh of these fish is dense and fatty, reflecting both their constant movement and the cold temperature of their habitats.
The exact makeup of the catch offered by Louisiana fishermen is changing and has been for some time. As fishing pressures are applied to differing species over the years and resulting adjustments are made to catch limit regulations, the availability of differing types of fish changes, as well. In fact, blackened redfish, a quintessentially New Orleans dish made famous by the late Chef Paul Prudhomme in the ‘80s, must now be prepared, at least in restaurants, with fish caught in another state. The hiked pressure of inshore fish matching increasing interest in blackening it caused regulators to disallow its commercial harvest in Louisiana.
Certain fish are harvested for food and sport beyond fishermen’s abilities to regenerate their stocks, and sustainability becomes an issue. Enter David Smith.
Smith works for the New Orleans-based regional food distributor Inland Seafood as an outside salesman; he’s a fishmonger. Traditionally, those in his profession have been tasked with moving the fish harvest from fishermen’s boat docks to the loading docks of restaurants and markets, but something’s changing.
Diners are becoming interested in more than just the taste of the food on their plates. Often, they want to hear the story behind the food. This broadens the role of the chef and, therefore, their suppliers.
“We’re a chef-driven company,” Smith said of Inland Seafood. “I’ve seen chefs become extremely passionate about where their food comes from.” He also described a steady increase in this trend and doesn’t see it going away soon.
Much of the new interest in the journey of fish from water to plate is about sustainability. I asked Smith if he’s seen a shift toward sustainable fishing practices as a result of consumer interest.
“One hundred percent, yes,” he said. “That’s been a big driving force in our growth.”
Smith said that Inland Seafood emphasizes sustainability when sourcing fish. They only source line-caught fish, as opposed to traditional long-lining or gill-netting practices that lead to overfishing and increased by-catch, and they educate employees on the origins of their products in weekly meetings. They also utilize Seafood Watch reports from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, a recognized authority on the sustainability of fisheries worldwide.
“We can trace everything back to where it’s coming from,” he said. And the people he’s selling to want to this knowledge.
There are numerous ways to craft sustainability into the seafood selections on a menu. Some of them deal with which fish are being served in the first place. One particular aspect of the fishing process has been a problem for a long time, but Smith helps chefs turn it into a positive.
“The second you say ‘by-catch,’ chefs get excited,” he said.
These are fish that are caught in the process of targeting another, usually more desirable, species. If a fisherman is targeting one species but can market their by-catch as well, they need not apply as much fishing pressure to the target species just to make ends meet. Smith has chefs who specifically request by-catch all the time, and he said that the industry, as a whole can, “take a ton of pressure off other species by buying and selling by-catch.”
Another interesting menu option chefs are choosing to offer is invasives. These are nonnative fish that have been introduced into local waters and are typically ecologically destructive. A notable example is the lionfish, which is a venomous tropical fish most often seen in aquaria. The trouble is they have no natural predators here and consume baby fish, like the spawn of snappers and groupers, before they even get a shot at establishment on reefs. The good thing is they're delicious! This is a story that Smith can sell to his customers, and he does. He said that Inland actually loses money on lionfish, but it’s not about profiting on every item.
He said at Inland, it’s “Sustainability first. Profit can be down the line.”
Another invasive that isn’t so easily controlled through market forces is the Asian Carp. Troubles with this fish in freshwater river systems are well documented by sometimes hilarious viral videos of fish literally leaping into passing boats, but this can be extremely dangerous. Chefs in affected areas are making strides to bring the fish to market in an effort to control the invasion, but the going is slow. Smith, however, said he found hope in a recent trip to Hong Kong.
“In Hong Kong, that was the No. 1 fish,” he said. “Maybe we can learn from their cuisine what these people are using it for and how we can use it to get it out of our environment.”
In my time as a chef in Louisiana, I’ve seen growing consumer interest in the origin of foods. The national farm-to-table trend is one facet of a general quest for authenticity in the foods that diners choose. In general, I’ve seen the seafood market change from one that solely provides chefs with the fish historically listed on their menus to providing them with the freshest options of what’s coming from the water at any given time.
Just as strawberries aren’t exactly at their peak in the middle of summer, fish availability encounters seasonal changes. I’m one of many chefs who’ve structured restaurant identities to allow constant change in the menu, reflecting the best products available instead of demanding the same products on a weekly basis.
Inland Seafood caters to this type of chef.
“Chefs have to change their menus to stay fresh; they also have to change according to what diners want,” explained Smith, who said he loves it. “We deal with chefs that want to change and innovate.” Smith and his company will be changing and innovating with them for the foreseeable future.
Feeding Gulf seafood to his guests nourishes Marc Krampe’s soul. He’s the executive chef at Social Southern Table and Bar where he and his team have created a cuisine that draws on Southern and Asian influences to build something new and unique.
Social is fairly large, as restaurants go, and its decor, concept, and even seating arrangements embody its name. Large, semi-circular booths accommodate group outings, and long, communal tables encourage the interactions among guests that make Lafayette dining some of the best around. The cocktails are creatively crafted, and the cuisine largely comprises hearty comfort food, but you won’t find vapid clichés or trite standards on the menu.
Krampe’s food is innovative and exciting. He’s earned the collective trust of Social’s guests who are eager to try something new. He describes the flavors the Gulf of Mexico’s bounty as “super clean,” but quality is only one of the virtues of the seafood he serves.
Krampe has been cooking professionally for 14 years and understands the role of chef in a modern restaurant can go beyond delivering tasty flavors to his guests. Like many chefs today, Krampe recognizes the role of chef-as-activist. He’s taken the time to get to know his supply chain and asks his fishmonger for fish from specific captains, like snapper fisherman Tommy Williams.
Sustainability is a very real issue in seafood today, but it’s not necessarily on diners’ minds as they peruse restaurant menus. Krampe knows that when you work with purveyors and know the pulse of availability of product coming from local waters, you begin to understand that, as an arbiter of taste for your guests, you are part of the future of the source of your ingredients.
One of the more popular menu items at Social is the line-caught fish. Krampe and his team take turns creating the dish with accompaniments made from local ingredients. Marc said all of the fish used at Social is line-caught. Obviously not the most efficient method, it helps prevent the problems of overfishing and by-catch introduced with net fishing.
There are other aspects to Social’s seafood selections that play a role in the sustainability of Gulf fisheries, too.
“I love using by-catch,” Krampe said, “I’m always asking for by-catch from Captain Tommy.” These are fish that are caught when targeting other species. If the captain knows that these fish can be brought to market instead of discarded, it reduces waste and takes pressure off the target species.
Another way Krampe reduces waste with his food is by serving as many parts of the fish as possible, instead of just the filets. He serves the collars of redfish, the tasty bits just behind the head powering the pectoral fins, calling them Redfish Wings, and says they show promise with increasing sales.
Krampe also acts as a steward of many other of our food fishes by being one of the first chefs to serve lionfish. Yes, these are the same fish as the popular aquarium species, but they have been released into the wild and are quickly becoming an invasive menace. They have no natural predators in our waters and feed voraciously on the fry and juveniles of snappers, groupers, and other commercial species, potentially decimating their stocks. Luckily, according to Krampe, they’re delicious raw, in crudo, sashimi, ceviche, and fried whole.
Krampe said he finds fulfillment in these menu choices beyond the satisfaction of his guests. He said he likes to keep bringing in new, local ingredients, new seafoods, and keep creating new food adventures. He knows that the aggregation of dining habits can be a hindrance to the future of food, and that helps to guide his cuisine. He’s got an eye on the sustainability of Gulf seafood and draws from that to create a unique dining experience.