In South Louisiana, fresh, whole fish is more likely to come out of an ice-packed cooler in the back of a neighbor’s truck than the fish counter at a local grocery store. Seafood isn’t simply food here — it’s a way of life.
That’s why teaching the next generation of Louisiana chefs about the variety and abundance of seafood in the state’s back yard — the Gulf of Mexico — is so critical.
At a recent workshop sponsored by the Louisiana Restaurant Association, Tenney Flynn, chef/co-owner of premier New Orleans seafood restaurant GW Fins, demonstrated the art of breaking down pristine Louisiana seafood to culinary arts teachers from across the state.
Along with his demonstration and tips on how to butcher whole fish and maintain the high quality of the fresh, delicate meat (more on that in a second), Flynn underscored the importance of getting this information to student-chefs.
“Louisiana seafood and the Gulf are tremendous resources in this state, and we have to reinforce it with students: This is your home state, you have this amazing resource that chefs from other states would kill for,” Flynn said.
“All of the famous chefs in New Orleans—they didn’t get famous cooking chicken, beef and pork. They got famous cooking Louisiana seafood.”
Flynn made quick work of the whole redfish, black drum, and sheepshead for the demonstration — a skill honed over years in the kitchen butchering thousands of fish, Flynn said.
“The first two or three fish you butcher generally look like you cut ’em with a hammer,” Flynn joked. “Like anything, it takes instruction and practice.”
On a busy day in his French Quarter restaurant, Flynn or his staff might filet up to 400 pounds of fish—much of it caught mere days before off the coast of Louisiana before landing in his kitchen. His menu changes daily, based on the best fish he can find through a network of suppliers.
Because freshness and handling are major factors in the quality of seafood, Flynn said Louisiana seafood is his first choice. “I may buy fish from all over the country and world, but I always start in Louisiana, in the Gulf,” Flynn said.
For the average consumer, buying and breaking down whole fish may be a tough sell, but the pay-off is in quality (read: deliciousness). “It’s easier to judge the quality of fish when it’s whole,” Flynn said. “You can see the plumpness, check the condition of the skin and eyes, and you can smell it.”
Flynn offered these pointers on selecting and butchering whole fish.
- Befriend your fishmonger. “Find somebody who will tell you what he got in that day, or what he thinks the best fish is today.”
- Don’t fall in love with one fish. “Buy what’s fresh, not what you have a recipe for.”
- Keep fish iced at all times. “There’s only one time when fish isn’t on ice: when it’s on the cutting board.”
- Store fish in a pan set over a pan of ice — not directly on the ice.
- Use a razor-sharp knife. “It doesn’t have to be a fancy one. I use inexpensive stamped stainless steel knives in the restaurant, but I send them out to get sharpened. It’s that important.”
- Wrap your filets in paper towel. “You don’t want fish sitting in its own juice. A paper towel absorbs those juices.”
- Practice makes…almost perfect. “Fish generally have the same bone structure, so the more you practice, the better you’ll get at butchering any kind of fish.”