Chef Brian Landry is no stranger to the seafood riches of south Louisiana. A New Orleans native and a lifelong advocate of the fruits of the Gulf of Mexico and its surrounding waters, Landry heads the kitchen at Borgne (Hyatt Regency New Orleans, 601 Loyola Ave., 504-613-3860; www.borgnerestaurant.com), which, in its third year, continues to specialize year-round in seasonal seafood. As crawfish season begins, Landry spoke with Gambit about what mudbug lovers can expect for this year's crop, and his thoughts about backyard boils and why they make Louisiana special.
With two recent and significant freezes, should we be concerned about crawfish this year?
Landry: I think the verdict is still out on what kind of crawfish season we're going to have. Obviously, we're off to a late start. A lot of people have their first crawfish boils of the year to coincide with Mardi Gras. Even having Mardi Gras as late as it was, we really haven't seen crawfish hitting the market with any force just yet. Part of it has been weather; it's definitely been a much colder winter, which is probably the single biggest factor. There's a little bit of crawfish around, but the price is high, and with the amount being so small, you're really not seeing it hit restaurant menus yet. My thoughts are to do what we always do and play the hand that Mother Nature deals us. One of the beautiful parts about cooking in south Louisiana is we always have access to wonderful seafood. Spring is usually the perfect storm of seasonal seafood, where softshell crabs start to come in, crawfish, and a lot of different finfish, so normally we're pretty spoiled. If crawfish have an off year, the blue crab or the shrimp patch will take its place. Last year wasn't a particularly great crab season, and we were still able to have a menu full of Gulf fish, shrimp and, of course, the crawfish were great. We'll play it by ear, and if it's one of those times we have a short crawfish season, we won't be at a lack of great seafood. But it might also be a later season because of the cold, so maybe we'll have crawfish right past Jazz Fest and right on into June, and that's not the worst thing. It's a lot more fun to eat crawfish outside in the yard in shorts and flip flops than in an overcoat.
A recent study by the LSU AgCenter blew a lot of people away by dispelling the popular belief that boiled crawfish with straight tails aren't necessarily dead when they were cooked. How do you feel about that?
L: I kind of still side with the old wives' tale. They're scientists, and they know what they're talking about, but even if the crawfish wasn't dead before it was boiled, there still seems to be a difference because the tail didn't curl, so the texture still definitely changes. I think the straight tails tend to overcook and dry out a little compared to the ones that curl up. I think there's something in the curling of the tail that keeps the meat protected as it cooks.
What are the differences between having crawfish in a restaurant versus an old-fashioned crawfish boil?
L: I grew up with crawfish boils, but I didn't realize until I was doing some recent research that the crawfish boil really didn't become popular until the 1960s. It's only really been mainstream for 40 years or so. In Cajun country, it's kind of taken the place of the boucherie. Because families are so close, and there's such a strong tie there, those communities really thrive on that gathering, which is where the modern crawfish boil is now rooted. It's typically done to celebrate something — a birthday, Easter, an engagement — that's one of the things that makes growing up in Louisiana so great. It's because our big celebrations tend to center around food. It really made me think — I obviously love the dishes we prepare in the restaurant, but there's just something unique and special about a backyard crawfish boil. You're usually with friends and family, and it's really an event. When we recreate those flavors in restaurants, that's kind of what helps us engage people with the food we're making, those memories that are associated with the food. That's what makes cooking in this city so much fun.