It's not long after summer sun-up, and the chef gives a quick snap of the wrist and a few quick reel cranks. On the business end of his shrimp-baited fishing rig, a silvery speckled trout flails around in the warm, salty water of Breton Sound, hoping to break the line or dislodge the well-set hook. Within seconds, the fish feels a scoop of the net, the cool wind off the Gulf of Mexico, and a pair of stainless needle-nose pliers removing the barb from its yellow-tinged mouth in two quick yanks. It's pretty easy to see that the chef's connection to Louisiana seafood is a good hook and about 100 feet of nylon fishing line.
"See the teeth?" Brigtsen holds the 3-lb. fish up for inspection, showing off its two needle-sharp fangs before stowing the flopping trout into an ice-filled cooler. "Specks hit the bait hard, but they don't fight much," he laughs. Barefoot and hatless against the strong June sun, Brigtsen wears a multicolored Jazz Fest bandana to keep the sweat off his face. The towering cook picks his way toward the bow of his 22-foot bay boat and baits up, eager for the next cast. "The weather's perfect. We've got no excuses."
This is the way that Brigtsen, chef-owner of his eponymous Riverbend restaurant, likes to spend his days off. Up at 3:30 a.m., he drives two hours to the remote fishing community of Hopedale, then pilots his boat through grassy, brackish marshes and into the Gulf's shallow bays.
Louisiana seafood fanatics would immediately recognize the fish that Brigtsen stalks on these shallow-water expeditions: speckled trout, sheepshead, redfish and drum. These inshore species end up on his ever-changing menu encased in a crabmeat-parmesan crust, topped with fresh shrimp or bathed in a buttery meuniere sauce. Other summer fish such as mahi mahi (dolphin fish) and yellowfin tuna swim in deeper offshore waters, but Brigtsen likes to chase tasty "ground fish" around the rigs and pilings of Breton Sound and Black Bay.
"I love being out here. I remember fishing this spot with my daddy when I was about 12," he says, steering toward a hulking oil platform about 10 miles offshore. After fishing a mostly submerged industrial crane commonly known as "The Wreck," we spend an hour casting shrimp-baited rigs into the shadows of the tank's raised platform. After a few quick catches at The Wreck, the bites get scarce and we try our luck at Brigtsen's other favorite spots: The Black Tank, Eight Pilings, wellheads off Battledore Reef.
Zipping around the rigs and buoys, the chef calls out fisherman's secrets that inform his cook's sensibilities. This man-made shell reef is a good feeding ground for sheepshead. Flocks of birds feed on shrimp driven to the water's surface by bottom-dwelling schools of speckled trout. "We're so blessed with the fisheries here in Louisiana," he says. "But still, it pays to know your fish."
His fisherman's knowledge helps him source his ingredients better and serve distinctive local seafood instead of imported or farm-raised equivalents. "People don't come to my restaurant for salmon; they're looking for Louisiana fish," he says. "And since we're flexible with our menu, we can work with offbeat fish like triggerfish or mangrove snapper. They've got great flavor, but you can't count on a steady supply."
Brigtsen naturally gravitates to these lesser-known fish, many of which don't fit the trinity of Creole fish cookery: trout, pompano and red snapper. "When we can get triggerfish, we pan-roast the filets by dusting one side with flour, then searing it to get a crunchy texture, then we finish it in the oven," he explains. "It's a great technique for moist fish. We might top it with a jalepeno and smoked corn beurre blanc or do it with a potato crust.
"The summer is a great season, because there's so much good flavor out there," he says. "Right now, we're working with sugar snap peas, great Creole tomatoes and in-season Vidalia onions. Gulf shrimp and fresh corn are in peak season, and it just so happens that they taste wonderful together. That's what I love about Louisiana seasons."
The traditional restaurant schedule -- working weekends with Mondays off -- works to Brigtsen's recreational advantage. "On Sundays, it's just too crowded," he says. "You'll find 40 or 50 boats around The Wreck, with an average of three rods per boat. With that much bait in the water, the fish can get real picky."
But today is no better. Despite ideal conditions, the trout hide out, and the redfish sleep in. Brigtsen ties the boat to the dock in Hopedale with a shrug and a grin. "No excuses," he repeats. With a few slices of a his fish knife, he cuts fillets off his catch -- three specks, one black drum -- and throws the bodies to waiting seagulls. "Aaaah, it doesn't matter," he laughs. "If you got a day off, this is the place to be."