Shortly after chef Frank Brigtsen decided to reopen the Charlie's Seafood restaurant in Harahan last spring, he called Joey Fonseca in Des Allemands, the bayou fishing village famous for its catfish.
"To get Des Allemands catfish on a regular basis, you've got to know someone, and Joey is the kind of guy I love knowing," says Brigtsen, who has used Fonseca's catches for years at his namesake restaurant, Brigtsen's. "He's a bona fide Louisiana marsh man. When you really get into this food, it's about a celebration of Louisiana heritage, and Joey is a personification of that."
Stocky and gregarious, Fonseca has a gravelly voice and a bushy, salt-colored mustache. He is a third-generation heir to family fishing traditions which he has passed on to his nine children. He and wife Jeannie have a niche business supplying chefs and shoppers at local farmers markets with creatures from the swamps, lakes and bayous surrounding their home.
In an age of industrial fish farming, Fonseca catches wild catfish using hoop nets. Each spring, his regular customers line up for Belle River crawfish, also wild-caught. When Fonseca hunts alligator, he finishes off the toothy reptiles with a sound thump from the blunt end of a hatchet. It seems that for every palatable form of bayou wildlife, Fonseca has a means to bring it to market.
"Here's how you catch frogs," Fonseca says. "At night, with a light, in the dark of the moon and with your hands."
Some of those frogs go from Fonseca's grasp to the dinner plates at Herbsaint, where chef Donald Link has made their legs a more-or-less permanent special.
Late summer is primetime for soft-shell crabs, and that's what Fonseca was after on a recent Friday outing. From sunrise to noon, he and deckhand Alvin Dufrene harvested crabs from 400 traps arrayed around Lac Des Allemands. The vast majority of the thousands caught are sold by weight to a dockside processor, which supplies bulk product to customers across the country.
Throughout the day, Fonseca avidly eyes each trap that Dufrene hauls in, scanning for crabs about to make the great leap from commodity to coveted seafood delicacy — those about to molt and become soft-shell crabs. In the rattling tumble of panicked crabs Dufrene shakes from one trap, something catches Fonseca's eye. He plucks one crab from the snapping multitude, carefully extends its paddle-shaped flipper and squints to examine its against the morning sun.
"There, you see the red line along the edge there?" he says, pointing out the thinnest rosy stitch running along the struggling crab's appendage. It's a faint but certain sign that a new shell is forming beneath the old.
"We'll get this one to be a restaurant-quality soft shell. We'll treat him real gentle. He's going right to my mama's soft-shell tank," he says, referring to Jeannie.
In this family crabbing operation, Joey is harvester and, back on land, Jeannie is cultivator. She oversees a series of fiberglass tanks gurgling in the plywood shed behind their house, a homespun aquarium system where she shepherds crabs through the difficult, and sometimes fatal, molting process.
Crabs caught over the weekend might be soft shells ready for Tuesday's Crescent City Farmers Market, where Jeannie sells them live for $4 to $5 each. Hand-selected on Joey's boat, nurtured in Jeannie's tank, the care given to these crabs makes good money for the Fonseca fishing family and great eating in New Orleans.