Andy Blanton was a culinary student in Baton Rouge, La., in the mid-1990s when the class traveled southeast to the renowned restaurant, Commander’s Palace, a New Orleans institution in the city’s Garden District, for lunch. For a group of young, aspiring chefs, it was a chance to taste dishes prepared by the kitchen of a restaurant regularly honored as one of the best in the United States, a primer in the cuisine of one of the world’s foremost food cities.
“Everything I tasted that day was just phenomenal,” Blanton said. “That’s when I knew, ‘I’m going to work here.’”
Eventually, Blanton did, spending three years toiling in the kitchens of Commander’s Palace and Brigtsen’s Restaurant, another award-winning restaurant that specializes in the cuisine of the Gulf Coast region.
During that period, Blanton came to learn and appreciate what makes the seafood caught and prepared along the Louisiana coast some of the best in the world. The fresh water of the Mississippi River emptying into the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico creates the brackish water that lends the seafood its unique flavor.
“That’s why the shrimp are so great, the crawfish are so great, the crabs, the oysters,” he said, adding that he can recognize the subtle variations in the flavors of oysters caught in the Gulf at different times of the year: brinier when the river is lower. “The taste and the flavor is just tremendous.”
Now, as the executive chef and owner (with his parents) of Café Kandahar in Whitefish, Blanton, 33, sources much of the ingredients in his seafood dishes directly from family fishermen in the Gulf region. These relationships, coupled with his reverence for the culinary traditions of New Orleans, are what prompted him to organize a fundraiser at Café Kandahar last week to benefit families in the New Orleans area still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – and that now face another tragedy in the ongoing, catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Blanton is concerned the oil spill could harm seafood populations and the seafood economy, which extends from the fishermen trolling shrimp boats through the Gulf to the restaurants and seafood dealers across the country they supply. But he is also worried the oil spill could make diners hesitant to eat Gulf Coast seafood, causing the same harm to the area’s economy, when, according to Blanton, there are still vast swathes of the Gulf producing uncontaminated seafood.
“If there’s no demand for Gulf seafood, it’s going to increase demand in other areas, and that’s just naturally going to raise the price,” Blanton said, “especially wild and fresh caught seafood.”
The resulting drop in demand could cause both major chains and smaller, independent restaurants to increasingly turn to farm-raised seafood, and could devastate the fishermen of the Gulf.
“If they don’t return to fishing then that’s going to have more of an effect on access to Gulf seafood than I think the oil spill could,” he added. “Preserving the livelihood of the fishermen is actually preserving the seafood market in a way.”
So Blanton, a semi-finalist for the prestigious James Beard Award’s best chef in the northwest region, intended the menu of his six-course “Gulf Coast Relief Dinner,” to exemplify the straightforward, fresh and distinctive cuisine of Louisiana with such dishes as beignets, gumbo, crawfish etoufee, shrimp and grits, and roasted duck and pepper jelly. Many of the courses were paired with drinks from the region as well, like sazeracs, a New Orleans cocktail, or Abita Amber, from a Louisiana brewery north of New Orleans that makes its beer with local spring water.
“Last night’s dinner was something to the effect of, ‘This is what makes Louisiana cuisine special, this is worth celebrating,’” Blanton said the morning after the fundraiser, which, as of press time has raised $3,000. “All the seafood was from St. Bernard parish.”
Tickets to the event were $115, with $40 of the ticket price tax-deductible and given to the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit in New Orleans’ St. Bernard parish dedicated to helping that area – which includes the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood – to rebuild homes, provide mental health care and senior citizen housing following Katrina. It is a community, Blanton noted, where many of the fishing families he buys from live, and that has seen its population drop to a fraction of what it was before the hurricane.
“It was one of the hardest hit areas,” Blanton said. “It’s a community that houses a lot of fishermen; it’s definitely a working class place.”
Blanton, who raised $5,000 in relief efforts following Katrina, hopes to hit that mark again this summer, and plans to continue fundraising. He has set up a website where those wishing to help can make donations: www.firstgiving.com/cafekandahar.
“We want to keep this going,” he said. “To us, last night was just a way to introduce some of what we’re doing.”
Blanton also plans to enlist other local chefs with connections to New Orleans in the effort, with ideas like donating a percentage of a restaurant’s wine sales on a given night to helping the Gulf.
“It’s very gratifying and it’s very rewarding knowing that, not only can I share my knowledge and experience of New Orleans,” he said, “but ultimately, I can share my energy and my connection with the city to actually make a difference to help.”
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