Friday, December 23: “Is business just crazy-busy over there at GW Fins?” Lorin Gaudin asks me, upbeat. We’re live on the air on Biz New Orleans' "All You Can Eat." I’ve driven to the Metairie studio past humming forklifts. Someone is removing those mountains of debris. Contractor ads clutter roadsides on plastic boards and spindly legs. “Well,” I say, “business all over town is up and down.” “GW Fins is doing no better than half of what it did last December,” Gary Wollerman has told me. A pricey Quarter restaurant like Fins relies on tourists; locals aren’t enough. On the other hand, given the construction workers, “ZydeQue is booming.” It’s an argument for diversification, not just in cuisine and price point, but also, as Gary says, geographically. He’s been in Chicago looking for a second location.
As for New Orleans, “by the end of January, everyone’s gonna have a good idea of what the city size will be.” The locals with kids are back right now – the pre-Christmas Friday crowd at Old Absinthe House spills onto Bourbon Street. But once the semester starts, will they leave again, perhaps for good? At Central Grocery, I wait in line for 20 minutes, locals front and back of me. The ancient store’s guts are busting with the foodstuffs. My half a muffuletta (its third and fourth syllables sound the same as the word between “whole” and “shakin’ goin’ on”) is a two-fister.
“I’ve been told to turn the heat up on you,” says Mike Nelson when I arrive at GW Fins. Tenney’s got the night off, his first in 22 days. Mike’s expediting. I’m working grill with Moises Chagoya. “Trout and yellowfin walking in. Give me pompano. Thank you, pompano.” Mike’s got a cool demeanor and a bingo caller’s tone. “You know what I think?” he says to Moises. “I think Bourbon Street needs tamales carts.” Moises has come down from Long Beach Island where he grills fast-food chicken. He’s lived and cooked in the U.S. for 20 years. Some seasons he works Aspen’s aprés-ski kitchens, some he winters with his family, in his Veracruzan town by the sea. “But a friend of mine said there was a lot of work here right now.” So he’s living with his buddies in Slidell. Moises shows me how to double-skewer the scallops. “Most of the Mexicans who came here are from Texas where there’s construction work. They’re not used to kitchen jobs.”
Moises likes his new gig. “You learn a lot in fine dining.” Especially here and now. Camille Bourdreaux, the day guy, says, “We had three people in the AM. Now it’s just me. I order fish, put out fires. I’m learning about fish butchery and application; I’m getting faster and more economical. There’s really no room for an employee to say ‘that’s not my job.’” Not that he minds the extra labor. “We don’t get paid a lot to do this; we’re in it because we love it.” He turns his attention to a box of fish on the floor scale. “Is that sword? Tenney didn’t tell that was coming in. . .” Then he turns back to me just before he leaves. “It doesn’t feel like a restaurant if you’re not scrambling sometimes.”
Dupes start chugging off the printer above the line. Moises grabs them and shoves them on the board. I’m pulling pompano after pompano after pompano from the low boy. I pull scallops and amberjack and chicken and filet mignon. I rummage in a metal container for asparagus. I stir butter into crabmeat in a pan on the grill. Moises shows me how to salt and pepper and pan-spray the fish and pan-spray the grill and clean the grill and feed it wood. He shows me how to test a whole snapper for doneness: bring the tip of the knife from the fish to my lip. He shows me how to roll the amberjack in Paul Prudhomme’s Shrimp Magic and how to blacken it directly on the bottom of the oven. (“Can you believe,” Tenney had said to me, “that people are still ordering blackened fish? Twenty years ago, we bought bull reds for 90 cents a pound and sold the dish for $18, which was pricey 20 years ago.”) The runners keep stealing my tongs to plate the cold-smoked oysters. Wednesday night, I skipped work at GW Fins to dine at GW Fins. The oysters cook enroute to table pooled in butter poured into shells yanked from a 600-degree oven. The runners need those tongs. And so do I. I remember something Alain Joseph told me: you can tell who the off-shift chefs are at a bar; when they prop their elbows on the rail, you see their burns.