Monday, December 19: “You want some pecan pie?” It’s 9:00 AM. Tenney Flynn, chef-owner of GW Fins seafood restaurant and the neighboring ZydeQue, hands me a hunk of smoked pork and says, “I’m a pusher.” The singing delivery guy, Johnny Soul, wheels a handtruck into ZydeQue. He’s singing, “I’m back on the road again . . .” He’s twirling his handtruck showmanlike. ZydeQue is a big, bulk barbecue joint. It reopened in September. “We’d sneak back in and clean up. The days ran together,” says Tenney. There were lots of hungry guys in uniforms in town. “The strip joints beat the restaurants for business.”
We drive to P & J’s Oyster Company at the edge of the Quarter. “Did you see me sucking your oysters on TV the other morning?” Tenney asks owner/brothers Sal and Al Sunseri. The Sunseris are known for a high-quality, extra-select-grade oyster. But they’ve lost 85% of their local clientele and plenty of staff. “Now we’re doing a straight run” without sorting grades. They’re selling five-gallon buckets to markets and distributors. “We never did that before.” Prying mollusks dumped from recycled coffee bean bags on platforms above growing piles of shells, there are six shuckers shucking where there used to be 16.
We taste a few American oysters, the kind that are harvested all along the Gulf. The Gulf is sweeter than the ocean. But these oysters are saline because the storm mixed ocean water into the Gulf. It clobbered boats, blew bulkheads adrift, picked up houses and dropped them in the middle of the highway. “There’s nowhere to land on the marshes,” says Sal. “The docks on the river’s west side are down. The beaches washed away.” Sal’s sister Merri walks in. “You getting back to normal?” Tenney asks her. “Ummm...” He says, “The new normal?” “Yes,” she says, “it’s a whole new normal.”
Back at GW Fins, Tenney teaches me how to make pasta dough: six eggs, six yolks and “flour until you can’t put more flour in.” We’re prepping for the employee Christmas party tonight. An employee arrives for a talking-to. He got down to a fisticuffs with another guy behind the line last night. Tenney isn’t sure he wants to fire him. “With limited staff, everyone becomes more precious. I overlook behavior I otherwise wouldn’t.”
We wrap the dough and let it settle. Tenney tells me something about pigs and fish. “I make mustard greens with five kinds of pork. We don’t cook that way in the south ‘cuz we’re perverse. We cook that way because it tastes good.” We pull stray pin feathers off a load of quail. I dunk the birds in teriyaki, and Tenney sets them in the smoker. “One pig tastes different from another; one end of the loin tastes different from the other.” Consistency is a built-in problem. “And seafood’s worse because a fish is a wild animal.” Tenney is a fan of Gulf of Mexico fish. “We’ve got five species of tuna, five snapper, eight grouper,” he says. “I use very good raw materials and don’t do a whole lot to them.” He wood-grills fish. With all the trees down, “the wood business is the business to be in now.”
The caviar guy shows up. He’s peddling eggs harvested from Atchafalaya Basin bowfin, a fish that Louisianans call “choupique” and pronounce “shoe pick.” Choupique make their home deep in the cypress swamps. They weren’t affected by the storm, but business was. It’s down 80% from this time last year. “You ever do a body shot?” He taps a spoonful of caviar onto the back of my hand. It’s muskier and oilier than sevruga. It’s also a whole heck cheaper at $10 an ounce. Tenney doesn’t like it except for garnishes and stock.
We cut chops from racks of lamb. You have to dig out a knob of cartilidge and tear the fat from the bone. Tenney talks about his post-Katrina lifestyle. He had bought a house in Lakeview just before the storm. “Now I live in a delightful little trailer.” He had been approached by New York chef David Burke to do consulting. “But the dynamic changed from being an in-demand chef to being a homeless hurricane refugee.” Burke had wanted Tenney’s help with the beef guys because Tenney had done time at Ruth’s Chris. The founder of the New Orleans-based steakhouse chain, Ruth Fertel, "lived in that shotgun house next to the original restaurant all her life. During Hurricane Betsy, she and Leah Chase cooked for the crews. No way she wouldn’t have opened up her restaurant and given jobs to the people. But the corporation used Katrina as an excuse to cut and run.”