Gulf officials turn to celebrity chefs to boost battered seafood industry


NEW ORLEANS — Drew Nieporent, the New York City restaurant mogul whose Myriad Restaurant Group owns eight world-renowned dining spots, recently spent a few days enjoying a Louisiana fishing trip followed by seafood at some of New Orleans’ top restaurants.

The trip certainly gave Nieporent a great time. Tourism and seafood officials in south Louisiana hope it, and others like it, will help the state’s fisheries and tourist industry recover from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“We don’t have a product problem, we have a perception problem, said Kelly Schulz, a vice president with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We need people to get rid of that perception problem — and who better than some of the top restaurant people?”

Louisiana normally has $2.4 billion in annual seafood sales, keeping about 27,000 residents working.

“Louisiana provides about a third of the domestic seafood the lower United States,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “We’re second only to Alaska in overall production.”

Figures provided by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries from January through August from 2005 through 2010, show shrimp brought to the docks was down 51 percent, crab down 33 percent, and oysters down 35 percent this year.

“There were several reasons for the catches being down,” said department spokeswoman Olivia Watkins. “Some of it was because of areas closed to fishing, but some of it was because fishermen didn’t go out, because they had no where to sell their catches.”

The average value of seafood declined by 24 percent in 2010, the data shows.

Many of those workers have been idle since the Deepwater Horizon exploded last spring. And with the perception that seafood was polluted by the oil, getting back to work won’t be easy, Smith said.

“A friend who was in New York just sent me a picture of a sign in one of the restaurant’s windows saying they don’t sell Gulf seafood,” Smith said. “It just furthers the perception that there’s a problem with eating it when there isn’t.”

Biologists from independent laboratories began sampling seafood from the Gulf off Louisiana’s coast immediately after the spill, and tests are still going on, Watkins said.

“If you examine the results we have received, none of our samples have come anywhere close to the FDA ‘levels of concern,'” Watkins said in an e-mail. “We’ve worked very closely with the DHH to make sure that we are truly getting an idea of whether or not our commercial seafood is safe to eat and we are confident that it is.”

Food is a major draw for tourists visiting southern Louisiana, said Jim Hutchinson, Assistant Secretary of the Louisiana Office of Tourism. And although no oil came ashore within 100 miles of New Orleans, many people think it did, and think restaurants cannot serve seafood from the Gulf.

“We worked so hard to get back after Hurricane Katrina,” Hutchinson said. “And now we have the oil spill setting us back again.”

That’s why the state is recruiting well-known chefs and restaurateurs, a campaign funded by part of the $5 million BP gave the city to help offset the damage done to tourism by the spill.

“We are hoping to make them into ambassadors for New Orleans,” Schulz said.

James Beard award-winning chef Dave Pasternack visited New Orleans earlier this fall, going fishing and bow-fishing with New Orleans chef Donald Link. The pair then cooked up their catch and served it to a group of journalist and others.

A number of chefs from New York, the northeast, and other areas, have been targeted and will be brought in later, Schulz said.

Nieporent was taken out into the Gulf, where his group caught 30 fish, which were later cooked. The trip and the catch satisfied him that all was well in the waters off Louisiana, he said.

“We can certainly talk to our customers, our chefs, everyone, and say we know firsthand there should be no stigma on the seafood from here,” Nieporent said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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