On the spot: Louisiana's Ralph Brennan
The Brennan Family of New Orleans is iconic — not only to their local community but also to the international restaurant industry. Theirs is a legacy that hails back to 1946, when Owen Edward Brennan opened the family’s first restaurant on Bourbon Street. Since then, the family has built its local empire of seafood and fine-dining to 13 eateries in Louisiana, including the acclaimed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Ralph Brennan, who directly owns and operates three of the 13 eateries, recently spoke to SeafoodSource about the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on Louisiana restaurants and seafood supplies and prices.
Blank: What are your restaurants doing to help the fishermen and families adversely impacted by the oil spill?
Brennan: We had an effort to feed some of the fishermen about two weeks ago [at the Chefs for Fishermen and Families event], but the biggest thing we are trying to do is sell more seafood. Exports of seafood out of the state have all but dried up; there is no outlet for the seafood. We are also trying to counter the negative opinion about Gulf seafood that people have around the country. The biggest challenge we faced after Hurricane Katrina was the perception that New Orleans was flooded for months and years afterward. This time, we started the fight a lot faster. Every day, we make sure our servers know where in the Gulf the seafood is from. We want to give confidence to the consumer that we are on top of it.
Are the messages that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat being heard throughout the country?
I don’t think [the messages] are helping very much. I think there is a perception that the seafood is not safe, but it is probably safer than it has ever been, as far as testing is concerned. It is being testing by the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others. Many restaurants around the country do not want to serve Gulf seafood.
What are you doing to sell more seafood in the restaurants that you own: Redfish Grill, Bacco and Ralph’s on the Park?
We run several specials every day like we normally do, but now we are making sure those are seafood specials. We have encouraged others in our industry to do that also. One recent special at one of our restaurants was whole flounder, which was stuffed and lightly fried. At Redfish Grill, a seafood restaurant that serves only Gulf seafood, we are featuring blackened escolar and hickory-grilled escolar from the Gulf. We hadn’t really served a lot of escolar in the past, and now we are serving it. We had not served cobia in the past, because it was hard to get, and now we are serving it.
Which seafood items are more difficult for you to source currently?
We are still able to get Louisiana oysters from the open areas. However, they don’t have as much flavor, because flooding [the state government’s funneling of freshwater into the Mississippi Delta to prevent oil seepage] is pushing the salinity out. And, it was reported that oysters are dying out as a result. We are also bringing in oysters from Galveston, Texas, which are very similar to the oysters we find here. We continue to serve them and they continue to sell. Oyster prices are all over the board. Shrimp and crawfish are readily available but are more expensive. Shrimp prices are going down but are 20 to 30 percent higher than what we had been paying in the past.
How has business at your three restaurants been impacted by the oil spill?
We haven’t seen any decline in seafood consumption, but we occasionally get questions. Since Memorial Day, business is down a little bit more than it normally is. I don’t know yet if we can attribute that to the oil spill.