Three stained trout, wrapped in paper like French bread, were taken to the cutting room with instructions to mince them and collect the bones. The customer wanted to use them for stock.
Nat Taylor, huddled against the chill of the cooler, put down the long slab of mahi-mahi he was working on and gave the trout a few quick, precise stabs. They were then taken outside and delivered to the customer on an ice counter stocked with other types of fish and seafood.
That’s how things go all day at American Seafood, a New Orleans seafood wholesaler and processor that now runs its own retail seafood market. Along the way, he’s setting a living example of the power of putting more Louisiana seafood in the hands of more local home cooks.
American Seafood hosts its open-air seafood market three days a week, Thursday through Saturday. On any given day, he might have eight or 10 types of fish for customers to inspect, along with crabmeat and bags of oysters, fresh shrimp, live crabs, and cooked crab and shrimp.
Regulars know they can order whatever is available at the fish house just steps away, specifying what size cut they want from the swordfish or whole tuna sitting on ice inside.
“Some people have pulled a tooth, saying, ‘Hey, that’s what I want thick steaks,'” said Jay Meeuwenberg, who helps run the market.
It started as an emergency measure during the pandemic when the business model of this family business had to be changed suddenly. It continues today, taking on the role of the neighborhood fishmonger.
American Seafood is doing something that seems extraordinary, making something that many believe should be commonplace: making a greater spectrum of Louisiana’s seafood harvest instantly available for dinner at home that night.
Joe looking for Patti
As a food writer in a place that produces so much seafood, and where the local catch is tied to so much tradition, I hear the question all the time: Why is it so hard to find a wide variety of retail markets?
More specifically, what I often hear is: Why don’t we have a Louisiana version of Joe Patti? It’s a busy seafood market on the waterfront in Pensacola, Florida that has become a tourist attraction in its own right and is familiar to many Louisianans from their Panhandle beach trips.
Back home, in the many small markets still dotting neighborhoods across the state, local shrimp, crab, and crayfish are well represented and readily available. This product dominates supply and feeds healthy demand.
But when it comes to fish, the kind that grow in great variety in local waters and help transport Louisiana seafood, the home cook will often encounter fish imported from other waters.
There are, of course, other exceptions to this rule in some better-stocked markets, but the disconnect is real, and has been decried by sustainable fishing advocates and restaurant chefs alike. One factor is the distance between the dock and the final destination of the fresh fish, since Louisiana’s seafood industry is still largely made up of small players located in the Bayous, with their docks many miles from cities.
Others point to a generational decline in home cooking, especially seafood, which Americans generally consume in restaurants.
But the story of how American Seafood started and sustained its seafood market shows how that can change.
The survival strategy works
American Seafood opened 50 years ago as an oyster processing plant. Today, it is hidden in its Gentilly neighborhood, near downtown New Orleans. A grid of side streets leads to its loading docks, overlooking a berm topped by railroad tracks.
It’s an industrial area without much street presence, and as a wholesale supplier it’s usually not a problem. American Seafood supplies the restaurants with fish it buys from a network of local fishermen. Its trucks are seen on their rounds around town rather than its base.
When the pandemic started in 2020, however, that business came to a complete halt as the canteens were ordered to close. Their return was a slow progression, often up and down.
But people were still eating, of course, and company owners Liane and Wayne Hess thought many would like to cook some of their former restaurant offerings at home. It started with the neighbors, who would come down for some fish or shrimp. When American Seafood set up a frozen counter under a tailgating-style tent, the market was born.
“People like to pick, they like to be able to see the product,” Liane Hess said.
Wayne Hess said he had considered opening a stand-alone retail market in the past, but was discouraged by the task of keeping such a highly perishable supply consistent for customers.
“The difference with commercial customers is that they can tell the chefs, ‘well, the guys can’t go snapper fishing because of the weather, but we have drum,’ and they’ll work with their menus and change it up,” Hess said. “But the retail customers snapper they come because they want to prepare, and if you don’t they’ll be disappointed.”
But with a market that serves as a sideline to his wholesale business, his product is always moving and there’s little concern about getting stuck with unsold fish, Hess said. This means that the retail counter can display an impressive variety.
As life and the wholesale restaurant business have normalized, Hess has maintained its retail market. Restaurant chefs and home cooks are now lining up. Many people found that they enjoyed shopping this way, and for some, it revived old habits and brought back old habits.
“Some people who are common now, before their only exposure to seafood was crayfish and crab and boiled shrimp; now they’re asking for pompano and sheep’s head and cut trout, a few years ago they wouldn’t have thought of that on their plate,” said Meeuwenberg.
“But they see what other people are buying, and that’s when they start talking at the counter, they’re exchanging recipes. It’s very nice to see.”
The market’s business is conducted along the street-front fence, but from there, customers get a glimpse into the inner workings and day-to-day life of a Louisiana seafood house. That includes Hess sampling his daily oysters, shucking them in his hand for a bit of quality control.
“I get oysters from three different guys who work in two different areas. When people ask me what it tastes like, I want to be able to tell them,” Hess said. “I try them every morning, I have my coffee and some oysters.”
3034 George “Nick” Connor Drive, (504) 822-3983
Market hours: Thursday. 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Friday. 07:00 to 17:00, Saturday. 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. (2:00 p.m. during Lent)
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