Report from the Gulf

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 10, 2010

"I remind him — don't feel burdened, don't feel if something happens, it's your fault," he says. "Don't feel like your daddy."

Still, watching the business dissolve has been difficult. He grew up with many of the shuckers he laid off in June. He can't help but worry about his son's future.

And the chefs who have counted on P&J for decades – well, they're worried too.

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SHUTTING DOWN: A few months ago, the P&J Oyster Company — the nation’s oldest oyster distributor — would sell as many as 30,000 oysters a day. That number has dwindled to just 750, and P&J has had to cease its shucking operation and lay off two-thirds of its workforce. Co-owner Alfred Sunseri (center, with his brother, and co-owner, Sal Jr. and son Blake) used to think he worked too much. Now he’s worried about his family’s future.

'It's about survival'
Business is still brisk at Bayona, a 200-year-old cottage-turned-upscale restaurant at the edge of the French Quarter. In the afternoon, the well-heeled call every 10 minutes or so to reserve tables by the picture window or the trompe l'oeil of the Mediterranean countryside.

In the evening, well-dressed waiters dispense plates of crawfish frittata, sautéed sweetbreads, and almond pithivier with lemon mousseline and blueberry compote.

But something is missing. The restaurant, long a P&J customer, has dropped oysters gratin from the menu. Gone, in fact, are any oyster dishes. And Bayona is hardly the only eatery with a seafood problem.

J.N. Zink, the chef de cuisine at Bourbon House, reports a 15 to 20 percent hike in the price of shrimp. Across the street at Galatoire's, the grand dame of French-Creole cooking, the executive chef has dug into the restaurant's 105-year history to find a seafood alternative — chicken livers — should the shortages grow more acute.

Of course, the shift in the French Quarter menu is hardly the prime casualty of the BP spill. Tourists in search of the perfect jambalaya will undoubtedly get over the disappointment.

But for someone like Susan Spicer, owner-chef at Bayona, the disruption represents a threat to something far larger.

Spicer grew up in the city and discovered po'-boys and gumbo early. The local fare has served her well: she's won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast Region; worked as the guest chef at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok and the Lanesborough in London; she's even made an appearance on Bravo's Top Chef.

But Bayona is at the center of her endeavors. And if the restaurant can get by for now without oysters, the long-term uncertainty is troubling.

Spicer, a slight but energetic figure, has filed a class-action lawsuit against BP on behalf of Gulf Coast eateries. The effort is about a whole region, she says, a whole way of life. But it is, of course, intensely personal, too.

"I've had this restaurant for 20 years," she says, "and if down the road the tourism slacks off, and I can't get seafood, this suit will be about survival."

Survival. It is, at least, a skill in good supply down here.

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A crawfish at the Bourbon House.

'A sense of peril'
It's just before dawn and a thin slice of the moon hangs over Vermilion Bay, about 135 miles west of New Orleans. Steve Voisin, 57, and his son Jarod, 26, skip across the water in an 18-foot speedboat, past a few patches of freshwater lily and out into the gulf.

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