Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio loves seafood so much he canceled a fishing trip in Massachusetts to fly down to Grand Isle for the Friends of the Fishermen event. "I've been fishing my entire life," he told me Monday after the benefit. The chef's restaurants serve fresh Gulf seafood including red snapper and shrimp, and he pledged at the event that that's not going to stop any time soon. "I feed people for a living. But today I'm not here as a chef, I'm here as someone who loves the water. At the age of 3 my grandfather had me out pulling crab traps."
And what about the spill? "This is something that I have been following pretty much every day on the news like most Americans," Colicchio said. "I'm Frustrated. Frustrated by the response, frustrated by misinformation, frustrated by the inability to do anything. So when I had the opportunity to come down here I pretty much canceled everything and jumped on a plane. And all I can do is be a mouthpiece."
When chef Rick Tramonto called him about the event, Colicchio also wanted to tour the area firsthand. That can be a difficult thing nowadays, as Grand Isle beaches are lined with boom and tiger dams. But it was navigated by celebrity chefs in Grand Isle for Friends of the Fishermen Fund. They included Tramonto, John Folse, Susur Lee, Charles Carroll, Dean Fearing and Rick Moonen along with Robert Barham, Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries. Artist Michael Israel created two paintings to auction for Friends of Fishermen, and brought a third piece that drew an audible gasp from the audience, a painting of a child holding an oiled pelican.
Chefs in attendance said they were as troubled as the rest of the nation about the BP Oil Spill, but they came to the event to promote the dual message that the fishermen need help as 32 percent of the Gulf closes to fishing. In a week when New Orleans chef Susan Spicer sued BP for loss of seafood availability, this is the message Friends of the Fishermen want to promote nationally -- Gulf Coast seafood is safe. It's tested, and no tainted product will be on the market.
Bacco chef Chris Montero told me in a phone call, since he's out on a boat, that the FDA has always been very liberal testing fish because it's such a fresh catch. "Because of this incident, there's more testing going on with our local seafood than ever in history and it will continue. It's the safest seafood available right now because of the constant daily testing." NOAA releases a daily report of which areas of the Gulf are safe for fishing, and the area is moving west but is still very sizable, the chef said. "It's a multi-billion dollar industry, so it's critical for fisherman that the brand doesn't get tainted by misinformation.
"It seems there are two stories here," Colicchio agrees. "There's a story of devastation but there's also a story of hope. There are fishermen fishing. The seafood we ate last night was delicious. The gulf is a big area and it's being fished." He urged any fishermen present to stay out of closed areas, and emphasized that the worst thing that could happen is tainted seafood getting into the marketplace. But with that said, the chef pledged to serve Louisiana seafood in all his restaurants. He said he'll also spread the message to his followers on Twitter who have been asking him whether Gulf seafood is safe. After speaking with the experts, "I'm pretty confident that not only is it safe, but I can continue to sell Gulf seafood and be a mouthpiece for what's going on here."
A crowd of chefs, fishermen, media and residents attended the gathering at the Marina with skimmer boats riding by in the background.
Afterward, we all ate Gulf seafood.