Bayou La Batre

Review: Big Shrimpin’

This is a show I have been eager to see.  Partly because it is filmed in a town just a few miles away, Bayou La Batre (aka the Bayou), AL.  Mostly though I am hoping that the show addresses the crisis our domestic shrimpers face because of corruption in Washington DC, massively overzealous environmental laws and of course BP.

big shrimpin history channelThe series follows three shrimping boats out of the same company on “the Bayou” as they voyage to participate at the Texas Open.  Texas is the only state on the Gulf Coast tat closes waters to shrimping a few months out of the year to allow the shrimp to grow larger.  When they first reopen the waters there’s a race to get those big shrimp (oxymoron anyone?).

From the get go the crews face obstacles like a shrimper with a serious injury, a torn net (they cost $2800 each) and an inspection by federal agents that results in $15,000 in fines.    Along the way viewers are introduced a whole gaggle of characters and I guarantee you that these are not fabricated personalities.

I’ve grown up around shrimpers from “the Bayou” and they are a very, very tough group of people.  They do more actual work in a day than most Americans do in a month.  Of course it isn’t uncharacteristic for their workdays to run 36 or even 48 hours.  See what I mean?  The whiny brats occupying Wall Street are crying about having to work 36 hours a week and these folks do that in one shift.

big shrimpIt’s been one episode and I am enjoying the show.  It’s important for America to know what it takes to bring the world’s greatest shrimp to their table.  My lone disappointment is that they have not addressed the political corruption that has lead to our markets being flooded by inferior and down right dangerous foreign shrimp.

Asian farm-raised shrimp are cheaper than wild caught US shrimp because they do not have to withstand the scrutiny ours does. In Asia, the shrimp are raised in farms where the populations are thousands of times more dense than in the wild which creates a breeding ground for disease and parasitic microbes. To control this they use antibiotics and pesticides that have been proven dangerous to humans.

These chemicals are banned for use in food animals in the United States and Europe because nitrofurans are carcinogenic, and chloramphenicol causes aplastic anemia. Technically no imported seafood can contain them and still be sold. While domestic seafood is inspected like crazy (Gulf seafood is actually inspected twice since the oil spill) only 1% of imported seafood is ever inspected and then not by the FDA or USDA (agencies trained for such tasks) but by the Dept. of Commerce.

Tonight they did mention that 90% of all shrimp sold in the US is imported from farms in Asia.  These shrimp are untested for harmful chemicals though they most likely contain them. It has created a trade imbalance that has all but killed the US shrimping industry while fueling China’s economic growth. The inequality of the issue harms us both as individuals (medically) and as a community (economically). But since the companies that manufacture those chemicals are in the US it is more profitable for politicians to ignore the issue.

Hopefully they will address this later on in the series.  I implore you, please watch this show.  You may learn somethings about the world you didn’t know.  Big Shrimpin’ airs Thursdays at 10/9 central on the History Channel.

Brown Tide: A Day on the Bayou

For over half a century the people of Bayou La Batre, Alabama have gathered for a ceremony that is both a celebration and a memorial.  They pray for a safe and bountiful fishing season and remember those who have lost their lives in seasons past.  This small fishing village does not have the sugar white beaches and sparkling high-rise condominiums so often associated with the Third Coast.  For every Destin there are a dozen Bayou La Batre’s.

The people who live here work hard just to scrape by in a profession that is equal parts heritage and obsession.  Ask anyone who has ever made a living on a boat and they will tell you once the sea gets in your blood there is no getting it out.  Things have been particularly rough in Bayou La Batre after equal devastation from both Ivan and Katrina and now the looming oil spill.

My reason for venturing to the Bayou was to be a judge in the annual Gumbo Cook-off.  But as the event neared it was obvious that I would be experiencing something much more than a gaggle of gumbo.  Any thoughts I had of a blog post filled with flowery descriptions of spices and the richness of broth were now metaphorically obscured by crude oil.   In this town full of rugged people I saw despair etched on the faces of everyone.  As one festival organizer told me, the oil slick has, “certainly been the topic of conversation.”

Folks here have little trust in the government.  For years they have endured stringent federal regulations supposedly designed to preserve the environment and protect American consumers.  Meanwhile that same government has turned a blind eye to an avalanche of imported seafood teeming with toxic chemicals. The post-Katrina response from FEMA that had many in New Orleans crying foul would have seemed like a Godsend here.  And now the same government which abandoned them five years ago has again drug its feet leaving the town in peril.  The Obama administration told them the leak was a mere 1000 barrels a day when in reality it was 200,000.  To them there is little difference between the current regime and its predecessor.

My fellow judges, locals both, regaled me with stories of the Blessing during the Reagen years.  The whole town would pack the church yard standing shoulder to shoulder, a sea of people joined in jubilation and thanksgiving.  Those days are gone now.  Five years have passed since Katrina and the town is just now starting to look like it did prior to her arrival.  Now this.

Of course the D.C. elitists have been on every talk show they could find saying that you cannot compare Deepwater Horizon to Katrina.  I dare you to stand on the Bayou and say that without the luxury of a team of Secret Service agents.  The great irony of the day was the uncharacteristic wind blowing directly off the Gulf.  People around here recognize that strong and hot breeze; it is just like the one that hits as a hurricane is barring down on you.  But this is a storm of a different complexion and its effects will not be measured in years but decades.

Amid all of the doom and gloom there was still a festive spirit among the crowd.  They lined up to try the foods from their new neighbors from Central America and Southeast Asia.  Blues musicians took the bandstand while people funneled into the church to sample the seafood that built the town.  Artisans had erected a tent city to hock their wares as families ventured to the wharf to look at the shrimp boats decorated like Mardi Gras floats.  Everywhere children laughed in played.

Virtually every resident in Bayou La Batre either works on a boat or at a business that’s sole purpose is to support the fishing industry.  Fishing is the only game in town.  Those of us who are a little long in the tooth realize we were saying goodbye to something.  Before leaving, I spoke with Mark Kent a writer for the Mobile Press Register assigned to cover the event and he expressed his concerns saying that more than the economic and ecological devastation he was worried about the spirit of the people.

Amen.

The National Audubon Society is recruiting volunteers in the fight to save “ecologically sensitive areas.” Visit their website to fill out a volunteer registration form.  Additionally, OilSpillVolunteers.com provides the opportunity to sign up and assist with the cleanup.  While their website says volunteers are not yet needed, Mobile Baykeeper is urging anyone who is interested to call their office at 251-433-4229 or e-mail info@mobilebaykeeper.org.

Brown Tide: A Day on the Bayou

The following is an excerpt from a piece I did after visiting Bayou La Batre, Alabama this weekend.  Bayou La Batre is one of the small fishing villages threatened by the Gulf Oil Slick.  The full article is available at ThirdCoastCuisine.com

For over half a century the people of Bayou La Batre, Alabama have gathered for a ceremony that is both a celebration and a memorial.  They pray for a safe and bountiful fishing season and remember those who have lost their lives in seasons past.  This small fishing village does not have the sugar white beaches and sparkling high-rise condominiums so often associated with the Third Coast.  For every Destin there are a dozen Bayou La Batre’s.

The people who live here work hard just to scrape by in a profession that is equal parts heritage and obsession.  Ask anyone who has ever made a living on a boat and they will tell you once the sea gets in your blood there is no getting it out.  Things have been particularly rough in Bayou La Batre after equal devastation from both Ivan and Katrina and now the looming oil spill.

My reason for venturing to the Bayou was to be a judge in the annual Gumbo Cook-off.  But as the event neared it was obvious that I would be experiencing something much more than a gaggle of gumbo.  Any thoughts I had of a blog post filled with flowery descriptions of spices and the richness of broth were now metaphorically obscured by crude oil.   In this town full of rugged people I saw despair etched on the faces of everyone.  As one festival organizer told me, the oil slick has, “certainly been the topic of conversation.”

READ ON

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry, pt. 3




This is part three of a three part series (dare I say exposé?) on the corporate restaurant industry.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday: an Indictment of the Corporate Restaurant Industry

The closing of so many chain restaurants is one of the few bright spots in an utterly dreary economic state. Corporate restaurants are a bane to American society. Making a buck is never wrong, but these companies have done so by enslaving workers, knowingly poisoning their customers and sabotaging small business. We should not be lamenting the fall of the corporate restaurant industry, but rather celebrate it by be prosecuting the CEO’s and politicians who conspired to create the nefarious beast.

America’s Modern Slave State

The onslaughts on the general public and small business are not the only transgressions of corporate restaurant chains as their workers (servers, bar tenders and the like) are the only profession in the entire nation that are not paid minimum wage. Try, if you can, to imagine how your life might change if the state you live in passed a law that said your employer now only has to pay your profession $2.50/hour. The rest of your income is solely up to the generosity of strangers. Additionally, the government makes you pay taxes on these charitable contributions regardless of whether or not you actually receive them. As if that were not enough, you also have to work every holiday without receiving overtime or holiday pay. And you can forget about sick-leave all together.

Now let’s sweeten the pot a little by informing you that if someone who is inebriated happens to enter your work area you are now personally responsible for every action that person takes until they sober up. Regardless of whether you provide them with alcohol or even conduct business with them in any manner you are still criminally liable for their actions.

It sounds preposterous does it not? This is the 21st Century; the conditions just described sound like something out of a Dickens’ novel. At best this is an extreme example of the deplorable human rights violations in some war-torn African nation. One thing is for sure, this could never happen in America, not with all this change and hope floating around.

Sadly the circumstances illustrated do exist today and right here in River City.

As it turns out the restaurant industry is exempt from US Federal minimum wage laws. Each state is free to set whatever minimum wage they deem for bartenders, bussers, servers, and even hostesses as little as $2.13 an hour. A few states are enlightened enough to guarantee these workers the same minimum wage as any other profession. Most do not. In fact only eight states currently require the same minimum wage for restaurant workers as everyone else. The remaining 42 states allow companies to legally pay their workers less than what economists and society have agreed is a fair wage.

In Alabama for instance the server wage is $2.13 an hour or one third the current minimum wage. Florida is scarcely better at $3.50 an hour. Montana and Minnesota have two minimum wages for servers (both are below the national minimum) – one for big business and a lower one for small. The corporations argue that this punishes them for being successful while small businesses insist the better servers opt for the chains leaving them to pick through the leftovers. In Nevada full time restaurant workers are actually forced to choose between a fair wage or health insurance.

A gratuity is a bonus for a job well done; a little something extra for going beyond the norm, or at least it used to be. By making servers rely on tips to pay their wages and then taxing those tips, the government has in effect made it a law that everyone must tip at least 10% regardless of the quality of service. Whether a 10% tip is left or not the server still pays taxes on it. Consequently, anyone who fails to leave 10% is in reality stealing from the server.

Some people do not know that the bulk of a server’s pay comes from tips and assume that restaurant workers make a fair wage like everyone else. And why wouldn’t they? After all, there is a federal minimum wage and excluding one profession from having to adhere is unethical.

Lobbyists working on behalf of the large restaurant cartels rely heavily on the argument that servers make very good money in the form of gratuities. In fact, that is the entirety of their argument – servers earn so much money on tips that their bosses should not have to pay them for their toil. So this begs the question, just how much money are we talking about?

If the money servers earn is as good as argued then surely they make in excess of $75,000 a year, maybe as much as $174,000 – the annual salary of a US congressmen. According to the US Department of Labor in 2006 the median hourly wage-and-salary earnings (including tips) of servers was $7.14/hour. In most cases, the hourly wage does not even cover their tax burden leaving them still owing the government money at the end of the year. The same government that says that their effort is not worth as much as other professions apparently does not feel likewise about their tax obligation.

Still many may contend that servers make great money for no more work than they do. After all, all they do is take your order and bring you food that someone else cooks and drinks that someone else mixes, right?

In addition to clearing their tables and cleaning them for the next party, they also have what is called side work. Side work consists of tasks that must be performed to keep the restaurant running smoothly. Many of these duties are simple and occupy little time like rolling silverware into napkins. Others include considerable labor like hauling heavy buckets of ice from one end of the building to the other, vacuuming large sections of food-embedded carpet, mopping floors, preparing foods, cleaning bathrooms, and scraping bubblegum from underneath tables.

Side work comes in three forms and almost every restaurant requires its servers a certain amount as part of their daily performance. The three types of side work are opening (performed before the shift), running (performed during the shift), and closing (performed after the shift). Although the restaurant must pay the server a regular minimum wage for side work performed prior to opening the same is not said for closing side work which typically constitutes the most arduous and time consuming chores. Federal law states that one hour after a server’s final customer leaves the employer must then pay the employee the standard minimum wage.

Thanks to the way the wage law is written employers are actually allowed to pay less than minimum wage for one full hour despite the fact that the employee makes no tip for that labor. Some companies deliberately exploit this loophole by piling extra work on the tip earners that previously was performed by higher wage earners. Although this practice is entirely unethical, remarkably it is legal.

Some families are on budgets that prevent them from spending very much. These people may actually tip the standard 20% but they are forced to streamline their order. A standard 20% tip on the least expensive item is better than nothing, but it requires the same amount of effort as the most expensive dish and in some cases more. A server at The Olive Garden for instance actually does more work for customers who order the economical soup, salad, and breadsticks than for those who order a more expensive entrée.

The Olive Garden is one of the concepts owned by dining conglomerate Darden Restaurants, Inc. out of Orlando, FL. Darden also operates Red Lobster, Smokey Bones, Longhorn Steaks, and Bahama Breeze making it a classic example of the typical restaurant corporation. Darden owns and operates more than 1,700 restaurants across North America employing roughly 160,000 people. Darden is, in terms of revenue, the world’s top restaurant operator.

But Darden is hardly the only player in the ultra-competitive multi-unit market. Brinker International, Inc. out of Dallas, TX which owns Chili’s, On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill is another titan of the industry with more than 1,800 restaurant locations in 20 countries. They, too, are one of the largest restaurant cartels in the US and as such are one of the largest employers of restaurant workers in the country.

Actual Olive Garden Check StubDespite working nearly 30 hours this Olive Garden employee took home nothing after state and federal taxes were applied.

On average a server who works roughly 30 hours a week and earns 15% in tips will have a weekly paycheck totaling zero after taxes. Not only does Uncle Sam dip into servers’ tips, but many restaurants make them “tip out” their fellow employees. Servers must share their hard earned money with hostesses, bussers, dishwashers, and even bar tenders. Tipping out allows business owners to also under pay non-tip earning employees by classifying them as tip-earners. A server’s “tip out” is determined by a percentage of their sales for the shift and ultimately denies them of anywhere from 15% to more than 50% of their daily earnings.

So if the same argument used to justify paying servers a substandard wage is applied to other professions then school teachers would have to choose between making a living wage and having medical insurance. Corporate executives would be making $3.50 an hour with the rest of their pay coming from board members stuffing dollar bills into an old pickle jar. That would include men like David Goebel, the former CEO of Applebee’s International Inc. who took home $2.7 million in 2006 while paying his servers less than $3 an hour.

Be sure to check out the first two parts of this series The Big Bad Wolf – Mom and Pop Under Siege and Biting the Hand that Feeds.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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