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Diners still cautious about Gulf seafood

More than three months after the BP oil rig explosion, diners and chefs from around the country still have mixed feelings about seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.

Michael Reardon, corporate chef of ETC Hotels based in Santa Monica, Calif., said a client who was hosting a large banquet event recently asked him to go through the menu “line by line” to assure her that no Gulf seafood would be served at her event.

“People are a little freaked out about it,” said Reardon, who oversees restaurants and banquet space with food and beverage revenues of around $24 million dollars a year. “I wouldn’t say there’s a panic, but there’s a big concern out there.

Even he said he is "a little put off" about Gulf seafood and noted that prawns on his menu that previously came from the Gulf are now coming Mexico.

“But when we can be assured that the product is of top quality, we’ll certainly support it to help them get back on track,” he said.

  • VIDEO: Chefs who attended the 14th annual Florida Scallop and Music Festival last week in Port St. Joe, Fla., said their customers are still cautious when it comes to Gulf seafood. Hear what they had to say.

For Colin Rooney, the seafood buyer and manager of Nassau Street Seafood & Produce Company in Princeton, N.J., the price, not the perceived quality, of Gulf seafood has been the biggest obstacle to putting it on the menu.

In the past, he said he was purchasing red snappers out of the Gulf for his two restaurants, a wholesale company and retail fish market.

“They just aren’t affordable now,” Rooney said. “It’s not a quality thing.”

Chris Lusk, executive chef of Café Adelaide in New Orleans, has been emphasizing the safety of Gulf seafood to his customers and said he has been eating more of it since the oil spill.

“Right now it is the safest seafood it has ever been in history with the different regulatory agencies checking it five or six times,” Lusk said. “We have some of the best seafood in the world.”

He explained that when availability of his seafood core menu items — blue crabs, grouper, black drum, shrimp and oysters — was an issue, he simply juggled purveyors. As a result of a steady supply, his sales of seafood actually increased over the past few months, he said.

Lusk attributed much of that support to his local diners, who make up about half his dinner crowd and 60 percent of the mix at lunch. Some of the area residents and his tourist diners, who mostly come from the hotel where he’s located, were a bit more apprehensive when the spill started and some still question what the restaurant serves.

“I told my wait staff to tell them that we would never serve anything that was unsafe or I wouldn’t serve my family,” he said.

Rick Tramonto, a Chicago-based fine-dining chef, said he too has been successful selling Gulf seafood continually throughout the oil spill crisis at his Osteria di Tramonto and Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood restaurants in Wheeling, Ill. He said he tells guests to trust him like they would trust their doctor.

“They are just curious,” Tramonto said of his diners’ questions. “We’re talking with them and educating them.”

Contact Pamela Parseghian at [email protected].

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