When it Comes to Bivalves,
Chef Ryan Prewitt Keeps it Pure and Simple.
Consider the chef who sells raw oysters.
By and large, a chef wants to taste dishes, check the consistency of sauces, and tweak each plate of food that leaves the pass. A chef wants to be in control. A chef wants to put his or her stamp on products. A chef wants, to borrow a term from biz speak, to micromanage. A chef does not want to leave things to chance.
Most cooking is just manipulation of a product from its natural state via heat, smoke, acid, salt, time, or some combination thereof. Ryan Prewitt can cook. He can make you a shrimp and fontina croquette that details what would have happened had Spain not sold Louisiana back to France. He will grill you a cobia collar that is smoky, unctuous, and draped in a zippy salsa verde. His brigade at Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans crafts delicate pasta laced with crawfish and spicy segments of jalapeno before delivering a caramel layer cake tall enough to attempt a Triple Lindy. And Prewitt will do it all while convincing you to order another bottle of rosé.
Pêche Seafood Grill
800 Magazine Street / New Orleans, Louisiana
But the thing Prewitt does that is most admirable is get you a tray loaded with crushed ice and bulging from the weight of twelve oysters of various provenances and a stack of saltines. Don’t confuse this simplicity for shirking his chefly duties. “I consider an oyster with a dab of cocktail sauce on a saltine to be as much a completed dish as anything else we serve,” says Prewitt.
The oyster program at Pêche begins with a strong commitment to working with select oystermen who are given stringent criteria. Prewitt wants oysters of a certain size and salinity from specific areas of the Gulf and East Coasts. If you like raw oysters, you want what Prewitt wants. “We don’t manipulate the taste of oysters by cooking, but we do manipulate their taste by sourcing them from various waters,” says Prewitt.
His Louisiana oysters are sourced mainly from Area 3. Area 3 is located nearly due east of New Orleans and far away from the freshwater runoff of the Mississippi River. He also sources Gulf oysters from Dauphin Island, Alabama, and Apalachicola, Florida. The latter on a platter of a recent visit were as long as a dollar bill and needed little more than the rumor of mignonette sauce. Prewitt also sources oysters from Massachusetts, a variety called Puffer’s Petite. These oysters are smaller than its Gulf brethren but salty and able to stand up for themselves, like a baby girl born into a family of all boys.
After the oystermen deliver the oysters to Pêche, the only other person to fuss with them is the shucker. “Our shuckers take great pride in their work. They will throw out any oyster that doesn’t look right, smell right, or feel right,” says Prewitt. The next person to see the oyster is you. This is true oyster farm to table.
New Orleans has a peculiar culinary twist. The culinary lexicon includes many cooked oyster dishes, a trait not generally seen elsewhere. Oysters show up in stews, puffed pastry shells, soups, grills, pizzas, and all matter of fried permutations. This tradition likely developed as an offshoot of abundance, but it is one Prewitt doesn’t fully explore. However, when he gets the itch to fry up a batch of oysters and serve them atop a lagoon of roasted chili aioli and a salad of parsley, red onion, and cucumber, you would do yourself a favor to order it.
Bring Home Chef Prewitt
So now you have a dozen raw oysters in front of you, what are you going to do? I don’t have any set way of eating raw oysters and neither should you. At times, I want the oyster in all its simplistic glory. Other times, I want to make a club sandwich with saltines, cocktail sauce, and lemon. One thing I like to do is let Prewitt select my beverage—be it beer, wine, or a martini. It gives him back some control.