Interview with New Orleans Rising Star Community Chef Justin LeBlanc of Bevi Seafood Co.

by Caroline Hatchett
February 2016

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start in the industry?
Justin LeBlanc:
I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 17, but growing up around here, you have no choice but to be surrounded by food. There’s no other place where you’re eating lunch and talking about dinner. When you’re 18, it was fun to work late, party late. That’s why you see more guys like me to go into fast casual concepts to have a life and be involved in the food scene. 

CH: Who's your mentor?
JL:
I worked for Tom [Wolfe] for the longest, so I’d probably say him. But my experiences have been learning along the way what to do and what not to do and never forgetting that this is a business. If you can’t make a business out of it, then it’s hard to make a living. 

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
JL:
We try to do local festivals. We did an “eat local” challenge, and we didn’t have to change anything. I mean, we’re already at 94 percent local, except for maybe the romaine lettuce. We just are very engaged with the farmers and fisherman. 

CH: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JL:
It’s the bane of my existence to get the seafood that’s up to my standards. It gets frustrating to inspect and turn product away. It takes a lot of trust; I mean, I’ve boiled like 50 pounds of crabs and they have no meat. Same with crawfish. We have about 1,000 pounds of dead loss a year. 

CH: Where do you source your crawfish—are there particular farms or families? 
JL:
Guys who own ponds own the land and farm it themselves. They are direct suppliers, but most people have distributors. People buy all their crawfish and drive to different cities. We have the guys who buy the whole stock. 

CH: What's the main difference between farmed and wild?
JL:
Wild is a little better. You can get them from Bell River, with lots of water, clean water. They have a non-muddy, super clean flavor. Last year, you didn’t see a wild crawfish until March or April. It has to do with the rain up north coming down the Mississippi. 

CH: Tell me about your business model. 
JL:
 The culture is changing; my wife doesn't cook. My grandma would buy shrimp, bag ‘em, peel ‘em. What we do here is the future of seafood markets, with a sustainable business model. We have to have another venue to have product and make money. To sustain a business you have to do good food service. It’s the only way to keep product fresh throughout the week.

CH: How did you build the network of fishermen that you source from? 
JL:
SI have the same wholesale restaurant connections I've always had. They go through more product than anyone. I've known them forever. As opposed to keeping seven types of fish here, I have a call list. I ask what do you have this week and how much. 24 hours to order, and they'll have it for you tomorrow. They're getting day-caught product I know we'll go through. I have no interest in buying something I don't know you [the customer] are going to buy. I'm not trying to get rid of something. It's not the goal—not to get rid of a product. The goal is that it's a purveyor product. I’m not interested in making a dollar on a half rotted piece of fish. You can't pay monthly light bill with what we process in fish. 

CH: Do you have a sustainability philosophy? 
JL:
 In the traditional sense of sustainability, we have certain things in place on the Gulf. There are hardcore wildlife and fisheries departments on top of their game. We don’t overfish. For me, it's way bigger. We're trying to sustain a culture here that could, in theory, go away. Butcher shops have gone away. We could lose that part of our culture if people go to the grocery store instead of the seafood and crawfish market. What we do is unique and important for our little city. Grocery stores bastardize the city. There are some things that should stay the way they are. 

CH: What's your five-year plan?
JL:
We just opened up a huge new shop, so I can’t think about anything else, but we might open in Baton Rouge later down the line. But it would only be in this region because of the seafood we use.