The Deep End of Flavor | Tenney Flynn
The Deep End of Flavor
Recipes and Stories from New Orleans’ Premier Seafood Chef
By Tenney Flynn with Susan Puckett
Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Tenney Flynn: My name is Tenney Flynn. I'm the chef of GW Fins fine dining seafood restaurant in New Orleans, where we have just started our 18th year business, and we're going to talk about my cookbook, The Deep End of Flavor.
Suzy Chase: Inspired by vibrant flavors of New Orleans and tropical climates, you have included your favorite techniques for creating fabulous seafood-centered meals in this cookbook. So let's dive in. Get it? Dive in?
Tenney Flynn: Okay. I do like to dive.
Suzy Chase: I know. Yeah, we're definitely going to talk about that. But I'm so happy that you're talking about looking beyond salmon and tilapia. I think it's safe to say we're all slightly sick of salmon and tilapia, right?
Tenney Flynn: Well, I'm not sick of tilapia, because I don't eat it. I don't recognize its existence, but that's easier for me to do in New Orleans. And I think I say something in the book like, "There's always a better choice than tilapia, no matter where you are," either in the frozen or the fresh section. Salmon, I like salmon, and if I lived in the Pacific Northwest I would have nothing but wild salmon, but it's my experience that even if I'm willing to pay the money for these wild varieties, by the time they get east, they're not really worth it. I'm perfectly happy with high-quality, farm-raised Atlantic salmon. We usually buy it from Ireland or Scotland. And I've got recipes... I've got a recipe in the book that's great for that. It's cold-smoked and grilled, and it's made believers out of a lot of people. But 70% of our menu at Fins is out of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico supplies 66% of the edible fin fish varieties in the U.S., which, you know, you can tell it right away if it's 66%, then it's more than the East Coast, the West coast, Alaska, and Hawaii put together. Alaska has more tonnage, but we certainly have more varieties.
Suzy Chase: I don't like fish, but I like your fish.
Tenney Flynn: I was about to say, "You're telling me you don't like fish. I take that as a personal challenge."
Suzy Chase: No, that's a quote that you hear so much.
Tenney Flynn: I do, and I like it. And usually those people come from places where fish isn't readily available. Certainly I grew up with bad fish. It used to come in these oblong boxes. I actually thought fish was oblong. And my mother would thaw it out, and then she would, you know, ruin it one way or another. And it wasn't that good. I defy anyone to not like any number of recipes with just a simple sauteed meunière, which is one of the first recipes in the book. Just a little salt and pepper, dust in flour, saute in a little oil and butter mixture, pour a little brown butter over the top. I mean, there's nothing not to like. I've enjoyed, you know, making believers out of people, and I think people are much more adventurous in trying new species than they were, you know, 20 or 30 years ago.
Suzy Chase: So, you're an avid diver and spearfisher, and you even have a recipe for ceviche lionfish in this cookbook. Describe this.
Tenney Flynn: Well it's a very simple ceviche. I don't like the kind where, you know, it's highly acidic and sort of tastes pickled. So this particular recipe is basically half lime juice, half orange juice, a little shallot, a little salt, a little hot chili. And then I smash the fish out flat. Lionfish is a very tender fish. It's rather neutrally flavored. And then just sort of pour that sauce over it, let it sit for a minute or two, rather than, you know, letting it sit in the acid for long, long periods of time.
We also have a deep-fried lionfish recipe in there that's very, very good. It's a great fish that lends itself to a quick saute and tempura-frying very, very handily. And then sticking them is considered good citizenship. You're supposed to kill everyone you see, and the only way to harvest them so far is recreational divers hand-spearing them.
Suzy Chase: Where can you find them?
Tenney Flynn: They're basically, they're moving up the East Coast. They're good at depths that humans can't go to. They can't take anything much under 50 degrees, so that's going to keep them out of New York, probably. They're very adaptable. They have 14 venomous spines that surround their body. They're beautiful fish. You might've seen them in aquariums. They're aquarium escapees. They're not native to this hemisphere. And they escaped, and they eat everything, and nothing eats them. A couple of months ago, there was a lionfish rodeo in the Florida panhandle. They got 15,000 fish.
Suzy Chase: So your roots are in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Tell me about your father's restaurant.
Tenney Flynn: Well, it's... even the name of my father's restaurant is unusual in 2019, but you have to realize this was the '60s. It was a different world. It was still a segregated society, and it was called The Plantation Restaurant. There were also, in Atlanta at that time, there was Mammy's Shanty, Aunt Fanny's Cabin, Pittypat's Porch. I mean, it was a genre of restaurants. And, you know, having gotten past that, the restaurant itself was this giant, sprawling entity, and we fried enough chicken to fill the Superdome. Part of it was family dining, and then there was another side of it that... It was a dry county, which meant that there was no alcohol sold anywhere there, but you could get a state charter that enabled you to have a private club. You could sell liquor, you know, to the club members. So that was kind of an unusual thing at the time, and that end of the restaurant was more of a chop house kind of menu, slightly more upscale.
But I started working in the kitchen there when I was about nine years old and worked in the kitchen until I was 15. I wanted to go out on the floor and make tips. And then I started working as service bar when I was 16, because nobody could see me.
Suzy Chase: Tell me about GW Fins, where you cook now.
Tenney Flynn: GW Fins is a fine-dining seafood restaurant kind of on a steakhouse frame. We just started our 18th year in the French Quarter. Even at 18 years, we're always going to be the new guy on the block, because we're across the street from Arnaud's, which is 100 years old, and around the corner on the other side of the block from Galatoire's, which I think is about 105 years old. It's a modern restaurant. It's a big space with a big warehouse space.
We have about 220 seats, and since I had spent 10 years in the steakhouse business, it's not real surprising that the kitchen design was kind of modeled after a steakhouse. We don't use heat lamps or plate covers. There's a lot of open space, so all the food has to come up and go out immediately. So we use a timing system, kind of like a steakhouse. And fish is, you know, when it's cooked to point, when it's ready to go, it has to go. We drop first course in five minutes and entrees in 20 minutes, and the cooks are all cooking for that 20 minutes. We typically have 12 to 14 fin fish on the menu. As I mentioned, 70% of those come out of the Gulf of Mexico, and we have a variety of preparations. Very little fried stuff. I deep-fry softshell crabs. I think that's the way to do them. And we have some fried garnishes, but most... it's pretty much divided between sauteed, wood-grilled, broiled.
And the executive chef, Mike Nelson, has been with me for 14 years. He's been executive chef for the last two years. He's a very inventive cat. He's much more creative than I am, and we've evolved some of the simple items over the years. We've done a kitchen remodel. We're able to do some things we couldn't do before. So it's a pretty exciting kitchen, and one of the most exciting things about it is that we print the menu every day about four o'clock. We receive all our fish in the whole state, and we kick them back, and we call up, and, you know, it's... We still reject a lot of fish from people we've been buying from since we've opened, because we look at every fish, and they buy it in vats. Everyone always sends us the best of what they have. We have full-time butchers every day, and Chef Mike has kind of made it his shtick to go nose to tail. One reason is respecting the animal. He's really done some very, very interesting things with using whole whole carcasses.
Suzy Chase: John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, wrote about how you talked trash fish early on. What is trash fish?
Tenney Flynn: Just an under-utilized species that people don't, you know... it's sort of out of their comfort zone, their field of knowledge. We'll buy anything, you know, that we can, by-catch, small amounts of things, and things we've never heard of before. We had conger eel the other day. I'd never tasted conger eel.
Suzy Chase: What's that?
Tenney Flynn: It was just a huge sea eel. The bone structure was challenging, but the meat was really, really good.
Suzy Chase: So when you see something like conger eel that you've never seen before, what does that mean?
Tenney Flynn: Well, it's just the... I mean, the ocean is full of, you know, thousands and thousands of different species, and these are things that are caught... By-catch just means it was caught accidentally. You know, they're targeting one species, and then they caught another. They don't usually want that, because they have to stop and throw it over the side. And long as it's fresh, we'll buy it. We'll see what we can do with it. And that's a lot of fun.
Suzy Chase: Let's talk about conservation. You say think sustainable, buy domestic. As a home cook, what sort of fish should I be buying at the grocery store, and what should I stay away from?
Tenney Flynn: Well, different states have different laws governing country of origin. In general, all the way across the board, the United States has good fishery laws. You know, nobody likes regulations. The commercial fishermen don't like them, the recreational fishermen don't like them, the various green groups don't like them. Nobody is perfectly happy with the regulatory process, but that's why we have a healthy fish population. And I've been diving places that either had no rules or the rules were not enforced, and there's no fish. There's a seafood contest here every year where chefs from coastal... actually 25 or 30 states, so I think there was some freshwater fish involved, too. Anyway, there was a chef from Guam whose dish was parrot fish, and I've dove in Guam, and the only reason anybody eats parrotfish is they've eaten everything else. I was a little bit perturbed at that. Certainly in BVI, in Honduras, they have very lax or easily-circumvented regulations.
Suzy Chase: While I was looking through the cookbook for something to cook, I saw on Page 133 that you have a recipe for frog legs. I just can't understand the appeal. Please explain.
Tenney Flynn: I don't understand what your objection to them is. Do you like... Are they cute little frogs, or are they gross frogs, or why don't you like frogs?
Suzy Chase: I just can't imagine, first of all, that there's any meat on the leg. It just seems like... how many frog legs do you have to eat to get a decent amount of meat for, let's say, an appetizer?
Tenney Flynn: Well, the ones I prefer are pinky finger sized, so I'd give you about six or eight of them, or about three or four pairs. The ones that are thumb and first knuckle or the base of your thumb sized you have to cook a little bit longer. You have to braise them. I think in the book, too, I talk about a particular customer that I cooked frog legs for who also cooked a lot of other much weirder stuff than frog legs, which is... recently passed away, mac Rebennack, Dr. John. He was convinced to the core of his being that the reason why he was alive and kicking was he only ate wild food.
Suzy Chase: Well, he's not alive and kicking anymore, so I don't know.
Tenney Flynn: He was a 77-year-old rock 'n' roll musician that shot heroin for 40 years, so that's like dog years with... for the normal population.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, he had a good run.
Tenney Flynn: And we love our characters in New Orleans, and he certainly was one.
Suzy Chase: On Saturday night, I made your recipe for shrimp sauteed in barbecue butter with goat cheese grits and warm sourdough bread to sop up all the buttery goodness. Describe this dish.
Tenney Flynn: Well, calling it barbecue shrimp is in New Orleans thing. It's not really barbecued, but it's a... And our recipe is a compound butter, which makes it easier to standardize the level of seasoning. So you get domestic shrimp, season them, saute them lightly, deglaze with a little beer, and then mount this compound butter in there to make the creamy sauce, and then dip your bread in, and eat them up. How did you enjoy it?
Suzy Chase: It was amazing. And I don't like grits, I have to admit, but the goat cheese brought it to a whole different level.
Tenney Flynn: Well, I think hominy grits, the long-cook variety, it's a neutral medium, and you can... There's a recipe in the book for a risotto made with the pozole instead of rice, kind of a riff on some stuff that I ate in Oaxaca, and that's the... Dried pozole ground up is grits, and that's the same flavor that's in your corn tortillas, your taco chips. You know, it's a underlying flavor in a tremendous amount of Mexican cuisine.
Suzy Chase: So how was it working with Susan Puckett?
Tenney Flynn: Susan's a hoot. We're both from the South, which New Orleans is not really the South. It's kind of like the northernmost outpost of the islands. It's a whole lot more like Dominican Republic or Haiti than Mississippi or Alabama. Susan is from Mississippi. She's very Southern. She was the food editor of The Atlanta Journal, and we know lots and lots of people in common. And I think Susan is a much better cook than she was when we started. She tested a lot of the recipes, and that's a point, too, that that was a very tedious process. But these are all tested recipes for the home cook. I think if somebody goes to the trouble and expense of buying the cookbook and buying the ingredients for the recipe and if they follow the recipe, you know, it should work. And there's certainly a lot of untested recipes out there that don't work, so hopefully all these do, you know, and they're... you follow the steps, you'll come up with a good result.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment this season called "My Favorite Cookbook." Aside from this cookbook, what is your all-time favorite cookbook and why?
Tenney Flynn: There's a canning, pickling, and preserving cookbook that I use a lot called Putting Food By, which is a reference book that I use a lot. And a lot of books I just like to read for... not so much for recipes but just for, you know, the stories and the... and that's why I enjoy putting stories in our book.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Tenney Flynn: Chef Tenney, T-E-N-N-E-Y, at Facebook and GWFins.com
Suzy Chase: You've shown us that cooking fish can be as easy as frying an egg. Thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Tenney Flynn: Well, thanks so much for having me. I can't wait to listen to myself.
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