Chefs find relief after U.S. Gulf oil leak stops

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - U.S. chefs breathed a collective sigh of relief after BP stopped its massive oil leak in the seafood-rich U.S. Gulf a month ago, but they must still deal with tight supply and high prices in the coming months.

An employee of C.F. Gollott & Son Seafood holds up a white shrimp for deheading and processing in D'Iberville, Mississippi June 3, 2010. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

Prices of nearly all fish have been falling. In a few cases prices have dropped by as much as 50 percent from their peaks shortly after the spill erupted nearly four months ago.

The start of the white shrimp season in Louisiana this week should inject a wave of much needed supply to restaurants that serve gumbos and other seafood dishes, according to some chefs.

“Things are getting a bit better every day,” said John Currence, who owns four restaurants in Oxford, Mississippi.

Seafood costs are dropping gradually but they are still running well above average seasonal levels as demand for prized items such as Gulf oysters has outstripped supply.

The Gulf of Mexico produces about 70 percent of the shrimp and oysters caught in the United States.

“We still have a hard time keeping oysters on hand,” said John Besh, who owns six restaurants in New Orleans.

Appetite for crab cakes and oyster “po-boys”, or sandwiches, has not abated even though some customers had questioned the safety and origin of the crabs and oysters.

In a bid to curb consumer worries, the White House and fishing industry have waged a campaign with the message that the region’s seafood is safe.

“The customers have not pulled back and changed the way they are ordering,” said Jeff Tunks, who owns Acadiana, a New Orleans-inspired eatery, in Washington.

Given the ongoing shutdown of major fishing areas, restaurants could no longer absorb the higher costs. They have raised their prices on certain seafood offerings. A few have even resorted to removing them from their menus.

Tunks raised the price on half a dozen of charbroiled oysters to $16 from $11 after the spill. At one point, shucked oysters had shot up to $80 a gallon, equivalent to $1 an oyster, he said.

“That’s pretty expensive. We increased the prices for that. May was our highest food cost ever,” Tunks explained.

Prices for Gulf oysters, while lower than their highs earlier this summer, could surge again, because it is unclear whether the oil spill has damaged the wetlands where oysters reproduce.

“We have been blessed that this has not encroached any further into the wetlands any more than it has. We still don’t know the long-term ramification of all of this,” Besh said.

In the meantime, chefs are trying to stay positive.

“All we can do is to live day to day and hope everything will end,” Currence said.

Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Patricia Reaney