The Romanian soccer player and the ancient armored amphibian - Chef Philippe presents wild exotic cuisine.
Chef Philippe remembers:
“My first experience with marketing exotic game started in 1985 when I met one of the most characteristic individual in my life. Egon Klein was a true entrepreneur who moved to Louisiana in the mid-seventies to buy alligator skins from trappers to ship for tanning and processing in Italy. Egon was a native of Romania and spent several years of his childhood as a captive of the Nazi concentration camp during World War II. The ID tattoo on his wrist always reminds me of what he endured – I have immense respect for him.
Egon’s business started to decline in the late 70’s because of the animal rights movement that started in Europe; no one wanted to wear furs or skin goods from wild animals. One day during lunch hour Egon came to my restaurant, the “Chez Paris”, with a little ice chest full of alligator meat. He asked me: “Chef, can you create alligator meat recipes so that I can sell the whole alligator instead of just the skin?”
My answer to Egon was simple: Come back tomorrow and I will have a few dishes for you to taste!
Egon was a former professional soccer player for Romania’s national team, and his energy and positive attitude made us the perfect match to launch a campaign for Louisiana alligator meat. After creating dishes such as precooked Smoked Alligator Loin and marinated tail meat for Alligator Beignet, we attended the Boston Seafood Show introducing samples of our new Louisiana wild exotic meat. The next year we attended the Salon International de l’Agroalimentaire (SIAL) in Paris, the largest food innovation observatory in the world, where for the first time Louisiana alligator meat was on an international market as a premier exotic delicacy. With hard work and positive feedback, sales started pouring in.”
Make the jump below, to read a National Geographic article about ‘The Alligator Marsh to Market Program’, an initiative dedicated to ensuring that alligators thrive.
Chef Philippe reveals his battle to bring nutria to the dinner table:
While still in Jackson, Louisiana, I teamed up with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) and launched the challenging campaign to market nutria. Because nutria was eroding the coastline by eating vegetation in the marsh, LDWF approached me to assist with menu and marketing solutions. The bottom line: nutria eradication was needed before severe damage was done.
During the campaign, my friends and great Chefs Daniel Bonnot, Suzanne Spicer and John Besh helped convince a majority of consumers that nutria meat is very high in protein, low in fat and actually healthy to eat. Over the years I have proven that my instinct to create a market for exotic cuisine can be successful, and these chefs appreciated and believed that a difference could be made when we all work together at promoting my trusted idea.
With the help of Mr. Noel Kinler and Edmont Mouton of LDWF, our group cooked nutria stews, nutria soups, roasted nutria, and grilled nutria at many functions. One particular event at Bizou Restaurant on St. Chales Street in New Orleans featured a nutria dinner and a nutria fur coat fashion show where three hundred happy guests arrived to eat nutria prepared by Chefs Spicer, Bonnet and myself.
By this time, several major television networks and National Geographic had picked up on our nutria promotion story. Although the meat was accepted by the majority of consumers – similar to acceptance of escargot – there was resistance from some. The biggest obstacle we had to overcome with getting the meat marketable was the psychological outlook that nutria resembles oversized rats. We put in years of hard work on this project with limited success. We could not get U.S. Department of Agriculture approval to sell the meat for human consumption because herbivores had to be killed in a slaughter house under FDA supervision.
Then one day, out of nowhere, the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee decided to use nutria as practice targets for his officers. Shortly thereafter, local media reported that nutria was seen in New Orleans gutters. Nutria, at this point, was being publicized as a nuisance species. Within days from the headlines, our efforts to sustain a nutria market were shot down.
Though our marketing efforts to commercialize an invasive species yielded unpopular opinion, the fact remains that nutria meat is a healthy food. In hindsight, all our efforts of teaching the public about unusual and different food have had a gradual positive impact.
The introduction of alligator as an edible food along with the efforts with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to resolve the Nutria problem set the stage for Chef Philippe Parola to become a leader in turning invasive species into edible food products. The next big invasive species for Chef Philippe was the the Asian Carp.