James Clesi boiled crawfish at Mid-City bars for two years before he set up Clesi's Crawfish & Catering (4413 Banks St., 504-909-0108) next to Banks Street Bar & Grill, and he also serves fried catfish, jambalaya and bar snacks. On most evenings during crawfish season, Clesi boils 500 pounds of crawfish outside of his restaurant. He spoke with Gambit about boiling crawfish and his restaurant plans.
How did you get started cooking, and why crawfish?
Clesi: I love boiled seafood; it's one of my favorite foods if not my favorite food. I worked for years for a catering company in Thibodaux and that was their specialty. It was pretty much the main job I had throughout my college years. It turned out I love boiling crawfish. It's natural; it feels good; it's easy, and I don't have to think too much. I like being outside and talking to people.
I've been trying to open up my own place for a couple of years, but in the meantime I started out just bouncing around from different bars in the area, just trying to hit them up on their busy nights. I was basically doing a pop-up out of my Suburban. I'd take a trailer, a couple of ice chests and some grills. I couldn't find a place to call a home, so I said, "I'll just make my home the sidewalk." I was getting more and more gigs and then (the former Mid-City Pizza spot) became available and I jumped on it.
I'm as traditional as you can get. As far as the side items go, I just do traditional corn, sausage and potato. People holler for the garlic and they holler for the Brussels sprouts and they holler for the mushrooms. You can throw a million different things in a crawfish boil, but for me? Crawfish, spices, water, lemons, corn, sausage, potatoes. Done.
I do hit the potatoes and corn with some garlic butter. People really like it when it's slathered in that butter, which I affectionately call "jungle butter." I put it on afterwards, when it's all hot out of the pot.
What's the most common mistake people make when boiling crawfish at home?
C: They over-boil it. You don't have to boil them for a long time. When I do mine, I get the water boiling; I drop the crawfish in and as soon as the water gets back up to a boil again, I cut off the fire. You can definitely mess up a batch if you over-boil them: they won't come out of the shell as well; they're really difficult to peel.
So what are you doing now that crawfish season has come to an end?
C: I'm boiling blue crab every Thursday night for now, but it will probably pick up soon and I'll start boiling more. I'm going to do shrimp too. You can get shrimp all the time and you can also get crab all year long. Come fall, I'll do oysters. I'm going to grill them and serve them raw.
With the crabs, I cook them just like the crawfish, but I may let them boil just a minute or two longer. It's a little more work, and it's a little tedious. But I find there are some people who are just crab diehards: You're sitting down; you're with your friends; you're taking your time and picking crabs. It's more of a process. ... It's like playing cards: You're just spending time with your people.