Peche Seafood Grill was years in the making, including several globetrotting trips by chef Ryan Prewitt to study traditional live-fire cooking on two continents. Prewitt, a veteran of Donald Link's restaurant group, shares his thoughts on seafood sourcing, cooking and manning a large custom-built grill.
Peche specializes in live fire cooking with a focus on Louisiana and Gulf seafood. How does that hearth in the middle of your kitchen affect the restaurant's dynamic?
Prewitt: The hearth is like a living, breathing thing, and it cooks about three-quarters of the restaurant's food. It doesn't work like an oven or a gas grill, so it involves a more interactive style of cooking. It lends itself toward a different sort of creativity — you're always thinking "I'm getting these vegetables, this fish" and you have to think about how the grill enhances the natural flavors of that fish and other ingredients, and what sauces we can use to complement them. It's not all hot and fast cooking, although there's an element of that. There's also the ability to throw some sweet potatoes right on the coals, or slow-cook eggplant above a low heat part of the grill, or take peppers or chilis and cover them in a perforated pan so that they really soak up a lot of that wood smoke as they cook.
The royal red shrimp are a house specialty, and an ingredient that might be new to local diners. Can you tell us more about them?
P: Royal reds are cold, deep-water shrimp. They swim anywhere between 800 to 1,500 feet down, and there are only a few boats out there that are able to get them. So we work with a company that owns two of those boats. Flavor-wise, you get soft, succulent shrimp meat, and you can even eat the legs and the "spider" (the inside of the head) like you would with a cold-water prawn. They also have a nice, natural salinity — we don't even add any salt when we cook them. They're just grilled and then brushed with a lemon, garlic and black pepper compound butter. Very simple and really delicious.
You also serve a whole grilled fish at Peche. What was the inspiration behind that?
P: After eating so many of them, you come to learn that there's so much more to a fish than just the fillet. It's the equivalent of realizing that there's more to a cow than a tenderloin, and more to a pig than a pork chop. A lot of the inspiration for Peche came from a trip to Uruguay, where they were grilling whole sea bass over live coals. And also San Sebastian, Spain, where they grill tons of whole fish: turbot, mackerels, cod throats, cheeks of various fish, you name it. Deciding to take that to a restaurant concept was something that happened right after we opened, and the reception that people have had to it has been amazing. There's nothing more heartwarming than seeing a whole family sit down and all dig into a whole fish together. It seems like there's always one person at a table who says, "You know what's the best? The cheeks, and the meat behind the head." But it's not a new concept; it's a very common thing in so many cultures, though maybe not as much in New Orleans. And to give people another way of looking at the fish is very gratifying. — Scott Gold