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Networking: Jeff Tunks

Chef, owner Acadiana, DC Coast, TenPenh and Ceiba Washington, D.C. PassionFish, Reston, Va.

By James Wright
September 01, 2010

"Having lived in New Orleans and having so many friends down there [the oil spill is] personal for me."


The Gulf of Mexico oil spill remains a challenge for many New Orleans restaurants, even those that aren't in The Big Easy. Acadiana is a Washington, D.C., hot spot that harnesses the bayou spirit with gumbo, fried green tomato and charbroiled oyster dishes, but it's had to make menu adjustments on the fly with certain items in short supply after the disaster.

It hasn't been easy, but co-owner Chef Jeff Tunks, who also oversees the menus at several other restaurants in and around the nation's capital, kept the ship sailing straight. Sales for Acadiana's top dishes, like barbecued shrimp and jumbo lump crab cakes, haven't slowed at all. Seafood features prominently at Tunks' other restaurants - especially PassionFish, which opened in Reston, Va., in October 2008 - but Acadiana remains a special place for the chef who put The Grill Room at New Orleans' Windsor Court Hotel (a five-star Mobil rating) on the map nearly 15 years ago.

JW: How have the past three 
months or so been for you, as a chef, seafood lover and businessman?

JT: Well, it's been tough. Obviously, having lived in New Orleans and having so many friends down there [the Gulf oil spill is] personal for me. It's been hard on people's livelihoods and a strain on the community. At Acadiana, we were sort of keeping our fingers crossed and didn't react as quickly as we should have. We had some of our highest food costs ever in May, and did not do what we should have, which is retool our menu.

We really try to replicate the New Orleans experience in terms of quality, preparation and portion size. So we had to think, 'Do we lower our portion size? Or do we raise our price point?' We had to rethink things. We did a better job in June and July, how we run our specials and place our menu items. We got feedback from customers, and they want to support the Gulf.

Are guests concerned about the safety of Gulf seafood?

We've been getting a lot of questions about seafood, especially at Acadiana. But consumer confidence is pretty high. I think it's a good sign.

Describe one of your menu challenges.

I have to source my oysters from up the East Coast; it's the same species, different salinity. I can still serve some traditional oyster dishes, like the fried oyster po-boy, and not be as badly affected as a restaurateur in New Orleans. But it is harder to replicate, size wise, with East coast oysters.

I'm paying up to $80 for a gallon for oysters. I put 12 or 13 oysters on a po-boy - they're up to 95 cents apiece - so I'm paying $10 or $11 just for the oysters. At one time that was my price point for the whole sandwich. [Price per gallon] used to be $55. It's a big increase. We can't just serve a basket of fried oysters. We used to promote them at happy hour just to get people in the door, but we had to take them off the menu.

What species are you most worried about?

Oysters. It's a big body of water with a lot of oil in it, and with storm season here you don't know how much has been pushed up into the marshes. I hear it's not a turnaround that will be done in our lifetime. It is heartbreaking. I have close connections with Harlon's LA Fish and the oyster houses that don't shuck anymore. Iconic oyster restaurants have to rethink their future.

Are you confident in 'sniff tests' to detect oil and dispersants?

I want to believe yes; I'm still eating it. I'm going down this weekend [Aug. 7] to get my fix, and am judging at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off. It doesn't seem as advanced as it should be. It's hard to say, but you have to put some trust in it.

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