Tommy Cvitanovich with "the best single bite of food in New Orleans"
Yesterday I ran an interview with Daniel Notkin
, oyster marketer and conservationist from Montreal, whom I met at Shaw's
Oysterfest last week. Today, from the other end of North America's oyster habitats, I speak with Tommy Cvitanovich, who runs Drago's Seafood, a New Orleans restaurant with three locations (the original is in Metairie; there's also one in the Central Business District and one in Jackson, Mississippi). Drago's, named for Cvitanovich's father who started it in 1969, is most famous for a dish Tommy himself invented in 1993: the charbroiled oyster. Grilled oysters are a common (and wonderful) thing in New Orleans—I recommend them highly at Felix's in the French Quarter—but Tommy had the idea of basically putting on them what an Italian restaurant would put onto garlic bread. The combination of smoke, parmesan and romano cheese, butter, garlic, and herbs, all on an oyster poached in its own briny liquor, does pretty much live up to the restaurant's promise that it's "the best single bite of food in New Orleans." The dish put a fading family business on the New Orleans culinary map and led Cvitanovich to becoming one of the city's most prominent restaurateurs; he currently serves on the board of the National Restaurant Association.
As the fire built up to oyster-broiling temperatures, we talked about oysters, New Orleans, and the place of Croatians (he's second generation) in the Gulf seafood scene. (In case you're wondering, he pronounces it Sitanovich, but acknowledges that in Croatia, it would properly start with a "svi" sound, like Svengoolie.)
Michael Gebert: So your dad started the restaurant?
Tommy Cvitanovich: Actually my aunt and uncle had a restaurant in Lakeview, which is a part of New Orleans, Drago's on Harrison. They were Drago and Gloria, Gloria was my dad's sister and Drago is also my dad's name—it was two brothers-in-law who happened to have the same name. My dad was a bartender and oyster shucker there, and as a little boy—eight, nine years old—I was a busboy there, in everybody's way, and I grew up in the industry as a restaurant brat. Fell in love with the business at a superearly age, and today I still love what I do.
My aunt and uncle closed that restaurant, and about three years later we opened up our restaurant in another part of town. We started growing it and growing it, and it did really well. But in the mid-90s, business got really tough in New Orleans. The oil bust kind of hurt the city a lot, it hurt our restaurant a lot. In the mid-90s we were talking about closing our restaurant. My mom said, nope, we're going to give this one more try.
We brought in a manager who helped us organize the restaurant, and we started selling lobsters as a loss leader for $9.95, with a salad and potato. That took off, and then we started selling charbroiled oysters, and today we have the highest-grossing restaurant in the state of Louisiana, which says a lot when you consider that we're in New Orleans, which is all about food, which is famous for restaurants—Antoine's, Galatoire's, K-Paul's, all these restaurants. We're very proud of what our family has accomplished.
When did you first shuck an oyster?
Oh, I couldn't tell you. I was young; early teens at least.
You liked them at that age?
Not . . . really. I love oysters now, but early on I would eat them cooked, not raw. Now, I eat—I'll eat anything you put in front of me, whether it's raw or cooked. Even the craziest game—this past year I ate some horse sausage when I was up in Canada.
The neat thing about oysters is, there is no better broth than oyster water when you're cooking them. When you're cooking anything. That natural flavor is so intense and it just adds to the flavor of whatever you cook with an oyster in it.
I think in Chicago though, people overwhelmingly prefer oysters being served raw, as untampered-with as possible—
There's a lot to be said for eating a raw oyster, I'm not going to argue with that. But there's a lot of conversation you could have about having cooked oysters as well, whether they're fried on a po'boy, whether they're sauteed in a sauce with tasso and cream and served on pasta, or charbroiled like we've been doing it now for 25 years. We do four million oysters a year that way in our three restaurants.
You must be doing something right, then. Where do your oysters come from?
Well, Louisiana, the Delta of the Mississippi. What makes that area unique is the constant mixing of the fresh water and the salt water. And that happens on a daily basis—it's not uncommon for us to have fresh water coming in in the morning and salt water coming in in the afternoon when the tides change. That's what we call brackish water, and that constant mixing, what's happening now is that oyster is grabbing the nutrients from the fresh water, and it's grabbing the nutrients from the salt water. That combination of nutrients is what makes our oysters tender and fat and full of the flavor. Unlike a predominantly salt water oyster like the Bluepoint, which is good in itself, but a much skinnier, much brinier oyster, with a shell that's a lot more brittle—our shells are thicker, more cupped, a lot more oyster water in the shell.
How far around your area do you pull oysters from?
Most of our oysters come from within an hour of our restaurant, by truck. Sometimes we have to go to the west coast of Louisiana, but that's rare. Most of them come from St. Bernard, Plaquemines Parish—the toe of the boot of Louisiana.
I saw that you're Croatian. When did Croatians come to New Orleans?
Both of my mom and dad were raised in Croatia. The whole oyster industry in Louisiana is dominated by Croatians. Most of the fishermen, all the oyster boats, the top oyster bars were all Croatian. Other people have come in since then, the Vietnamese and so on, but twenty years ago it was all Croatian on the restaurant side—I mean, Ruth's Chris Steak House, that was originally owned by Chris Matulich, a Croatian.
My grandfather came here and then left—Croatians came in the 1800s, and they would come staggered through the years; there wasn't a set time like after a war. In my dad's case, he escaped from Communism out of Yugoslavia. He actually got caught the first time, spent time in jail, got out the second time, went to Germany and joined the U.S. Army as a civilian employee. He applied for entry into the United States, and it took him almost ten years to get his papers to come in. He moved from Germany to Canada—my brother and I were born in Vancouver—and we moved here in the mid-60s, and New Orleans has been our home ever since.
So I have to ask the inevitable Katrina question. You were shut down for a while, I assume?
We were closed for about six weeks. We were one of the first to open after Katrina. After Katrina our family gave away 80,000 meals at our restaurant and at another spot in Lakeview. We did that for eight weeks, we had a lot of help from our vendors. The guy who invented the turducken gave us a bunch of his frozen meat, instead of throwing it away he got it to me, I got it to Sysco because they had their freezers running on generators, so we had a lot of that meat and cooked it and served it to people.
A lot of it was soup-line quality, where you scoop and go, but you know, at that point it was a hot meal. And one of the neat things, especially in the Lakeview area was, we were doing it in front of a church. We'd serve three, four thousand meals some days, and the neighbors would be seeing each other for the first time. Everybody scattered when the storm came, to all different cities, and when they finally got back in, they'd hear Drago's was serving lunch. And then you'd happen to see one of your neighbors, or somebody your kids go to school with, and you'd talk: How many feet of water did you get? Where did you evacuate to? That magic that happens in a small town, we had there in our neighborhoods.