In New York City, you can handily find Southern fried chicken and BBQ. But one thing that’s hard to come by is a proper crawfish boil.
The communal meal of crawfish — or mudbugs — is a common occurrence around this time of year in the South, once it starts to get warm but not too hot. In New York? The season comes and goes without much fanfare.
Isaac Toups is looking to change that. The James Beard-nominated chef behind the New Orleans restaurants Toups South and Toups Meatery is collaborating with Birds & Bubbles owner Sarah Simmons for an authentic crawfish boil on Feb. 28, for the start of Mardi Gras.
“You guys don’t get a lot of things like that up there,” said Toups, whom “Top Chef” fans may recognize as the fan favorite from season 13. “I wanted to bring that Cajun flair and love up to New York. I love y’all.”
Toups, who met Simmons during her City Grit pop-up days, knows a thing or two about crawfish boils. The native of Rayne, Louisiana, remembers them as far back as, well, his memory goes.
“When I was young, you’d play in the backyard, and they’d pop up,” he said. “You could catch live crawfish, bring a bucket and boil them. We call them mudbugs for a reason — they look like bugs out of the damn mud.”
For the dinner, Toups is bringing up his sous chef and preparing a Cajun feast for New Yorkers. It’ll be as authentic as possible — though unlike the crawfish boils Toups prepares back in Louisiana, this will be the first time he’s cooking them indoors.
“I really want to show the love and social environment that a crawfish boil brings,” Toups said. “You get your hands dirty, you drink beer. You’re literally tearing apart these animals with your hands. It’s a good time.”
If you’ve never been to a crawfish boil before, here’s what to expect:
How it’s prepared
Everyone boils crawfish, “but at the same time, every Cajun I know boils them a little differently,” Toups said. “Some boil theirs in plain salt water, some in seasoned water and then seasons them afterward. You could talk to 100 Cajuns, and you will get 100 different ways. They will all be similar, but slightly different.”
As for Toups? He boils them in seasoned water and then steams them in an ice chest for about 20 minutes with a lemon seasoning and more of the original seasoning.
That seasoning contains celery salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper, white pepper, sugar (to balance out all that pepper), lemon juice and a white wine vinegar mixture. He also adds onions, garlic and bay leaves to the water.
The water is more seasoned than you’d normally use because the crawfish aren’t in the pot for very long — maybe 5 minutes.
As for how long he boils them for, chalk it up to intuition.
“I have no idea — I don’t time them,” Toups said. “I have an internal timer that goes off. After 20 years of cooking, you develop a sense of when things are done.”
How to eat crawfish
Here’s how to properly eat a crawfish, per Toups: You pick up a hot crawfish, tear the tail off, give the head a squeeze and suck the juices out then discard it, and eat the tail meat with your hands.
“It’s archaic, but at the same time awfully romantic,” Toups said.
And don’t think you can get out of the hands-on work — you have to peel your own crawfish, “unless you’re a wee baby,” Toups said.
The chef does warn diners to be careful to wash their hands well after handling all that spicy seasoning. “When you go to the bathroom, don’t touch anything important,” he said.
Toups plans to bring 150-200 pounds of crawfish sourced from south Louisiana for the Birds & Bubbles dinner and expects people to eat about three pounds each.
“You don’t want to buy too much, but you definitely don’t want to have too little,” he said. “If you have too much, you can eat them cold later. They’re really good like that.”
A typical crawfish boil will feature potatoes, corn, onion and sausage boiled in the same seasoning as the crawfish. Toups has been prone to throw in artichokes, Brussels sprouts and mushrooms, too.
For the potatoes, Toups' advice is to “take the potato, crack it open, smear butter on it and some seasonings, it’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s like making mashed potatoes in your mouth.”
For the Birds & Bubbles crawfish boil, Simmons will be preparing the sides, as well as serving Champagne.
“Champagne, you wouldn’t think about it, is great with a crawfish boil,” Toups said. “I’d go for beer first, but Champagne is always welcome at a crawfish boil — cool, refreshing bubbles.”
What to wear
With all that seasoning and hands-on eating, Toups’ advice to anyone attending a crawfish boil is to not wear a good shirt.
“You bring a shirt that you don’t like anymore,” Toups said. “You’re gonna get some on your shirt, just get it over with.”
You could wear a bib, like when eating lobster, “but we’d make fun of you,” Toups joked.
The chef did say they’d likely provide gloves at the Birds & Bubbles dinner, though “I’d suggest against them,” he said. “You’re not going to get the real feeling.”