New Orleans chefs share crawfish boil traditions


Taylor Pittman

Cooks at NOLA Crawfish King Seafood and Barbecue pick through fresh crawfish. Chris “Shaggy” Davis, owner and chef at NOLA Crawfish King Seafood and Barbeque, held his first crawfish boil after moving to New Orleans in 1991.

Jariah Johnson, Digital Team

For many Louisianans, the smell of crawfish in the pot brings up memories of good times, loved ones, and original recipes.
New Orleans area crawfish chefs are no exception as many local cooks prepare their boils with decades of life experience in mind, ensuring that the mudbugs they serve are unique to their kitchens.
Chris “Shaggy” Davis, owner and chef at NOLA Crawfish King Seafood and Barbeque, held his first crawfish boil after moving to New Orleans in 1991. After seeing how the boils brought together his friends and family, Davis decided to make crawfish his life’s work.
“The greatest thing about crawfish boils is that it brings people together,” Davis said. “I did 17 consecutive crawfish boils until someone asked me to do one at their house, which kickstarted NOLA Crawfish King.”
30 years later, Davis has served his crawfish at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, the New Orleans Crawfish festival and the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo in addition to his Gentilly restaurant. Davis said he owes his success to great people and great ingredients.
For James Clesi, owner of Clesi’s Seafood Restaurant and Catering, serving great crawfish is as much about community and connection as it is about citrus and spice.
“People come to eat my crawfish because of the interactive aspect from our outside kitchen,” Clesi said “People can watch us wash and boil the live crawfish, creating a sense of them being in their backyard.
Clesi grew up in New Orleans in a home not far from a Mardi Gras parade route. He said that he remembers catching the vegetables parade riders would throw out and adding them into his family’s crawfish boil. Clesi said those experiences inspired the way he serves crawfish today.
Evan Troxell, owner of Gulf Coast Crawfish Co., grew up in Florida but said he understands the significance of a Louisiana crawfish boil. His grandfather would invite people over for fish fries, and seeing the way that seafood brought his community together then inspires him to this day.
“The communal aspect I have learned through my family gatherings have made my customers come through and enjoy my crawfish,” said Troxell.
Sam Irwin, author of the book “Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean,” has spent years tracing the history of Louisiana’s crawfish traditions. Irwin said that crawfish traditions have always been linked with family celebrations.
“As a child, traditions are made significant because gathering and going to our family’s houses for crawfish boils for certain holidays creates fond memories,” Irwin said. “Then for the youth to be the ones doing the crawfish boils once the older generation gets too old, shows that crawfish boils are an age-old tradition passed from father to son.”
For the chefs who’ve built their lives around boiling crawfish, crawfish season is a time for people to come together, bust out old traditions and start new ones. Davis even said that his signature crawfish recipe is incomplete without a supportive community to share it with.
“Crawfish that I serve is great only because of good people, good crawfish, lots of citrus and spice, and everything nice,” Davis said.