The Young Processing Heir: An Interview
April 6, 2017 | COMMENTS | TAGS: | SHARE:

Tommy's Seafood, Processors of Bayou Blues crab, Gulf Atlantic Wild American Shrimp, and their own oysters

In a previous post, I pulled back the curtain on the Wizards of Shrimp—the processors, those shadowy figures whose alchemy keeps fresh seafood fresh and available to the most landlocked of locales.

I got on the horn with a friend of mine who’s a wiz in the biz and elbow-deep in shrimp, its history and politics.

Chalin (pronounced SHA-lin) Delaune is the VP of Tommy’s Seafood, a company started by his dad back in the early 80s. Chalin’s young to be a VP, but he knows his stuff. I met him a couple years ago at a meeting of the Shrimp Task Force (yes, that is absolutely a thing), where he stood out because of his age and confidence. He was nice enough to paint me a picture of his work as a processor.

Julianna: The average person usually associates shrimp with salty fishermen, nets, and boats motoring off into a pretty sunset, but they aren’t familiar with processing. In twenty words or fewer, how would you describe what you do?

Chalin Delaune: [long pause] Taking a god-made, nature-fed product and fulfilling its destiny—which is to be eaten. Is that twenty words? How did I do?

JM: That was very poetic—I’m impressed! So what were you doing before you got into the seafood industry?

CD: I was the GM of my family’s seafood restaurant, which was called Tommy’s Fish House. It was a southern-style place, lots of seafood of course. I was 18 years old, and worked there while I was going to LSU; Tuesday and Thursday I was in school, and then every other day I was at work. But Monday was cleaning, inventory day, ordering, so really it was work of some kind seven days a week.

JM: When you were a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up?

CD: I wanted to be a seafood guru, just like my dad.

JM: A lot of processors have been in the business for three or more generations. Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to having a long history with the industry?

CD: Historical knowledge is a huge aspect of the business. The perspective I got growing up in the industry, paying attention to the change of the seasons, what’s going on in nature– especially if you’re going to be selling shrimp, which isn’t like selling shoes—you have to understand seasonality. That takes a while to learn.

JM: Like we talked about before, a lot of people aren’t familiar with processing. What’s something you’d want people to understand about it, if you could magically implant knowledge in their heads?

CD: What we do is no different than what a chef does in the kitchen. You have to have the right techniques. Processing is an art. Preserving flavor, texture, and integrity of the product, keeping it all intact, it’s truly an art. I’d want people to remember that quality starts at the source, and it’s a processor’s job to start with the best possible quality, and finish with the best possible quality.

JM: What’s the most expensive piece of equipment in your plant, and what does it do?

CD: Our cryogen tunnel, which all in cost about half a million dollars. It freezes fresh product at ninety degrees below zero. It’s the main method of processing that we use for our products.

JM: Does that have to do with IQF? We get a lot of questions about IQF and what it means.

CD: It stands for Individually Quick Frozen. It’s when shrimp or really any type of seafood is frozen individually, very quickly, all the way through. It could be frozen with salt water, frozen with CO2, nitrogen or ammonia, and it helps preserve the product in its best possible form. We IQF with our cryo tunnel. If you get a high-quality one or two-pound bag of shrimp at the grocery store, it’s probably IQF.

JM: How have you seen the landscape of the domestic fishing and processing industry change in the past twenty years?

CD: I see a lot more competition in the market, and especially competition with importers and foreign shrimp. Profit margins are decreasing and I see us having to work harder to generate the same amount of profit. It’s become more challenging. At the same time, it’s been more rewarding because you have to rise to that challenge. If you’re not up to it, then you’re in the wrong business.

JM: What’s a really good day at work look like?

CD: Being able to have some free time. We like to boil some shrimp for our workers. I like showing them that we appreciate them, and cooking for them reminds them that we’re family. My dad and I still love to cook and he still cooks lunch basically every day for us. It’s his thing now that he’s semi-retired. A good day is also when my dad makes Shrimp Creole. I always look forward to that.

JM: Most industry people I talk to say they could never get sick of shrimp—are you part of that group, or would you rather eat bugs than one more crustacean?

CD: I like to switch it up by making sure that I’m not eating the same species of shrimp. One day I might eat browns, the next day whites, then pink, then make my way over to royal reds. Variety is the spice of life and each kind of shrimp has a unique flavor. Sometimes I cook the dishes with different shrimp to emphasize the flavors. And fried shrimp is best of all. If it’s fried, I’m eating it.

JM: So frying is your favorite way to prepare shrimp?

CD: That’s my favorite way to eat it, not prepare it. I like blackened shrimp because it’s extremely flavorful and it fools me into thinking I’m eating healthy.

JM: If you weren’t in the seafood industry, where would you be?

CD: I would be a politician, probably. Being in seafood is a service, providing food is a service, and it brings people together. The millions of pounds of seafood my company processes every year translates into millions of mouths that I’m feeding. If I can provide people with quality product, then I feel like I’m doing my duty to the public. I’d take that same idea and apply it to being a politician.

JM: Would you rather fight one hundred shrimp-sized sharks, or one shark-sized shrimp?

CD: It depends on the size of the shrimp shark. Are they tiny?

JM: They’re Gulf-sized. They’re like 16/20 shrimp sharks. The shark-sized shrimp is bull shark size.

CD: OK then, shrimp-sized sharks. I’d be too worried the giant shrimp would eat me.

JM: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. I know how busy you are.

CD: Great to finally connect. I’ll see you in Boston*.

*Chalin and I will both be attending Seafood Expo North America, which is being held in Boston, MA, March 17th-21st. I’ll be live tweeting!

Time to send this post through the cryo tunnel and deliver it at its peak freshness to all those hungry eyeballs. Stay tuned for next time, where I’ll do a deep dive of fishing around the globe.