Tipping the Scales

by Matthew Holland

Chef Jeremy Conner arranges bamboo-skewered red fish over a fire at Runaway Boucherie.
Photo by Matthew Holland

Chef Jeremy Conner’s latest venture, Humble Fish, takes farm-to-table to new depths.

Imagine you’re at an epic boucherie, surrounded by the sizzling aroma of freshly slaughtered pork being transformed into numerous sensory delights. Smoke billows from the chimneys of barbecue pits piled with ribs and sausage. Boudin is stuffed into casings as cracklins simmer and hiss in their cast-iron cauldrons. Amid the chaos and commotion of this porcine bacchanal there is a peculiar sight. A fire is circled by bamboo stalks upon which is skewered an improbable ingredient: fish.

The man cooking these fish, tending to them in the patient and systematic way he approaches most things, is Jeremy Conner, the former executive chef of Village Café (now De Gaulle Square Bistro & Bar) who left that gig to pursue his own dining concept, Humble Fish.

The mid-November event is Runaway Boucherie, a three-day festival of food orchestrated by the Lafayette pop-up-dinner-for-charity organization, Runaway Dish, and featuring chefs from across the country and the Acadiana region. The boucherie is a momentous weekend, especially for Conner, who was married in a surprise wedding ceremony on the second day. But while the previous day’s nuptials might explain the fixed grin on Conner’s face, the prospect of cooking with all these excellent chefs is what explains his presence.

Collaboration with others is critical to Conner, who relishes experiences like Runaway Boucherie for the inspiration they bring to his cooking. “The concentration of new ideas and diversity doesn’t happen anywhere but that place,” he says. “It wasn’t like that in Pensacola, and it wasn’t that way in Lafayette until recently.”

But it is clear he is most inspired by the emergence of the local food movement. He considers Humble Fish to be a farm-to-table concept, a term Conner does not consider to be a food trend, but rather the next step for restaurants. “Farm-to-table is basically like a big ‘Duh’ moment for the whole industry. [Before it] we were really heading for a grayscale notion of American cuisine,” in which food sources were limited to a few companies shipping standardized ingredients, from farms thousands of miles away. Humble Fish is Conner’s way of showing people that excellent food can be made with ingredients from their own backyard. “What I really wanted to do was to create a dining environment where we could do the leg work to find the unrecognized abundance, the surprisingly wild edibles, and bring those to the table in a way where that becomes the aesthetic. Where you can say, wow, I didn’t know that all these foods that were abundant and plentiful right under my nose could be made into such an elegant dining experience.”

When Conner talks about food and cooking he touches on many topics, from the effects of nutrient density on flavor, and the de-commoditization of industrial food, to the influence of culinary styles like molecular gastronomy or New Nordic cuisine. But it is clear the central concern in his work is the local community and its food producers. “Some farmers understand that they are part of a community and they genuinely want to raise good food for that community,” he says.

Photo by Matthew Holland

For Conner, finding those producers who go the extra mile and introducing them to his diners is what it’s all about. “I never start writing a menu with ingredients in mind; I always start with, ‘I know this guy and I know how he makes his product,’ and there’s a story, and that story becomes a plate of food.

“In between each and every course I’m in the dining room saying, ‘this is where it’s from, this is the guy where we get our oysters, this is how they’re farmed and why they taste this way.’” This is something you don’t see a lot of chefs doing.

Sure, Conner isn’t the first to source local ingredients, but usually the farms’ names just appear somewhere on the menu, occasionally when their products aren’t even being used. To be out there, educating people about their meal and where it came from, revealing the intricate network of people it takes to get great food onto a table requires commitment.

Currently it is only a part-time commitment for Conner. Humble Fish is still in the fledgling pop-up restaurant stage, though he is looking to turn it into a brick-andmortar establishment soon. In the meantime, he is focusing on his Gulf Coast salt producing business Cellar Salt Co., and on an upcoming dinner at the James Beard House on Dec. 12. But the principles behind Humble Fish inform everything he does, even at the boucherie.

“A boucherie is a fantastic way of making the connection back to the beginning of the food cycle — to remind yourself in a very visual way that if you want some meat, an animal has to die,” Conner says. “That’s not an evil thing; it’s just a fact. It drives home that if we are going to raise animals for meat, we as consumers ought to decide that those animals should be raised humanely, with respect, and you absolutely end up with better food as a result of that decision.”

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Photo by Matthew Holland