Susan Spicer did not intend to be the face of the restaurant rebellion against BP over its role in the Gulf oil spill. But that’s what can happen when you file a lawsuit.
Ms. Spicer, long a respected New Orleans chef, spent most of Monday huddled with her lawyers, trying to map out a strategy after word got out that she was suing BP and several other companies on behalf of Gulf restaurant owners and seafood suppliers.
“I just hope that my motivations will not be misinterpreted,” she said from her restaurant Bayona in her first interview since the suit was filed Friday. “It’s more about solidarity in this region than about getting my piece of the pie. I can’t say I expect to see a dollar out of this thing. I am just angry.”
Ms. Spicer’s attorney, Serena Pollack, filed the suit in New Orleans federal court late Friday asking that the court grant class-action status for restaurants and seafood sellers who have suffered in the wake of the April 20 drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
The lawyers are arguing that Ms. Spicer and other chefs in Louisiana and the region have built a reputation and a business using fresh, local seafood that is specific to the Gulf of Mexico. Since the oil rig accident, that seafood has either become unavailable or significantly more expensive.
In addition, customers are and will continue to be unwilling to pay higher prices or won’t want to eat what is available for fear of contamination from petroleum or the chemicals used to manage the spill, the suit said.
Ms. Spicer decided to step forward not because her restaurant is about to go under but because other businesses are.
“I really do believe there are people that are certainly more in need than Bayona will be,” she said, adding that there is plenty of good seafood coming from Lake Pontchartrain and unaffected parts of the shoreline.
But some places are being hit harder than others, she said.
“We are already seeing casualties right and left, human casualities, business casualties, cultural casualties,” she said.
Ms. Spicer, whose company is the lead plaintiff, opened Bayona in 1990 and quickly established herself as a chef who respected the New Orleans culinary canon but was not going to be held hostage by it. At Bayona, she offers global food and serves ahi tuna and Pacific salmon. But her longtime signature dish is grilled Gulf shrimp and black bean cake, and she usually serves Gulf oysters, often stuffed with Italian sausage, spinach and fennel. Her recent cookbook, Crescent City Cooking, has dozens of recipes based on Gulf seafood.
Earlier this month she opened Mondo, a casual, pan-cultural restaurant that is as likely to serve plantains as beignets. She has also recently gained some popular cultural currency, both as a Top Chef judge and as the inspiration for the chef in the HBO series Treme who struggles to hold onto her restaurant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Ms. Spicer is a culinary consultant for the show.
Ms. Spicer said she was taken aback by the attention the suit is getting, particularly from bloggers and journalists who have argued that she doesn’t serve that much local seafood or that she is in it for the money.
“I was a little blindsided by all of this,” she said. “But I think it needs to be done and I hope more people will join.”
It’s not clear how wide-ranging support for the suit will be. Frank Brigtsen, who runs two restaurants, would not comment on the suit. Emeril Lagasse said he was not joining at this time.
“We are continuing to closely monitor the situation and the oil leak’s impact on Emeril’s restaurant business,” Jeff Hinson, Mr. Lagasse’s public relations manager, wrote in an e-mail message to the Times.
But the movement was getting some support from smaller businesses. Franky and Johnny’s, a neighborhood po’ boy and seafood restaurant, has signed on. And JoAnn Clevenger, who for nearly 30 years has run the Upperline Restaurant, plans to jump in, too.
She wasn’t surprised larger restaurants weren’t.
“Susan is an entrepreneurial chef. She is not big business like Emeril. For her and for other owner-operated businesses, what else are we going to do?” she said.
After Hurricane Katrina, small business owners felt like they could pick up the pieces, rebuild and pitch in to help others. That’s not the case with the oil spill.
“That can-do spirit has been quashed,” she said. “But what Susan is doing can give us that spirit back.”
The suit is designed to include restaurant owners and retailers of seafood that is marketed and sold as local or from Louisiana or the Gulf of Mexico. That means the suit could extend to chefs and seafood shops in all five Gulf states, some of whom have already filed separate suits.
The next step is a hearing scheduled for July 27, when a federal panel of judges meets in Boise, Idaho, to decide whether all the claims relating to the oil spill will be consolidated and put into the hands of a special master. The panel is also expected to decide where litigation about the oil spill will be held if it is consolidated.
Plaintiffs are fighting to keep it from being consolidated in Houston, where many oil companies are headquartered.
By KIM SEVERSON
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