Chef’s Table: Tenney Flynn

How one Southern chef answered the call of the sea.

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If you told a young Tenney Flynn that he would one day become one of the South’s foremost authorities on seafood, he probably would have told you to scoot yourself right out of his dad’s kitchen so he could get back to work.

From an early age, he was brought in to help out with odd jobs like washing dishes and shelling black-eyed peas at his father’s restaurant in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Moving to a city like New Orleans and opening a place of his own wasn’t even in his realm of possibilities. Now he’s the proud co-owner of GW Fins, a can’t-miss stop for quality seafood in the heart of the French Quarter.

“I remember early on when I had to stand on a dish rack to reach the counter to be able to sort the silverware that was coming out of the dishwasher,” Tenney says. As a child completely immersed in the chaos of a full-service kitchen, he couldn’t help but be captivated by the world he witnessed daily. The cooking didn’t stop in the restaurant, either.

“Bacon, eggs, and sausage were almost always in rotation at home in Mom’s 10-inch Griswold skillet,” Tenney says. “To this day, it is always sitting on her stove next to the bacon grease.”

His time spent observing all the different facets of Southern cuisine cultivated a deeply rooted passion for cooking as a whole, so his decision to attend a culinary program was just a natural progression for him. After graduating, he further developed his skills at esteemed steak houses in the Atlanta area. He worked with the freshest produce, and he took on new roles like breaking down the seafood regularly featured on the restaurants’ menus. It was around this time that fond memories of the fish his mom often made came rushing back. Tenney chuckles to himself when he remembers how even then he knew that there were better tasting fish in the sea.

“When I started actually butchering seafood, I sort of had my epiphany,” Tenney says. “I was seeing fish I had never even heard of until then, and I was amazed by how good it all was.”

At last, he finally had access to hundreds of species of sea life, and he wanted to master all the ways to prepare them. Tenney’s passion grew each time he worked with the fish and shellfish on the menus, and from searing to blackening, he learned that everything was better fresh out of a hot and greased cast-iron pan.

“ONCE I HAD THE TIME TO COME UP WITH A CONCEPT FOR MYSELF,
I KNEW THAT IT COULD ONLY BE SEAFOOD FOR ME.”—Tenney Flynn

Several years of sharpening his skills went by before he realized he had started to shift his interests solely toward seafood. That’s about the time when he decided to take a leap of faith and open up his own space.

“Once I had the time to come up with a concept for myself, I knew that it could only be seafood for me,” he says. “I just wanted to work with what I loved and found most interesting.”

He eventually brought GW Fins to the Crescent City, but it wasn’t without its challenges.

“This was about 20 years ago, and the city of New Orleans did not really have a dedicated seafood restaurant at the time,” he says. “But a lot of people thought I had no right to want to bring that kind of food to them when I was from way up north in Atlanta.”

Tenney and his team built up a level of trust with the community. They dedicated themselves to shedding any doubt about the food they served and ensuring that if it was on the menu, it’s something to be proud of. Since the beginning, they’ve sourced almost all their fish fresh from the Gulf of Mexico, and they have a pretty unique policy when it comes to what they’ll take from local purveyors.

“We buy new inventory every day, but we buy it whole and butcher it in-house,” he says. “We tell people, ‘We’ll buy nearly anything and find something to do with it.’”

Competition among other buyers over popular Gulf species like red drum and amberjack isn’t something Tenney concerns himself with. Their menu changes daily, so substituting a less commonly known yet equally delicious variety like sheepshead or lionfish is an aspect of the business he enjoys quite a bit. To him and his well-seasoned team, the opportunity to serve a transformative dish no matter the species takes precedence.

“There are so many great things to eat in the world, and it’s important for people to appreciate that these days,” he says. “If we can give someone—local or not—a meal that’s actually going to open their eyes, it’s incredibly satisfying.”

Parmesan-Crusted Flounder with Crabmeat and Asparagus

Parmesan-Crusted Flounder with Crab and Asparagus
Author: 
 
“Dredging fish fillets in finely grated cheese instead of flour is an easy way to add extra flavor and crunch without a bunch of extra ingredients. For this recipe, a seasoned cast-iron skillet is essential for forming a crispy, golden crust that does not stick. This is not a hard dish, but you do need to have everything ready as it comes together really fast.”
Ingredients
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained
  • 6 large spears asparagus, with bottom third of each spear peeled
  • 2 (5-to 6-ounce) flounder or other thin fish fillets (alternatives are sheepshead, snapper, or trout)
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley
  • 4 ounces jumbo lump crabmeat, picked through
Instructions
  1. Line a small plate with a paper towel.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet on medium-high heat. Add capers and fry for just a few seconds, until the buds open and they become crispy. Quickly remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Have a large container of ice water ready. Add the asparagus to the boiling water, and let boil for 3 minutes until crisp-tender but not limp. Remove the asparagus with tongs (keep water hot for reheating) and transfer to the ice bath to stop cooking. Drain on paper towels.
  4. Place a cast-iron skillet large enough to accommodate both fillets on medium heat. Coat the fillets liberally with the vegetable oil spray. Spread the grated cheese on a plate, and dredge the skinless (or rounded) side of the fillets in it, coating well.
  5. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the hot pan, then place the fish, cheese side down, in the hot oil. Do not disturb for about 4 minutes. Put 1 tablespoon cheese directly into the skillet as a test at the same time you add the fish. When you can slide a spatula under the fried cheese medallion, you can carefully loosen the fillets and turn them. A golden brown, fried cheese crust that completely coats the fish is what you’re looking for here. (Lower the heat if it’s browning too quickly.) Cook about 2 minutes on the uncoated side.
  6. While the fillets cook, return the asparagus to the pot of hot water for another minute or so to reheat. Move the fillets to a warm plate. Wipe the pan out with a paper towel; immediately return it to the heat and add the butter. When the butter is medium brown (take care not to burn), add the lemon juice, parsley, and crabmeat. Turn off the heat.
  7. Using tongs, divide the hot, drained asparagus between 2 heated plates. Place the fish on top of the asparagus spears, spoon the brown butter and crabmeat mixture over the fish, and sprinkle with the fried capers.