Kitchens Perfects Crawfish Seasoning With Surgical Precision
By Cara Clark
For Jerry Kitchens, MD, "like" is much too mild a word for his feelings about crawfish. During the crawfish months -- roughly March through June -- the retired surgeon feasts on a steady diet of the critters. In fact, Kitchens is a connoisseur of the flavors that make the best batch at a boil, and in true Cajun style, that spice isn't mild at all.
During the season, every Friday is a crawfish party with an open driveway policy at his Homewood residence. Anyone passing by can walk up and dig in. And they'll find ample crawfish -- in an average season, Kitchens boils about 4,000 pounds of the shellfish.
Kicking back one night in 2008, Kitchens and his buddy, Ron Williams, were talking about the ideal preparation for crawfish. Williams, a Baton Rouge native, is the son of the man who invented the Cajun flavor injector for fried turkeys.
"Ron and I grew up loving crawfish boils, and we would make our own recipes, adding a little of this and a little of that," Kitchens said. "We finally started documenting what we added over the crawfish season. One evening, we were making crawfish at Ron's house, and we knew we hit it right. Perfection is unobtainable, so we went for as good as we could get it."
As they savored the flavors of their seasoning, the pair began talking about taking their recipe to market. Once they made business plans, the next step was naming the company, and the partners kicked around several ideas, but nothing seemed just right.
At this point, it's important to note the importance of a well-designed crawfish table. It's all about function, and form has little importance. Kitchens' table is a wood slab with dinner-plate-sized holes cut in the either end. The host sets up a makeshift table by centering the openings over two trash cans, the base, and the rest follows. The table fits 12 to 14 peel-and-eaters, who slip their discarded shells through the conveniently positioned openings.
Just before a weekend boil, Kitchens couldn't find his table. "My family had recently moved to a new home, and we were having a crawfish boil our first weekend there," Kitchens said. "I was setting up and couldn't find my crawfish table, but I needed a place to pour out the crawfish. In desperation, I put newspaper over the hood of the car and poured them there. My friend commented, 'You sure are white trash.' That was it."
Ron and Jerry's White Trash Boil was on its way to packaging and to market just in time for the holidays. A friend, Scott Pyburn of Harrison Ltd. in Mountain Brook, offered the product as a gift idea, leading to the first sales -- two cases -- during the holidays.
"We had another friend, Andy Virciglio of Piggly Wiggly, carrying it and a few other folks put it in their shops," Kitchens said. "We got it distributed along the coast, slowly adding stores. And we had pretty good traffic on the internet. We're not a large company. We don't make a lot of money, but we don't lose money."
Kitchens' wife, Tricia, and their five children have been supportive of the process and the driveway crawfish boils. One of his sons has just recently thrown his first crawfish boil at his home in Orlando, and Kitchens believes he's on the way to mastering the technique: "He's on the journey. He'll get there."
Kitchens was a practicing surgeon for 23 years and now continues part-time administrative work at St. Vincent's Hospital while cultivating his business interests. His children have had a strong role model, who not only has his medical career and ambitions for his crawfish boil but also gives back to the community. The crawfish connoisseur frequently loads up his truck with pots, pans and burners and does charity boils to support area philanthropies.
"My hope one day is to have a big company so the joy of our flavor can be shared by everybody we can reach," Kitchens said. "Our sales aren't big enough to be on anybody's radar just yet. For two guys, this is just a hobby, and we get to have a lot of fun with people. We like to do what all Cajuns like to do -- hang around the table and eat and talk. We've had a lot of Louisiana people try it and love it, and we just had shipped spice to somebody in Arkansas. He said he spent his whole life in Louisiana, and this is the best seasoning he ever tasted."
It's hard to beat praise like that. Kitchens and Williams, who have been friends for 22 years, have finished tinkering with the formula -- unless they come out with an alternate low-sodium version, which would be an addition to the original product. They'll soon take another product to market, a shake seasoning based on the boil with a little less salt but plenty of heat.
"If we never become the number one seasoning in the nation, it's still worth every day of the fun we've had with it," Kitchens said. "It's just a blast."