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How One Chef Plans to Serve 5,000 Pounds of Crawfish in Denver

Cattivella chef-owner Elise Wiggins went to Louisiana to pick up crawfish last year, and she's bringing back even more this time.
Cattivella chef-owner Elise Wiggins went to Louisiana to pick up crawfish last year, and she's bringing back even more this time. Courtesy of Elise Wiggins
Louisiana produces more than 100 million pounds of crawfish annually, so getting a few thousand pounds to Denver for a restaurant shindig shouldn't be a problem, right? Well, if you consider that crawfish are kept alive until just before they become your dinner, that fact adds cost and complications. But Elise Wiggins, chef owner of Cattivella in the Central Park neighborhood, is willing to go to great lengths to bring her customers a taste of her home state.

Wiggins is planning her second annual crawfish fais do-do (that's a big party, in case you're not familiar with Cajun celebrations) for May 15 and 16 at Cattivella, at 10195 East 29th Drive. But to stock up on the tasty crustaceans, she's planning on driving for 38 hours to her source in the heart of Cajun country.

Last year, Wiggins brought 2,300 pounds of crawfish back from Louisiana for a takeout-only festival, but this year the party will be held at the restaurant over two days, so she's bringing back 5,000 pounds. "Last year, I started trying to source crawfish in Denver, but it was cost-prohibitive," she says, adding that many of her customers are Louisiana transplants who know what crawfish cost at restaurants in their home state.

For the first fais-do-do, Wiggins borrowed a truck, drove nineteen hours to a crawfish facility owned by family friends, picked up her load and then continued south for another two hours to La Place, where she sources her favorite andouille sausage. She says she's skipping the second leg of the drive this year (don't worry, andouille will still be on the menu), but will be returning with a larger load of crawfish.
click to enlarge You can't stack the sacks too high. - COURTESY OF ELISE WIGGINS
You can't stack the sacks too high.
Courtesy of Elise Wiggins
The live crustaceans are packed in mesh bags and can only be stacked three bags high before the weight begins to crush the ones on the bottom. So a big truck with built-in shelves is needed to spread out the load. "Buying thousands of pounds of crawfish is nerve-racking," the chef notes. "Here's the kicker: You need a refrigerated truck. You have to transport them at between 38 and no more than 43 degrees, which puts them in hibernation, but isn't cold enough to freeze them."
Cattivella employees stir a big pot of crawfish at last year's festival. - COURTESY OF ELISE WIGGINS
Cattivella employees stir a big pot of crawfish at last year's festival.
Courtesy of Elise Wiggins
Once the sacks are loaded into the 26-foot truck, they're layered with burlap and soaked with water regularly to keep the crawfish hydrated. Wiggins plans on making the trip about a week before the festivities begin, so the refrigeration unit on the truck will keep running once it gets back to Denver, and Wiggins and her staff will take turns wetting down the sacks.

The day of the party, the crawfish are revived and purged in saltwater in batches before going into a kettle capable of boiling 75 pounds of crawfish at a time. Wiggins makes her own seasoning blend to flavor the boil and adds butter and more seasoning to the crawfish once they're cooked. The kettle is continuously topped off with more water and seasoning, which concentrates the spice level over the course of the day. "If you want the spiciest of the spicy crawfish, go toward the end of the boil," she shares — a tip true Louisiana crawfish aficionados all know.

If you want to join in the fun, Wiggins is offering the crawfish dinner for four people for $125, which will include ten pounds of crawfish plus corn, potatoes, andouille and pecan pralines for dessert; more crawfish can be added on if you run out. There will also be Hurricane and Sazerac cocktails and live music from the Bon Tee Cajun Band (out of Lafayette, Louisiana). Reservations for in-house dining or pick-up run from 11 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. both days and can be made by calling Cattivella at 303-645-3779. 
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation