HOUSTON — In his kitchen at Eunice Restaurant, Chef Drake Leonards can whip up one particular recipe from memory.

“This dish comes together really quick,” he says, nudging some butter cubes into a pan. “I grew up doing it.”

He’s cooking up crawfish etouffee. The main ingredients – crawfish and rice – define the small Louisiana communities where he came up. As the crawfish season started up, KHOU 11 tagged along with Leonards when he made the drive back. (Scroll down to find the recipe)

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“From Basile to Mamou to Eunice, all these little country towns, [crawfish is] really just a way of life,” he explains.

To illustrate his point, he takes me to Toups Farms.

“I was born and raised on a dairy about two miles from here, where I live now,” says Earl Toups, who’s standing under his family’s rice silos as a truck loads up.

On the other side of the road are some of his rice fields with a small boat parked in the corner. I hop in as a worker slides behind the controls. Soon enough, we’re in the water and collecting the crawfish traps that line the flooded field.

In a movement so smooth you can tell he does it in his sleep, the worker grabs the trap, dumps its contents on the tray in front of him, tosses a chunk of bait inside and place it on the next post. The crawfish that pour out of the traps slink to the sides of the tray, eventually plummeting into mesh sacks.

When those sacks fill up, they get delivered to another Toups enterprise: Toup’s Crawfish.

“By April and May, we’re running 100 percent,” says Toups. “We’re talking about 3,000 to 3,500 sacks a day, which is anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 pounds a day.”

That’s what gets sold wholesale. The smaller crawfish get boiled, peeled and packaged as tail meat.

“Every crawfish in the world is peeled by hand,” Toups says, leading me into the room where a couple dozen women sit furiously peeling crawfish.

The boiled ‘bugs are shoveled onto a communal table. The women grab a crawfish and, with a quick flick of their wrist, yank the tail off and pull out the meat. It lands in the bowl in front of them, while the shell gets dumped into a trash chute.

Once the bowl is filled, it’s taken to the packaging room. Here, employees fill 1 lb. bags with crawfish tails. Those bags get vacuum-sealed and stored in ice before they’re shipped. Toups estimates that up to 60 percent of his crawfish end up in Houston.

Those crawfish provide the food of Louisiana with a distinct flavor, but the entire culture here is loaded with a unique spice. I get to see it firsthand during our next stop: the historic Fred’s Lounge in Mamou. It’s around 10 a.m. when we walk in the door, but the dance floor is full and a Cajun band is jamming.

“Some of this culture just doesn’t exist anywhere else in this world,” laughs Leonards.

Back in his kitchen, which transports the flavor of Eunice, Louisiana to Eunice Restaurant, the chef’s goal is to share that culture and flavor with the world.

“The food is what brings the people together,” Leonards says.

WEB BONUS: Cook crawfish etouffee with Chef Leonards

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