World's Best Langoustines
“Welcome,” said the exporter, waiting in customs, “to the most terrible, beautiful place on the planet.” Four seasons’ worth of weather cycled through the place every half hour. (Locals call the worst of it “die-outside weather.”) Tornadoes touched down just offshore, but nobody stopped fishing. Towns disappeared into fog, then went golden in radiant flashes of subarctic sunlight. Brutal gales, I was told, tossed cars off the mountain roads. Doorways were framed by whalebones. Waterfalls shot up, driven skyward by the wind. There were dozens of them spraying high above the lush and craggy vistas like a special effect (or a Vegas fountain). It all made Middle Earth seem like Middle America. At night the exporter put out the spread: great pyramids of seafood, langoustines and sea urchins, and 40-year-old horse mussels the size of my forearm.
“This,” the exporter said, holding up a langoustine and stripping it of its shell with a swift two-handed twist, “is what you’re here for: the best raw material on earth.” As I ate about 20 of them—raw, boiled, broiled, flash-sautéed in butter and wine, in a broth, raw again with sour cream and onion, their tail meat, their heads, their savory livers—I grew more and more convinced of his claim.
Over dinner, the exporter told us how the island makes no sense beyond its own confines. “Irrational!” he boasted repeatedly. Its geographical otherness, he said, makes transportation difficult. Because of the weather, the place remains perpetually vulnerable to being cut off from the world. And even if it weren’t, that’s how the people there think. Their history tells them they’ll survive on their own. The collective consciousness of the place is such that instant gratification does not exist. If you want something, you wait.
The exporter keeps a low profile on the island but is seemingly connected to everyone there, from the 40 dayboat fishermen who haul his langoustines out of the water in small traps to the chief executive of the national airline (who let us borrow a helicopter for an afternoon) to local high-level diplomats. Once he deems you “serious,” the exporter will tell you how he was, for a time, the single link between his country and Russia. All trade had been suspended, but his langoustines were allowed open passage because he supplies the Russian parliament. The Duma refused to eat inferior crustaceans. The exporter thinks it’s hilarious: “All of Moscow was crying,” he says.
What’s one Las Vegas chef, then, to a man who can bring the seat of Russia to tears?
Bartolotta had no clue, really, whom he was dealing with. But he was dead serious about his scampi and would convey it any way he could. The second year Bartolotta approached the man at the trade show, the exporter rolled up his sleeves and extracted a single, live langoustine from his crab tank. He took the animal apart—peeling off its head, discarding its carapace and claws, detaching a snowy clump of meat from its tail. The chef grabbed the morsel and popped it in his mouth. To Bartolotta, this felt like progress.
He went home that time thinking the deal was done. They just needed to finalize the payment. The exporter was used to getting his money quickly, in cash (the Russians always paid in cash), and had his suspicions about dealing with the labyrinthine accounting methods of a publicly traded American company. Bartolotta promised to get him the money within 30 days of delivery. “Too long,” the exporter said. Bartolotta then got clearance to release the funds within 15 days. The man rejected this schedule, too. Finally, Bartolotta went back to Wynn’s CFO:
“Remember that guy with the langoustines?”
“Yeah. How are they?”
“I don’t have them yet.”
“Paul, you’ve been dealing with this guy forever. What’s it going to take?”