In 2019 The New York Times ran a “Scratch” doodle by Julia Rothman and Shaina Feinberg about fishmongers at the Westwego Fish Market in a suburban parish just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. The colorful full-page sketch focused on how fishmongers diversify their offerings. It showed their work’s backbreaking and highly competitive nature as illustrated in out-of-the-lines watercolor-y snapshots of a day in the life. The orangey-red text at the top read, ‘And that’s why I sell worms,’ written in big scratchy penmanship. I fell in love with this page for reasons unknown, declared it a work of art, and went to get it professionally framed, the tissue-thin newspaper bleeding with the flip-side’s ink.
“Hmph,” said the framing clerk as they unwrapped the rectangle from behind the counter when I went to pick it up. We agreed that the sea-foam green wooden frame was the right color choice. “But what does it mean?” they asked. “I have no idea,” I shrugged.
Custom framing isn’t cheap, and to have the Sunday Times delivered is about $10 per week; it was one of the nicer pieces of “art” we owned. Dubbed “And that’s why I sell worms,” it proudly hung in the hallway of the Craftsman rental my husband and I shared in East Nashville, our first home together. Fatefully and thankfully, down the street lived a man who would, a while later, explain precisely what it meant.
Luke Gautier of Gautier & Sons Seafood giggled when I asked him to read, “And that’s why I sell worms” on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in March. It now hangs in our guest bath, right above the toilet. I’d imagine most who use this restroom have a similar reaction.
“What does it mean?” I asked. He repeated the headline in a South Mississippi drawl and quipped, “Because somebody wants it. Same reason I sell turtles.”
Let’s back up.
Gautier & Sons Seafood is a niche Gulf Coast seafood distributor. Their head-on shrimp, crab meat and crabs, boudin, fish varieties, and prepared regional seafood offerings like gumbo and étouffée have kept landlocked Nashvillians flush with fish since 2020. Those in the know get to the Richland Park Farmers Market early on Saturday mornings to call dibs on their weekly seafood supply, most of which was swimming less than 24 hours ago.
“I like to say that these shrimp had no idea they were heading to Nashville when they woke up yesterday,” says Gautier, founder, and do-everything-er.
I met Gautier and his boys, Frankie and Sully — the “& Sons” part of the moniker — a few months after COVID screeched life to a stop. We were strangers at the time, but I ordered a couple pounds of shrimp from him via an Instagram post, and he emailed saying, “Thanks for your order. I live on your street. If you want, I can deliver it to you on Friday night.” Imagine the thrill! A fresh shrimp hookup in the neighborhood. Joy was sparse in those days, and I relished it when I had it.
He dropped off the goods as planned. Given that he and my husband are both from Mississippi, of course they knew of each other from back home and quickly built out a family tree of mutual friends. With all its growth and change, Nashville rarely feels like a small town. I don’t wish for a return to tiny but revel in the rare moments when shrimp ordered on Instagram is hand delivered by someone who instantly felt like, and probably somehow down the line is, family. When I asked Gautier if he remembered this transaction, he nodded, “In Biloxi, buying shrimp from someone is like borrowing a cup of sugar here.” It’s neighborly.
Seafood runs deep in the Gautiers’ blood
Gautier was raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Biloxi — home to a resilient and lively fishing community. His grandfather, Horis Gautier (“Great man, great name”), co-owned a shop selling live bait, seafood, and ice across the street from where Barq’s Root Beer, “We call it Biloxi water,” was made before it sold to Coca-Cola. “That’s where I got the love for this business, from him.”
Gautier grew up eating his grandmother’s seafood gumbo every Christmas. “Nobody could touch her seafood gumbo,” he remembers. “It had crab meat; it had shrimp; it had okra; it had everything you’d want — sea gumbo, anything that swims.” Crawfish étouffée and chicken stuffed with boudin (something he sells and stuffed pork chops) made regular appearances on his childhood table. He goes on a tangent with the stuffed chickens, “What they do is, they debone the chicken, and then they stuff ’em with crab meat dressing or oyster dressing,” miming a chef’s kiss for impact. It’s now 5 p.m., and we’re both hungry. “Or they’d stuff ‘em with shrimp and okra jambalaya without the liquids.” His Uncle Chet had a crab boil every Friday. “He had crab traps behind his house on the bayou. He’d walk out back and into the swamp, pull up the traps. The whole family would come over, and we’d pick crabs.”
The seafood of his youth was fresh and delicious, no doubt, but the community that went along with these foods is what he’s chasing with Gautier & Sons. The access to fresh Gulf seafood, and the shared experience of a crawfish or shrimp boil, everyone gathered around a big table, hands dripping with briny, spicy seafood juice; it’s the thing Nashville was lacking and also the thing that Gautier knew he could bring to his adopted city. In a world of takers, Gautier is a giver.
“In 2019, I was down on the Coast when a buddy called and said, ‘I need 40 pounds of shrimp. I’ll pay you 12 dollars per pound.’” Gautier did some quick math and figured he might as well get an extra 60 pounds and sell the rest to other Nashville friends. “I got it straight from the boat from Captain Anthony in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I sold out in an hour of being back in Nashville and made about 500 bucks.” What started as a phone call from a friend has since morphed into a viable side hustle he hopes to pass on to his boys one day.
I’d get these short little phone calls or text messages from random numbers, ‘I heard you got shrimp.’ I did feel like a drug dealer, but I was a shrimp dealer.
Before the transport partnership with Gulf Seafood Connection was formed, Gautier, whose day job is teaching math to kids with severe emotional and behavioral challenges, would spend weekends driving 1,200 miles round trip, often arriving in Nashville just in time to set up for the Saturday Nashville Farmers Market. While grueling, the long drives and burnt weekends gave him time with his family on the Coast, his mother pulling dinner out of the oven at midnight when he finally rolled into town because in their house, to eat together is to be a family.
His father, Joe, appreciated the work his son was doing and was the company’s original dock-side fixer, the one who did the legwork of having the seafood paid for, packaged, and waiting on the dock when Luke pulled into town. The father-son time was precious then, especially now, as Mr. Gautier died in 2022. “He was the secret weapon to finding the freshest shrimp in Biloxi, and the water ran through his blood.” Like father, like son, indeed.
“I felt like a shrimp runner. I’d get phone calls like ‘Hey man, let me get a pound,’ and I’m like, ‘Alright man, I got you.’” He laughs when I suggest to Gautier that these long drives to pick up seafood sound like he’s selling something other than shrimp. Loud. “I’d get these short little phone calls or text messages from random numbers, ‘I heard you got shrimp.’ I did feel like a drug dealer, but I was a shrimp dealer.”
Find Gautier & Sons every Saturday at the Richland Park Farmers Market and the East Nashville Farmers Market on Tuesdays once school is out for the summer. Depending on the season, expect to find head-on shrimp, redfish, snapper, grouper, mahi, stuffed crab, soft shell crab, crawfish hand pies, gumbo, stuffed chicken, stuffed pork chops, oysters, seafood bisque, tuna dip, and whatever else you ask for, as well as a new lemon pepper seasoning made in collaboration with Tucker’s Peppers.
Gautier & Sons was built on the Nashville farmer’s market circuit. Of Richland Park Farmers Market, where he can be found every Saturday, he says, “I have seen my customer’s kids grow up, they have seen my boys grow up, they have seen my business evolve from just selling crab meat and shrimp to now grouper, snapper, red fish, stuffed crabs, crab cakes …,” his cadence not unlike Bubba when rattling off the many ways one can prepare shrimp. Gautier will ask you how you liked “that boudin” he sold you three weeks ago, and what you ate it with. “I have this buddy, Chris, at the Richland market who has been asking me for years to get him some turtle. So I got him some turtle. What he cooked with it, I don’t know.”
In a way, we all sell turtles or worms at some point. The pleasing of the customer, the necessity to adapt and evolve with the times, and the hope of staying relevant. What I admire about Gautier & Sons, beyond the fact that it’s the freshest seafood I’ve found in Nashville, is the joy he gets from turning someone on to a type of fish he grew up eating or hearing what a family will be celebrating when they cook his food. The community he’s building shrimp by shrimp is evident in the 20+ person deep line that forms at his table every Saturday. It never gets any shorter, so get there early.