There's a lot of talk about fish these days: everything from the sustainability of species to purveyors falsely labeling fish due to ignorance or to turn higher profits. These are serious issues for a chef, and just as some restaurants turn to local farms to help control the quality of the proteins they serve, some local chefs are looking toward specialty purveyors where they can buy fish fresh from a direct source. That helps keep quality consistent and ensures they're getting what they ordered.
One of the biggest issues with specialty sourcing is cost. When you can buy salmon from local vendors for $5 a pound, it makes it hard to buy from a specialty fishmonger that charges triple the price. The rationale, of course, is the quality of the fresh fish and the value of being able to tell your customers specifically where it comes from. Chef Stewart Woodman of Heidi's and Birdhouse has made the switch. We recently spoke with him about why he felt it was important in spite of the higher prices.
Woodman's past experience includes time at one of the world's premier seafood restaurants, Le Bernardin.
"Restaurants like Le Bernardin, Le Bernardin in particular, really changed the landscape in the sense that they ... you have their salmon, and then you go back and have salmon somewhere else and you're like, 'Oh my god, I can't eat this, it's gross.' And the consumer starts to demand, and as it starts to filter down and filter through society, the consumers demand that that's what fresh salmon is supposed to taste like."
In Woodman's blog, Shefzilla, he has mentioned issues with vendors sending his restaurants fish that weren't what he was ordering. Fish fraud is rampant these days, and you don't always know what you're getting in a restaurant. It's difficult for a chef, because it's not always obvious what types of fish are what.
"Some species are harder to distinguish from others," Woodman says. "Grouper can be hard to distinguish from other species, and there's a lot of varieties of bass and stripped bass. Physically it can look different, or the same, or similar. It's not necessarily as obvious as that."
Some of these issues are why Woodman has started sourcing his fish from a new vendor. Woodman's new source is a freshwater salmon farm in the glacial mountain area of southern New Zealand. The purity of the glacial waters and the fast-moving currents give the salmon "free-range qualities" and allegedly ensure that the salmon stay disease- and parasite-free. One of the biggest issues surrounding the sustainability of salmon farms is that runoff can contribute to disease among wild populations, thereby depleting their numbers. According to the website, the farm cannot harm any native fish populations because there are no native salmon or trout in New Zealand. The farm is "nonpolluting," using primarily hydroelectric power generated from the fast-moving canal, with water coming from a large annual rainfall and vast snow melt.
Because of the farm's seemingly pristine conditions, the resulting salmon are able to be sold at a consistent level of quality. "The key is, with whatever it is, whether it's pigs or salmon or potatoes or turnips, I have to be able to have a consistent quality. You can't come back next week, you can't send your friends here three days from now because you had something and you want your friends to try it, and it's different," says Woodman.
"We take this salmon here and we're going to get it for $15 a pound, that's whole. So we take that and we trim it, and that makes our portion about $17 per pound. Our portions are generally about four and a half to five ounces. So now we have to find -- and that's one of the advantages of having two restaurants -- is that I have another way to sell salmon salad. I don't have to sell salmon salad at $17 a pound, I just have to differ the cost a little bit," says Woodman. "Sometimes chefs get a little 'ugh, ugh, ugh' when people complain about the price, but actually it's my job to make sure the price doesn't sting and that you don't even think about it when you're eating it."
The Woodman's new sourcing efforts have resulted in a salmon dish that will be featured on the Heidi's menu. The dish is specifically designed to highlight the features of the high-quality fish. Woodman gave us a preliminary taste of the dish.
The entree is slow-roasted salmon with a burnt carrot crust served on top of creme fraiche with sea beans and a black rice sauce. The creme complements the fattiness of the fish, while the somewhat gritty black rice sauce adds a light textural component that pairs well with the soft texture of the slow-cooked salmon. The carrot crust adds an earthy sweetness that accentuates the sweet flesh of the salmon, while the slight saltiness of the sea beans enhances the overall flavor profile of the dish. Look for the new salmon to hit the menu soon.