Chefs share their seafood sourcing and plating strategies.
Russell Siu—3660 On the Rise, Honolulu, Hawaii
Pan Seared Mahi Mahi
Siu can buy indigenous species like opah and opakapaka (red snapper) directly from fishermen; other Hawaiian fish, such as mahi mahi and ono (wahoo) are sourced from his purveyor, Tropics Fish. “The oil content determines my cooking method,” Siu explains. Here, lean mahi mahi is pan seared and topped with an avocado-crab mixture and melted Jarlsberg cheese.
Darren Pettigrew—Stella Maris, New York City
Grilled Whole Branzino
Pettigrew sources from near and far to get an eclectic mix of seafood. Imports come via Fed Ex or through Sea Star, a local purveyor; he relies on several other suppliers for whatever is plentiful and good. “I like to grill whole branzino, a Mediterranean fish, with just sea salt and pepper. The bones intensify the flavor,” he says. “Then I finish it off with balsamic and herbs.”
Bill Bayne—Fish City Grill, Dallas, Texas-based
Serafin’s Fish Tacos
Fish City Grill positions itself as a “neighborhood restaurant,” and with its gentle prices and cooked-from-scratch seafood, loyal customers visit several times a week. A perennial bestseller is Serafin’s Fish Tacos ($8.99)—a signature made with farm-raised catfish or tilapia. “We buy sides of fish or fillets, fresh and frozen,” Bayne notes. “But we’ll only buy frozen if it has the same quality as fresh.”
Michael LaScola—American Seasons, Nantucket, Massachusetts
Seafood Sausage with Pearl Caviar
Local seafood is the focus at American Seasons. “We get fluke, scallops, lobster and striped bass off the coast of Maine and Cape Cod,” LaScola reports. “My guests expect fine-dining food in a casual, creative atmosphere.” So he comes up with funky ideas uniquely presented, like this seafood sausage starter.
Robert Jacobs—Ganey’s Bar & Restaurant, Pompano Beach, Florida
A menu of small and large plates gives Jacobs flexibility with fish preps. “Freshness is uppermost,” he says. “I source good ingredients and get out of the way.” For this tuna dish he uses sushi-grade yellowfin and treats it like prime beef—seasoning with salt and pepper, searing to medium-rare and serving with white bean ragout.
Despite its popularity on restaurant menus, salmon can be tricky to purchase. Wild varieties are numerous and varied and farmed fish can be sourced from facilities with very different standards. Bret Lynch, corporate chef for Ocean Beauty, a large Seattle salmon supplier, provides guidance and leads us through a product cutting.
- Unpack fish and note appearance and aroma. If the fish is fresh, it should be free of internal ice crystals and have a light seaweed scent.
- For whole fish, the eyes should be clear and bright. For farmed salmon, “make sure the noses are not bent or squashed,” adds LaScola of American Seasons in Nantucket. “This shows they’ve been crammed into pens.”
- For fillets or whole fish, look for shiny skin free of scars, indentations and scrapes. The flesh should be resilient when pressed lightly.
- Flesh color varies by species and region—bright pink to orange and red. All varieties should be uniform in color and texture with no gaps in the flesh.
- Check that you receive the species specified; these are the most common:
- King or Chinook salmon is the largest and highest quality. It sports a rosy color and high oil content.
- Sockeye has the deepest red color and a rich flavor.
- Coho or silver salmon has orange-red flesh and a more delicate flavor.
- Pink or humpback salmon is the smallest Pacific species. It has lighter-colored flesh and milder flavor; least expensive of the wild varieties.
- Chum or keta salmon is orange-pink and firmly textured; wide availability.
- Atlantic or farmed salmon is the most abundant. Flesh ranges from pink to orange with broad white fat lines between layers of muscle tissue.
Buying value-added frozen fillets
Using mild-tasting, sustainably farmed tilapia as a base, Owen Tilley, corporate chef of Fishery Products International, creates a range of products with on-trend flavor profiles, such as smoky Southwestern and wasabi pea and miso. The latest are IQF Pan-Sear Selects, tilapia fillets that are processed with a proprietary coating that allows the fish to be sauteed, grilled, griddled or baked. Here are his product cutting guidelines.
- Open the shipping carton and take the temperature to insure proper refrigeration has been maintained. “Off the truck” IQF fillets should register 25°F or below.
- Weigh the fillet. It should fall within the weight range provided on the spec sheet that accompanies the shipment.
- Visually inspect fillets for signs of dehydration and noticeable voids in flavor coating.
- Read package instructions for cooking and storage. Follow directions explicitly and calibrate your cooking equipment before preparation. When checking cooking time, consider how long it will take the product to reach guests and let the fillet rest accordingly.
- Taste the cooked fillet. Evaluate for appearance, aroma, flavor and texture.
- Ability to scale production to meet demand
- Uniform size for portioning
- Oily texture
- Lack of variety (price, appearance, size, eating quality)
- Supplier consolidation
- Feed supply- and eco-concerns
- Wide product variety and price range
- Positive sustainability message
- Bolder flavor and meatier texture
- Fresh availability is seasonally limited
- Isolated run disruptions
- Often only “twice-frozen” is available