Tails of the Unexpected

Chefs are finding new uses for lesser-known fish

By Amanda Baltazar

Understanding, purchasing, preparing and serving seafood is swimming in uncharted waters these days. With sustainability front-of-mind, many chefs are turning to lesser-known seafood and finding ways to prepare it that will appeal to diners.

Chef Andrew Thompson, chef de cuisine at Jack Dusty, the seafood-focused restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Florida, serves a different species every day.

“We take what the fishermen have,” he says. “We try and get as much Gulf fish as possible and work with local fish companies and fishermen.”

Jack Dusty

Because of this, every day is different at Jack Dusty. Only local black grouper is featured daily since a lot of customers come for that specifically, but otherwise, seafood largely runs as specials.

Chef Thompson regularly receives local varieties such as Gulf swordfish, mahi mahi, corvina, cobia and tripletail, but often buys even more unusual types. A recent catch was Japanese barbecued eel (also known as kabayaki or unadon), which he served simply with greens, lemon and lime juice, some sushi seasoning, pickled ginger and wasabi.

For the most part, because his seafood is so fresh, he doesn’t do a lot to it. “Our philosophy is to keep it simple and let the fish shine through,” says Chef Thompson, who typically pan-roasts or steams the fish. Sometimes he serves it skin-on and cooks the fish skin-side-down for a contrast between the crispy skin and the tender fish flesh. “People want a simple meal they can recognize,” he says.

On the other side of Florida is St. Augustine’s Blackfly, which serves fish including snapper, mahi mahi or oahu and more recently swordfish — now that it’s been removed from the list of threatened seafood. Sometimes more unusual species, such as pompano, cobia or sheepshead, are featured. Cobia is usually served almandine-style, while the sheepshead and pompano both go well with a light butter-based sauce, often a lemon-caper beurre blanc. “We always pan-sear them as they are more on the lighter, flaky side of things,” general manager Nick Massie points out.

On a typical day, Blackfly features three to five “fresh catch” dishes, which change daily, Massie says. There’s always a white fish, salmon and tuna on the menu, too. The restaurant prepares different presentations like lemon-caper beurre blanc, etouffee, baked in papillote, baked almandine and curried. “We’re trying to do twists on the classics to keep it fun,” Massie says.

Massie considers any seafood he can get within 24 hours of being caught as local — mostly from the Carolinas around into the Gulf, he says. “We go out of our way to make sure everything is sustainably fished.”

Using ‘Waste’

Herb & Sea in Encinitas, California, serves species such a sheepshead, opah, thresher shark, black cod and rockfish.

Thresher shark’s flavor and texture are similar to pork, Sous Chef Marissa Williams says. She likes to serve it with a well-spiced crust and charred on top of a wood burning grill, usually with a sauce to keep things moist.

Herb & Sea Bycatch PC Valeria Durham

And she likes to hard-sear opah steaks on all sides for no more than 30 seconds. “It’s not a fish you want to cook through; it will get dry and almost stick to your teeth,” she explains. Chef Williams likes to serve opah with a roasted bell pepper relish with some lemon juice and herbs, which “makes it a really nice light summer dish.”

Sheepshead, a white flaky fish, is nice with the skin left on because it turns crispy and a reddish golden brown when seared, she says. “This fish really loves a sauce or a butter base; it will hold on to any flavor you decide to give it,” Chef Williams says. “I really like to use this fish pan-seared with just a sprinkling of salt, then a simple lemon beurre blanc.”

A favorite of Chef Williams is spot prawns. They are not underutilized, but because the prize (the meat) is in the tail, the heads are typically wasted. “Instead, we grind up the heads into a fine powder, mix them with spices and use it as a powder in our roasted cauliflower dish,” she says.

Chef Frank Turchan, CEC, campus executive chef of Michigan Dining at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, serves a lot of what he calls “garbage fish,” or scraps that other establishments might not want. This includes scallops that are too small for restaurants that he can feature in stews or stir fries — plus small pieces of redfish, skate wing, and monkfish.

Chef Turchan prefers not to bread these fish and make the delicate seafood flavor unrecognizable to students. Instead, he quickly sears the skate and serves it in a hoisin ginger barbecue glaze. For the monkfish, he rolls it in Italian herbs and roasts it. This typically comes in small, 3-ounce pieces, “but we’re hoping for a bit bigger so we can carve it up to-order,” he says.

For redfish, Chef Turchan tends to steam it with ginger by placing the chopped ginger into the steaming water, and then serving the fish in a flavorful broth of lemongrass, garlic and white wine with a scallion garnish. This fish also would work well in a tempura batter, he points out.

Creativity Unleashed

Every day is an adventure at Jack Dusty for Chef Thompson. “I get offered things [from my purveyors] I’ve never heard of and love to play with them,” he says. “It keeps me on my toes,  and it keeps my cooks intrigued. They keep on growing and are learning about sustainability.”

Pre-shift, Chef Thompson talks to the servers about the fish, its flavor and texture profile and where the fish was harvested — information servers can pass on to guests, which really helps sell it, he says. “The more information we can tell the servers, the more we sell.”

Working with lesser-known fish is always an adventure,” Chef Williams says. “I’m learning how to work with different types of fish, from ways to butcher and what parts of the fish can be used. It’s fun because not only am I learning, but I’m able to flex my creative muscles to create new dishes that highlight these lesser-known fish species in a way that surprises diners.”

Herb & Sea also uses social media to talk about sustainability, featuring posts about visits to the docks, posts that highlight partners and information about the environmental benefits of eating lesser-known seafood species. The restaurant is also planning a series on social media to spotlight a lesser-known fish for the month. “We’ll have videos of how to break them down, which fish parts can be used, and two or three creations,” Chef Williams says.

Chef Turchan educates students at the point of sale with signage at the station that includes information on the fisherman, where the fish was caught, other names for the fish and details about that fish.

Fishing for Relationships

Getting the best seafood comes down to relationships, Chef Thompson says. “It’s through networking, working with fish purveyors you trust and you know they’re working with local fishermen to sustain the environment,” he points out.

Chef Turchan talks to fishermen regularly about byproducts they’re catching, such as redfish and skate wing. “There’s so much abundance there, so we get a great product at a great price.” It helps his relationships that he can guarantee he’ll buy large quantities.

Working with local fishermen, Chef Williams says, “is the toughest and most rewarding part. It’s about keeping a constant chain of communication with our fishermen and fishery partners. We text at least once or twice a week to see what they’ve caught or what fish isn’t moving.”

But at the end of the day, most diners continue to order what they’re familiar with, like tuna and salmon, he points out. Though hopefully, with more exposure, restaurant guests will start ordering more lesser-known fish.