Talking Trash

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Talking Trash … 

...Fish, that is.

When I ran my restaurant I was spoiled for seafood. I had a great group of suppliers and was frequently overwhelmed with options. Right now, I’m a “civilian” kitchen-wise, and the fish I used to be able to get my hands on is not as easily landed. So when Chefs Collaborative (I’m a member and local chapter leader) announced that they and the James Beard Foundation were hosting a teaching workshop on the subject of “Trash Fish” at Nick’s on Broadway in Providence, I jumped at the chance to attend. 

The day started with some lovely breakfast nibbles provided by Chef Derek Wagner and his staff. Fortified with strong coffee and jam on toast, we sat down to talk Trash. After introductions from Kris Moon, Director of Charitable Giving and Strategic Partnerships  at the James Beard Foundation and Sara Brito, Chefs Collaborative’s Executive Director, Derek took the floor.

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Derek and fisherman and Captain Steve Arnold talked us through the story of how they came to work together. As Derek describes it, “I was serving local produce, local meat, but when I called my seafood suppliers to ask about where my fish was coming from, and they’d say ‘I’ll have to get back to you …’ I mean, here we are in the Ocean State, after all.” He and Steve met with a few other like-minded folks to discuss the problem: How to get fish from the boat to a restaurant’s door within 24 hours.

As the two described it, they just decided to give it a try: Steve brought Derek a collection of fish the next day. Derek started cooking and the project was off to a start.

There were many challenges, primarily related to health department regulations around the distribution of seafood. The two wanted to be above board and follow the regulations in place. As a result, for a period of time, Steve had to “sell” his fish to a processor and then buy it right back to get it to Derek. Ultimately he got HACCP certification for his operation and now can directly distribute the fish he lands.

Derek and Steve talked through a few definitions for us: 

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Trash Fish: This is fish frequently not seen as valuable in the market. You could also call it “underutilized” or perhaps unappreciated fish. Derek pointed out that today’s Trash Fish is not necessarily tomorrow’s. Lobster could once have had that label, as did monkfish. Both are definitely prized now. Today’s Trash Fish are species like scup, dogfish, redfish, and bluefish. I’ve eaten and served all of them and can attest to their deliciousness. There is some debate in the seafood community around creating a new label. Some feel that “Trash” is a bad thing to call good, delicious food; but I can’t argue that the term has kept people talking. Until we have another option, Trash Fish it is.  

Trash fish can be, but is not always:

Bycatch: Bycatch is what is caught when fishing for something else. When a fisherman goes out he’ll be targeting a species or group of species––flounder, for instance. Despite best efforts to use the best equipment for that species, other species get caught also (maybe some sea robin gets into the nets, for example). That is bycatch. (In my restaurant, we served crab that was caught in lobster traps. That my lobsterman’s bycatch and he was thrilled to have someone to sell it to.) A lot of fisherman simply toss that fish overboard––if they don’t have a buyer, it can be more bother than it’s worth to bring bycatch into the harbor. But with a buyer like Derek, Steve can text him, letting him know he’s got a few sea robin, or fluke, or one monkfish, for sale.

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The group of us, about 20 chefs and food professionals, spent a good 90 minutes grilling Derek and Steve on all aspects of catching, serving, and selling fish, and then we took a few steps into Derek’s open kitchen for a cutting demonstration.

Derek showed us his technique for cutting scup and bluefish. It’s valuable to watch another chef at work––there’s  always something new to pick up. Derek was a treat to watch at work (although he’s crazy modest, so I can hear him now saying that it was no big deal)––he clearly cuts a lot of fish, so his motions were instinctive and smooth. But, he never stopped pointing out tips for safer and cleaner cutting.

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For me, Derek’s method for cutting fish was a new one, but it made perfect sense once I saw it. Instead of cutting one fillet from one side, then flipping and cutting the other side, he cuts both sides in tandem, a little a time. This method (hard to explain, easy to watch) results in a more consistent and stable cutting experience and made for beautiful, even fillets. The technique was basically the same for the scup and the bluefish, despite the bluefish being nearly 10 times as large as the scup.

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Most valuable were tips on utilization. Derek demonstrated how to scrape a rack to get the most meat possible (for fish cakes, tartares, chowder meat, etc.), his method for roasting heads (again for meat for cakes, salads, etc.). He also showed how to cut collars and cheeks––a hidden source of revenue on larger fish like the bluefish he was working with.

The day ended with a vibrant collection of salads: lentil, grilled corn, bluefish, heirloom tomato, and generous glasses of rosé!