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There Are Only So Many Fish in the Sea

Fresh seafood is, like oil or gold, a valuable and volatile commodity—and one that loses its value fast. As the top restaurants scramble to get their hands on the very best, what’s left for the rest of us?


Looking for the Perfect Fish Taste Testing Six Fishes
  How to Cook & Eat Fish   Telling Good Fish from Bad  

David Samuels swings a six-inch-long metal hook down into a box of fish and stabs a blackfish just below its eye. He lifts it up, plucks it off the hook, and holds it at arm’s length: It’s stiff. “Rigor mortis,” he says with an approving nod. “Rigor mortis is very good. The salt structure hasn’t broken down yet. This is a very good fish.”

He drops it into the box with a moist thwack. It’s 4:30 A.M. at the Fulton Fish Market, and grimy men dressed in overalls flecked with oil and fish guts whip by with stacks of boxes on handcarts. Samuels’s employees scoop shovelfuls of shaved ice into aluminum pans, and Korean restaurateurs wander by, peering into wax boxes of scrabbling crabs. Samuels is the owner of the Blue Ribbon fish wholesaler. His clients include stores citywide and elite restaurants like Esca and Le Bernardin; it’s his job to find the best stuff from the load that arrives every day from fishing companies. He deals with up to 100 fishermen in a day. “I buy from guys who have 100-foot boats, and I buy from guys who literally have a hook and line. There are a million ways to catch fish,” he says.

Samuels has a Zenlike calm, but he is a wickedly fast judge of fish—and indeed, everyone this morning is in a hurry. “Got any striped bass?” asks one restaurant buyer who darts up. “None that are good enough,” Samuels says with a shrug, and the man vanishes. Samuels saunters over to examine the most remarkable fish he has bought today: a glistening pink heap of unusually huge, twenty-pound red snappers from Florida, each nearly three feet in length. “Unbelievable. Beautiful. To see fish this fresh, you’d have to go to an aquarium,” he says almost breathlessly. “Feel the texture. You can feel the musculature beneath it.” At 6 A.M., Sandy Ingber, head chef for the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, turns up, dressed in a white butcher coat. “What do we got?” he asks Samuels, and the two bow heads and confer. Barely a few minutes later, the transaction is done, and Ingber has his day’s menu: some halibut, fluke, monkfish, arctic char, and soft-shell crab.

“I’m down here every morning,” Ingber tells me afterward. When it comes to fish, he trusts only his eyes. “I need to see it, if I want to have confidence in the fish I’m selling.”

Perhaps even more important, he comes down every morning because he’s developing a relationship with Samuels. Personal service from Samuels is both a badge of honor for a chef and, crucially, a guarantee of getting a product that will nudge a seafood restaurant out of the minor leagues and into multi-star territory. “Anyone can buy from me, but it’s very hard to get David Samuels’s personal attention,” Samuels says. If a chef isn’t in that inner circle, well, maybe he’ll get fish that’s good. But it won’t be great—not superb, not remarkable, not the sort of fish that glistens on a plate like a dewy ingot and makes diners drop big money.

Top restaurants have always siphoned off the best goods available in the city, from dry-aged sirloin to the ripest strawberries. But fish is unique food because the single most critical element is freshness. The top seafood chefs are not selling their delicate sauces, their unique recipes, or their food presentation so much as their ability to acquire fish that was alive and swimming yesterday. They’re selling the fact that Samuels picks up the phone when they call. They are not, ultimately, selling food: They’re selling access.

“The cooking part is easy,” jokes Ed Brown, executive chef of the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center. “What sets us apart is getting the absolute freshest fish. And it’s not an easy thing to do.” The competition for the top fish has become stiffer in recent years, since fish itself has become an increasingly in-demand item. American per capita fish consumption has risen by 35 percent in the past twenty years, and in fashion-and-health-conscious New York, demand has recently spiked—such that one in every five restaurant dollars in the city is now spent on fish.

To make matters more difficult, fish is the last truly wild food. True, fish farming— raising fish in watery offshore pens—has become increasingly common in the past ten years, flooding the market with cheap salmon, tilapia, and (more recently) a bit of tuna. But the top chefs generally swear by wild fish, since its flesh is leaner and doesn’t taste of artificial feed: “Ninety-nine percent of our fish is wild—99.99, actually,” says Eric Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin. This means the supply of elite fish is inherently unpredictable: If the fishermen in British Columbia have terrific weather and luck, there’s plenty of excellent sockeye salmon to go around; if they don’t, there’ll be a scramble, and that’s when a chef needs his network.

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