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What Alice Waters' Fishmonger Can Teach Us about Sustainability and What to Look for in Great Fish

Paul Johnson was born in Rhode Island, where fish was a big part of the economy.

From his humble start, working out of his truck, Monterey Fish Market has grown to serve sustainable fish to many nationally acclaimed restaurants and chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area including Alice Waters, Michael Minna, Charles Phan and Judy Rogers.

Paul has served as a board member for Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide to help create the sustainable seafood guidelines and program.

Following is a conversation I had with Paul.

Kaz: When did you start having an interest in fish?

Paul: When I was a cook. I traveled around the US on a motorcycle after I got out of school. I worked at different kitchens then, I settled down here in Berkeley and started cooking, working at a place called “In Season” by a famous physics professor at UC Berkeley, Richard Muller. In Season was two doors down from Chez Panisse, that was then I got to know Alice Waters. That was when I started to have an interest in fish.

I was talking to Alice and neither of us were happy with our fish supplier. We were unhappy with the quality. So, I started to going to Fish Alley in the Wharf. I bought from the boats, sold on the floor.

Kaz: In your book, “Seafood Forever,” you mentioned that there really weren’t good quality fish suppliers in the area. Was that the case?

Paul: Back then, so much fish and the people who were selling fish were kind of “Old School,” not that much attention was paid to the quality: it was like first in, first out. There was nobody who was about quality and freshness. It was like what was next, and what you get.

Kaz: What do you mean by “Old School”?

Paul: The Chinese and Italian shops used to go to Fish Alley in San Francisco to get fish. Nobody was into delivery. Nobody was into service. When we started, we were the first one to have individual customers like Alice Waters. We were the first ones to go down there and picked the quality fish and delivered to make sure they got exactly what they wanted.

If the soup was on their menu for the night and they used Rockfish to make the soup and Rockfish was not good, I offered them better fish, like Halibut. Old School way was if the Rockfish was not good, they sent it anyway. I was more about the service and they appreciated that. Fish suppliers delivered, but they did not care about the quality and service.

Kaz: Did you start dealing directly with the fishermen?

Paul: Yes, not right away, but later on. Currently, about 30% of the fish we get comes directly from fishermen/boat. It’s hard to say because when a swordfish boat comes in, it has 100,000 lbs. of the fish.

The people who buy the swordfish buy the whole thing and sell it to us and other fishmongers like us. Same thing with squid. You see that’s kind of us buying directly from the boat, but not dealing with the boat.

Seafood is a multi-layered business, and it’s much more complicated than, say beef or vegetables.

Kaz: Why is fish more complicated? Is that because it’s more perishable?

Paul: No, it’s because they are wild.

Finfish Seafood Index, Monterey Fish Market

Kaz: That’s interesting because I tell my sushi class attendees fish is one of the few things we can still eat wild.

Paul: The only thing, well, in addition to some mushrooms.

Kaz: Fish business is complicated because fish is wild, the demand and supply is always changing, as well as the price?

Paul: Yes. Some people just don’t understand it. The weather, the ocean conditions and sometimes, fish, is not just there, etcetera, and millions of other things. They don’t always grow into the same size, they come in different shapes and taste and so on.

Kaz: How did you get into sustainable fish?

Paul: When we started in 1978, we were thinking of quality. That was before people were concerned about organic and local food. When we started, the only fish we bought were local fish. So much smaller selections. Airlines did not ship the fish back then. It did not exist. It so turned out that the best fish were caught by hook & line by small local fishermen.

Later one, ten fifteen years later, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and said, “Oh, local hook and line fish is great and sustainable, “ but that was the way we always did. We were slow in expressing the fact that, they were “Sustainable” because that was all we ever bought. We thought that was the only way.

Kaz: Was that when you started to put the fishing method and the origin of fish on your price list you send out every morning?

Paul: Yes.

Kaz: Was that before the Seafood Watch Guide by Monterey Bay Aquarium? Someone told me that you consulted to help develop the guide?

Paul: Yes, I was on the board for five years. That was some fifteen years ago. I still have a relationship with the Aquarium and we sell fish to their cafe.

Kaz; When I tell people about Monterey Fish, they automatically think your store is located in Monterey, CA, but your retails store is in Berkeley, and wholesale is in Pier 33, San Francisco. Where did the name Monterey Fish come from?

Paul: Because the company started from Monterey Street in Berkeley.

The first year, I worked out of my car. My wife was a waitress, and she lent me some money to buy me a truck. I worked out from back of my truck for one year — Bay Wolf, Hay Street and Chez Panisse were the only clients I had. I did all myself. I cut fish out of my truck when it was raining. It was an experience.

A friend of mine owned this house. And the store was there, Monterey Fish was right there, walking down the street. A friend of mine said, “What a good place for the fish market.” So I rented for $200/month.

Then I added the retails store and my wife helped me. Later we found out that there was huge fish store in Monterey, CA called Monterey Fish, who sold squid. (note: Paul later told me if he could go back to change the name of the company, he would, to avoid confusion.)

Shellfish Seafood Index, Monterey Fish Market

Kaz: At the Berkeley retail store, what is the most frequently asked question by your customers?

Paul: When was it caught and how old is fish?

It’s something that people don’t realize.

You know because you are Japanese sushi chef that you don’t eat tuna, that is less than twenty-four hours after it’s caught. It has to settle down.

The perfect amount of time for tuna to mature (called aging, just like beef) is five to seven days. Same with swordfish. The Norwegians and the Swedes figured out to send salmon to the market in five days, or else, there is no flavor to the fish.

When you eat fish directly out of the water, often, it doesn’t have a lot of flavors. So it’s more important how the fish is taken care of, as opposed to how long it has been since it was caught.

What’s important is if the fish is cleaned immediately. It’s handled gently. It’s caught by hook and line. No bruising. Iced and kept cold immediately. That’s more important than when it came out of the water.

I’ve seen fish out of water for four-hours, and it was rotten because it was laid on a hot sand beach in Mexico. It’s how the fish was handled that is more important.

Kaz: Is that just lack of education and exposure to eating fish?

Paul: I think so. Consumers need to study with a more critical eye. It’s more important to look at characteristics of fish. It’s more important to ask, how it’s caught, where it’s caught and if it’s in the season. That’s what people should look for. They should look for what’s in season because it’s the cheapest and the best quality.

Fishing Techniques, Monterey Fish Market

Q: Can you tell me what’s in the season and why they taste good?

Paul: Fresh crab season just started today (Note: interview took place on November 16, 2016). They taste good because they are caught locally and less stress. Stress hormones create bitterness in fish. Local fish tastes better that way because of less stress from transporting. Everyone in the business knows the crabs for the next two weeks are the best. Same with salmon.

Q: What should people do to buy good quality fish?

Paul: People are still afraid of fish. Trust your fishmonger. Just like when you go to a sushi restaurant, you put your trust in sushi chef’s hand.

When you buy fish, you should do the same.

Develop a relationship with one fishmonger at a small market and ask lots of questions like what is good. When you get something good, you tell them the next time you visit them.

If you don’t like it, tell that, too.

When you get fish that you don’t like, that’s not necessary fishmonger’s fault. It the vaguely of wild fish, etcetera etcetera.

Tell them you don’t like it and what you thought of it. It’s an education for him. He will look out for you to give you what you like. So, put your confidence.

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