Good Catch: How restaurants get fresh fish

St. Louis sits about 700 miles from the nearest coast, yet restaurants around town offer an array of fresh seafood. How do chefs in the middle of the country get fish that tastes like it was just pulled out of the ocean?

Executive chef Lisa Slay summed it up in one sentence: “Thank God for airplanes.” Slay works for Great Restaurants Inc., which owns Blue Water Grill in Kirkwood, Remy’s Kitchen and Wine Bar in Clayton and Big Sky Café in Webster Groves.

With ports from Seattle to Boston just a few hours away by plane, the time from dock to plate can be less than two days. The convenience is a far cry from the early days of Bob’s Seafood in University City, when Bob himself used to drive a truck to Louisiana every week to buy fish off the docks, said Phil Nekic, manager of Bob’s wholesale division. Three decades later, Bob’s now has some fish flown in and others, especially frozen shipments, delivered in refrigerated trucks.

Local chefs typically buy from distributors like Bob’s, The Plitt Co. in Chicago and others. Lou Rook of Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, who buys from Bob’s, Dixon Fisheries Inc. in Peoria, Foley Fish in Boston and Triar Seafood in Hollywood, Fla., said he buys fresh fish daily and that he has it flown in twice weekly from the northeast coast and once weekly from Florida. “We’re very lucky because we have a clientele that will pay $4 to $5 more per entrée for us to provide these products, to source out the best possible scallop, grouper, tuna or whatever that we can find,” Rook said. “It’s expensive, it’s very expensive.”

Making sure the fish is fresh when it boards the plane or truck takes some savvy. Because some boats go out for days at a time, fish could be out of the water for several days before it even hits the dock. On-board ice machines have made a world of difference in preserving the catch, but to get the best quality, Rook said he looks for two labels: “day boat” and “top of the catch.”

Day boats, as the name suggests, only go out for one day at a time. For a boat that is out for several days, “top of the catch” refers to the last fish pulled on board, which will be on top of the pile when the boat gets back to the dock.

Minimal processing can also keep fish fresh. “We bring most all of our fish into town whole,” Nekic said. “It’s just been eviscerated, [or gilled and gutted], and we fillet it ourselves. Much like other foodstuffs like produce, or even meat items, if you leave it in its natural casing, it holds up quite well.”

Both Slay and Rook said their restaurants use only fresh fish, not frozen, but not everybody is convinced that fresh is always the tastiest option. Fisherman Jason Volkman, for instance, has a vested interest in that opinion. He and his cousin operate a set net site on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. When the sockeye are running, or swimming up the Cook Inlet to return to their natal streams to spawn and die, setnetters string a net out from the beach, wait for it to fill with salmon and haul it back in.

Volkman, a Missouri resident who travels to Alaska each summer for the fishing season, said he follows strict standards, starting with selecting the fish. “Whenever we pick through our nets, we go for the highest-quality fish we can find, which would be the one in the net that has all its scales and is still alive and moving,” he said. No fish are wasted – those not in top condition are sold by the processor under a different label or fed to sled dogs. Fish that do make the cut are immediately packed in shaved ice and water and taken to a small processor nearby, where they will be filleted, vacuum packed and frozen within hours of catch.

“We’re tying to get that core temperature of that fish down and process it ASAP to lock that flavor in,” Volkman said. “That’s the only way to me you’re going to get good salmon down here.” He uses FedEx to ship the salmon to Missouri, where he sells it at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market under the name Alaska Select Inc. (When fishing, Volkman partners with the company Cold Water Fishing.)

Missouri diners can also choose a fresh fish produced closer to home – trout from Troutdale Farm in Gravois Mills. Rook and Slay both serve it in their restaurants. “That is the best trout I’ve ever had in my life,” Slay said. “It is so good; they do a fantastic job.”

Is the fish green?

“Fish is good for you. But are you good for the fish?”

The Web site of the Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating sustainable fisheries, poses that question to online visitors. More and more consumers are starting to ask these sorts of questions about their food, and nowhere are the environmental consequences of diet more clear than in the oceans. Overfishing has depleted some fisheries to the point of collapse; others are on the brink.

Chef Lou Rook of Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield recently saw the effects of overfishing firsthand. “When I was in Florida this summer, I was on the docks talking to these guys who had been out [fishing] for three days,” he said. “Their stuff was beautiful, they had a lot of red snapper and scamp grouper, but they had been out there three days and they had maybe 30 fish.”
Other marine animals have also been decimated by the fishing industry. Long-line hooks meant for tuna snag seabirds, turtles and sharks, and salmon farms release massive quantities of pollution.

But the news isn’t all doom and gloom. Great progress has been made in recognizing the damage caused by the commercial fishing industry, and steps are being taken to better manage fisheries and aquaculture. The trick for the concerned consumer is to figure out which seafood products have been caught or farmed in ways that will ensure our oceans are healthy for generations to come.

Luckily, one resource boils down the science into clear, user-friendly recommendations. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Web site (, visitors can type in the name of a fish and immediately be told whether that species is a best choice, good choice or one to avoid. Those looking for more can read the reasoning behind each rating to make their own decisions. Consumers can even print out a wallet-sized card to help them decide at the grocery store or restaurants whether to choose the barramundi (a best choice if it is U.S.-farmed) or the Chilean sea bass (one to avoid).

Executive chef Lisa Slay of Great Restaurants Inc. said her company is committed to “the whole green thing,” so its chefs turn to the Seafood Watch Web site for guidance. However, she also has to meet customer demand.

For example, “wild-caught salmon is sustainable. Well, it’s not around all year long,” she said. “If you have a restaurant in St. Louis and you don’t have salmon, you’re going to be in big trouble.” When the wild-salmon season closes, Blue Water Grill offers Norwegian farm-raised salmon. Some salmon farms are operated better than others, but in general they are considered environmentally damaging.

Once a restaurant decides to offer sustainable seafood, getting good information from vendors can be a challenge, according to Heather Maness, general manager of Blue Water Grill and Slay’s resource for researching the environmental side of fishing. “Often times, getting accurate and timely information from a vendor can be difficult and confusing, especially in regards to the method in which the fish was either caught (trawling, longline, etc.) or farmed,” Maness said. “Hopefully, as more and more restaurants start asking these types of questions, the more readily available this information will become.”

At Annie Gunn’s, salmon is only offered when it is in season. Rook said he is happy to forgo farmed salmon for environmental reasons, but the real reason he offers only wild-caught is that he does not like the flavor of farmed salmon.

Executive chef Marc Foley of Bon Appetit, which operates Washington University’s dining services, said that including frozen fish in his menu planning gives him a wider variety of ocean-friendly options year-round. “The goal is to buy fish sustainably,” Foley said. “If I can get it fresh, that’s great, but as far as choices go, sometimes you limit yourself depending on the seasonality of the fish.”

Maness said she would like to see more demand. “I would love it if my customers stood up and said, ‘We want sustainable seafood,’” Maness said. “I could feel really good about making those decisions at all times and knowing that my customers are going to show up and be really happy about that. But it’s very rare that I’ll get somebody who asks.” – B.M.