Chef has a line on the best local, sustainable seafood
Do you ever wonder where that fish in your fish taco came from and whether it was sustainably harvested?
You won’t have to guess at Comal, the stylish restaurant on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley serving fresh, modern Mexican food and cocktails with an emphasis on Oaxaca and neighboring coastal regions. The menu includes seasonal dishes like halibut ceviche with cucumber and sesame; Dungeness crab salad with endive and mandarins; the Veracruzian classic, chilpachole de jaiba, a spicy tomato-based crab stew; and tacos stuffed with pickled cabbage, avocado aioli, and fish that’s named, local, and sustainably caught using a hook and line.
Comal’s chef, Matt Gandin, cooked at Delfina in San Francisco for many years before opening Comal. His cooking repertoire has always included seafood dishes.
“But when restaurant guests starting asking ‘Where did this fish come from?’ ‘How was it caught?’ I realized I had to take a hard look at how we were addressing sustainability,” says Gandin. He and his colleagues searched for seafood distributors they could trust to tell them exactly where the fish came from. The exploration led to a partnership with Joe Conte of Water2Table, a San Francisco–based seafood receiver and distributor.
Conte picks up local hook-and-line or sustainably netted fish directly from fishermen and delivers them whole to Bay Area restaurant kitchens within 12 to 36 hours of catch. Offerings might include wild king salmon from the Sonoma coast, anchovies from San Francisco Bay, or halibut from the Marin coast and Monterey.
“I can cut three to five days out of the distribution process,” says Conte. Streamlining is important to chefs looking for the freshest seafood and especially to anyone serving raw fish.
“Joe brings us a product quality far superior to what the typical distributor offers. The fish is still in rigor mortis. It tastes clean like the sea,” says Gandin.
“It’s not practical for chefs to manage relationships with fishermen,” observes Conte. “We facilitate a relationship like what many chefs have with farms and farmers.”
Gandin agrees. “We want to source seafood responsibly. Joe makes it happen.”
Conte is a lifelong recreational fisherman who has worked in the restaurant business for 26 years. He has relationships with more than 50 fishermen, buying fish from 2 to 10 of them on any given day. “Most of the guys I work with are small-boat guys, heading out for the day and coming back in. They’re also the guys fishing with care and sustainably. The most unsustainable practices involve bottom trawling, dragging a net along the sea floor to scrape up everything. That’s indiscriminate. I do take some sustainably netted fish, mostly sardines, anchovies, and squid, but 90 percent of what I buy is hook and line.”
Conte supplies more than 70 Bay Area restaurants, including Salt House, Town Hall, Jardinière, and Flour + Water. “His relationships are driven by social media,” says Gandin. Conte tweets updates and photos daily and also emails his clients every evening with news about the day’s catch.
“My life has been completely crazy for the past year and a half,” says Conte. A typical day? “I wake up at 7:30am and inspect everything going out to restaurants. I get all the drivers out the door, deal with any last-minute issues until noon or 1pm, get a nap, then deal with sales calls from 4 to 9 at night. Between 9 and 2am, I’m getting calls from restaurants, taking orders for the following day. I get to bed by 3:30am and wake up at 7:30am and do it all again. There aren’t a lot of people out there doing what I do, and I’m figuring out why. It’s a lot of work.”
Restaurant owners and their customers are grateful for his work. Says Gandin, “People understand that they pay a little bit of a premium for this level of responsibility and they’re not only willing to accept it, they’re asking for this sort of quality.” ♣
2020 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley
FRESH-PICKED DUNGENESS CRAB WITH ENDIVE, AVOCADO AND MANDARINS
This recipe comes to us courtesy of chef Matt Gandin, who says he likes to use Owari Satsuma mandarins from Hamada Farms and local crab (of course) when this dish is on the menu at Comal. He includes here his advice for cooking live crab.
½ pound picked Dungeness crab meat
2–3 heads, Belgian endive
¼ cup Champagne vinegar
Preparing the Crab: Crab meat may be purchased cooked and removed from the shell. To cook fresh instead, start by making a court bouillon—a flavorful cooking liquid—on the stove, and bring to a boil. Chef Gandin usually adds to the water some onion, garlic, celery, parsley stems, thyme sprigs, black peppercorns, bay leaf, juice of a few lemons, and a splash of both white wine and white vinegar. The liquid should be well seasoned but not salty. When the water is boiling, drop in the live crab, and cook for 11 minutes. Remove and let cool naturally, do not shock in ice water, since that can dilute the crab flavor.
When the crab is cool, remove and discard the carapace, entrails, and gills. Detach the legs. Chop the body into 6 pieces, and using a bamboo skewer, carefully pick out the meat. Use a crab cracker and skewer on the legs as well to pick the meat. As a general rule, crab yields 25 percent meat. So it will take 2 pounds of whole crabs to yield ½ pound of picked meat.
To marinate the crab, place it in a bowl along with the diced jicama, chives, lemon zest, chile arbol, extra virgin olive oil and salt, and carefully mix so as not to break up the nice pieces of lump meat. Set aside.
Vinaigrette: Mince the shallot and cover it with the champagne vinegar. Let it sit for several minutes, then whisk in the pure olive oil and season to taste. Set aside.
Assemble the Salad: To assemble the salad, cut the base, and separate the whole leaves of endive. Place them in the bowl along with the diced avocado, sliced radishes, and mandarin segments. Season the ingredients with kosher salt and dress with the champagne vinaigrette. On each plate, place approximately 6 endive spears, with the concave part facing up. The endive should act as vessels to catch all of the other goodies. Distribute the other dressed ingredients on top of the endive, and distribute the marinated crab meat over the top. Finish by dressing a few wild arugula leaves and scattering them over the top.
CHEF GANDIN DIGS HIS SPECIALTY HERBS AND PEPPERS!
Chef Matt Gandin is passionate about finding authentic Mexican herbs and chiles to flavor his dishes. To source items not available for sale commercially, Gandin has established relationships with local specialty growers like Adam Sanders, who manages Copala Organics, a cooperative of ALBA*-certified organic farmers working land in the Salinas Valley and Hollister area. (*Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association)
“Many of these farmers are Mixteco or native to Oaxaca,” says Gandin. “I think I buy all the chepil Sanders can find.” Chepil (Crotalaria longirostrata) is a leafy herb used in rice and tamales with a taste and color like spinach.
Gandin also likes epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), a leaf vegetable that tastes of anise, fennel, and tarragon, and is used to flavor black beans and other traditional Mexican dishes.
Hoja santa (Piper auritum), another popular herb in his repertoire, is a large-leaf herb with a difficult-to-define flavor that has been compared to eucalyptus, licorice, sassafras, anise, mint, tarragon, and black pepper. Hoja santa is used to flavor tamales, posole, and mole verde.
“I’ve asked Sanders to plant some otherwise-unavailable chiles and herbs specifically for us,” Gandin adds. “They’ve purchased seed to grow the good-for-stuffing chile de agua; feathery, cilantro-like chepiche; aromatic hierba de conejo; and more chepil, which they’ll plant in the spring.”
Oaxacan cuisine, featured prominently on Gandin’s menus, calls for chiles not typically found outside of the region. To source them, Gandin turned to David Winsberg of Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto, which specializes in unusual peppers and chiles.
“I grew both costeño amarillo (yellow) and rojo (red) chiles for Gandin. These are small, delicate chiles classed as Capsicum annuum, a cayenne-type hot chile,” says Winsberg. “Both the red and yellow are dried and used to flavor and color sauces.” Gandin uses them to make mole amarillo.
Beth La Dove of Modern Farmhouse in San Rafael also grows costeño amarillo chiles for Comal, as well as chilhuacle negro, an essential ingredient in what is considered the king of Oaxacan moles, the mole negro. According to Gandin, “These are all chiles currently unavailable for purchase commercially in the U.S., which is why I’ve asked these farmers to grow them for us.”
“The farming community is very open to working with chefs,” continues Gandin. “Chefs can help create demand for produce. Remember puntarelle chicory? Now everyone is growing it. Or pimientos de Padrón peppers, which used to be really hard to find? David Winsberg was the first guy growing them commercially in this country. Now lots of other farms are trying to learn how to produce them.” Adds Winsberg, “Ají amarillo, a fruity, moderately hot, complexly flavored chile, and the round, red rocotos, key chile peppers in many Peruvian dishes, were also my introductions. As a micro–urban pepper specialist, I look for new peppers to grow and trial market, especially those which can do well in our cool Bay area climate. This season over half of the 50-plus varieties I’m growing are new cultivars that I’ll evaluate for marketability.”
While he’s grateful for the partnerships with local farmers, Gandin also likes the idea of being self-sufficient and growing his own herbs and peppers. He’s been known to hand-carry produce home from his visits to Mexico to germinate. “We’ve got a large, flat roof over the restaurant that gets good sun. We’re looking at putting in a roof garden to grow chilhuacle negro chiles and other things. We need to do some analysis to figure out whether it would be worth the effort.”
Tuna is one of the most popular, sought-after fish in the world. It’s also a species threatened by methyl mercury contamination, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), indiscriminate purse-seine netting, and overfishing. Long disdained for being an ugly, difficult fish, tuna became popular in the United States in the late 1800s when sport fishermen along the California coast discovered its virtues as a game fish and as a low-cost, high-protein food. Canning and massive growth in the tuna industry followed. Until the 1950s, nearly all American tuna was caught within a few hundred miles of the U.S. West Coast. Today, less than 1 percent of tuna consumed in the U.S. comes from American waters. In 2008, San Francisco–based Del Monte Foods sold the well-known Starkist brand to Dongwon Enterprise Company of South Korea. Nearly all American tuna canneries have disappeared. Andrew F. Smith tells the fascinating story of the history of tuna fishing and consumption in the U.S. in his detailed chronicle, American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food (University of California Press, 2012).