Then and Now

By Melissa Swanson

It’s 5:45am on a Wednesday morning, and the folks at Monterey Fish Company, headquartered at San Francisco’s Pier 33, are just beginning to close the workday. Shovels transferring ice from barrel to barrel create a soft rhythmic roar, and the smell of the sea—fresh and faintly salty—permeates the air. Outside, the sun has yet to lighten the sky and the Bay fog sits low and heavy.

“These guys are like jewels,” says co-owner Tom Worthington, pointing to a carton full of whole Mahi Mahi caught the day before. Flashes of emerald green on their slick, silvery skin were still visible through the ice. “In the water, they’re a radiant green and blue with bright purple spots. The minute they’re caught, their colors begin to fade—as if their souls are leaving their bodies that very minute.”

You won’t catch many people discussing a fish in such poetic terms, but Worthington is a man in love with his job. For him, the ocean is an expanse of intricate and interconnected systems of life, fishermen are the last true hunters, and the restaurant is the ideal forum for appreciation of both. These fundamentals are the framework of Monterey Fish; the reason the company is not only a favorite for Bay Area chefs concerned with quality and sustainability, but also one of their most important resources.

Monterey Fish Company was founded in 1978 by Paul Johnson, then chef at In Season, a San Francisco restaurant considered by some to be the Chez Panisse of that time. When Johnson’s fishmonger decided to commit himself, convinced of his own mental decline, he asked Johnson to take over. Though he had no previous experience buying or selling fish, Johnson relied on his skills as a chef to guide him: he knew what high quality looked like, and he wanted it enough to seek it out, even if it meant higher prices. Eventually, he left restaurant kitchens to dedicate all his time to his new business. (Today, Johnson owns the company with Worthington, and is working on a book.)

At the same time, the Bay Area’s local food movement was just beginning to blossom. Now common restaurant features like daily-changing menus with organic, sustainably harvested foods were rare but on the rise, and a handful of chefs were looking towards the future with these ideals in mind. Still, the majority of fish available was frozen. Michael Wild, founding chef and owner of Bay Wolf restaurant in Oakland, says that he, along with Alice Waters, would make weekly trips to Spenger’s in Berkeley to pick the week’s fish from the restaurant’s huge frozen fish warehouse. Chinatown, both in Oakland and San Francisco, were also occasional fish sources, but chefs seeking something specific could never be sure about the quality they would receive.

“People promised you everything and at the lowest prices,” says Wild. “But you never knew what was coming.” On one occasion, Wild special ordered sea bass for a private party: It arrived whole and completely rotten. “That’s the way things were back then,” he says.

Monterey Fish emerged at just the right time. “We’ve always been interested in finding the small guys doing things by hand,” says Worthington, who joined Paul Johnson in 1980. Worthington’s background was also in food. He actually quit culinary school to work with Monterey Fish. “We wanted to be distinguishable from the big houses, to find the little people and their products, and introduce those to forward-thinking chefs. We wanted to create a new path.”

That new path consisted of looking at the ocean’s big picture, consulting biologists and fisherman on how to get the best product while putting as little stress on the sea’s ecosystem as possible. In addition to introducing new types of then-underutilized fish, such as monkfish, Alaskan halibut, skate wing, fresh anchovies and sardines, they also made sure those fish were caught with as little by-catch as possible and by fishermen that took pride in the hunt, from the initial hook to storage on the boat, and eventually, delivery.

This philosophy changed forever the way seafood arrived on Bay Area restaurant tables. Instead of having to place orders blindly, chefs like Jeremiah Tower (then at Fourth Street Bar & Grill), Alice Waters, and Patricia Unterman (of Hayes Street Bar & Grill) began to look to Worthington and Johnson for what looked best each day. “We began to tell them what they should order,” says Worthington.

This relationship between supplier and chef lends flexibility to the whole operation, like when a giant octopus happens to get caught on a crab cage and ends up as a restaurant special that night, or when something spectacular happens, like it did when California white sea bass, usually a fall fish, showed up in San Diego this spring. One of Monterey Fish’s fishermen was in the right place at the right time to take advantage, bringing the beautiful fish in that day. “We like to let nature dictate and rejoice in that,” says Worthington.

Chefs trust those choices, and that trust is why Monterey Fish is held in such high esteem within the food community. Bay Wolf’s Wild, who has worked with the company since its inception, says, “I know that they are extremely conscientious. They are totally tuned into what our specific needs are: the highest quality, consistently everyday. It is a very satisfying relationship.” Because of their reputation, Monterey Fish has never advertised. All their business comes by word of mouth. In addition to a Berkeley-based retail store, Monterey Fish also supplies Olivero, Dopo, Pizzaiolo, and Bay Wolf in Oakland, Bette’s Ocean View Diner, Rivoli, and Eccolo in Berkeley, and many more in San Francisco.

Worthington is grateful for that very strong connection. As the Bay Area’s own collective interest in eating responsibly grows, misinformation grows too, and Worthington considers restaurants a perfect forum to educate diners. “We rely on restaurants to get information out. It’s that one little window of the day—the kids are with the babysitter, the television’s not yelling at you, you’re enjoying a glass of wine—where you can talk to people about why this fish tastes so different.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch card is a good example. The card urges the public to avoid Atlantic cod, claiming it’s one of the species that’s either over-fished or caught in a manner that harms the environment. Yet that’s only half the story: It’s over-fished by larger fisheries that use trawling—the method of dragging large nets through the ocean—which damages the ocean floor and catches large quantities of sea life that will be inadvertently killed and not used for food. There are fishermen, however, who still fish for Atlantic cod the old fashioned way, using a hook and line, and they are fighting to make a living. Hook-and-line methods have no negative effect on the ocean, since the fishermen take from the ocean only what they intend. It’s those fishermen that Monterey Fish supports.

“That’s why it doesn’t make sense to boycott entire fisheries,” says Worthington. “You end up putting the good guys out of business and the real problem continues,” he says. Worthington believes the Seafood Watch card should be used to launch a conversation, a beginning from which people can start to ask questions.

On a typical day, Worthington shows up at the pier at 1:30am, when he begins the task of retrieving anywhere from 60 to 100 orders from the answering machine. At 3am, the staff shows up, and as Worthington begins buying different products from all over the world, the staff receives shipments and checks them for temperature, weight, and quality. Everything is labeled by species, method of catch, origin, and date. Fish not up to par are sent back without hesitation. Between 3 and 7am, orders are “put up,” or divided by species, butchered, filleted, cleaned, boxed up, and sent on routes. By 8am, 99% of Monterey’s product has left the floor, while the rest gets weighed and stored, if possible. Restaurants have their orders by 11am at the very latest. After all is said and done, two to three tons of fish per day will have come through the warehouse, utilizing over two tons of ice. Leftover fish is either given to the staff or to charity.

These days, 75% of Monterey Fish’s business is local to the Bay Area. The other 25% is in Las Vegas, a project that began about seven years ago when big name chefs began to open restaurants there. Worthington says the company has no current plans for future expansion. Keeping it small and mostly local allows them to stay connected to their philosophies and the fishermen that share them. “We see ourselves protecting a resource,” says Worthington, speaking of both the sea and its fishermen. “What we take from the ocean is finite; we must protect those doing it the right way.”

Monterey Fish Market
(retail) 1582 Hopkins Street, Berkeley | Phone: 510.525.5600

 

This recipe comes courtesy of Jon Smulewitz, chef/owner of Dopo in Oakland, California, who says to adjust quantities of seafood, lemon, and salt according to personal preference.

Serves 6

  • 1 pound fingerling potatoes
  • 3 medium-size fennel bulbs, julienned
  • Salt
  • 2 pounds PEI mussels
  • 3 pounds Manila clams
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 pounds scallops
  • 1 pound sashimi-grade tuna, diced
  • 1 cup minced parsley
  • Juice from one lemon
  • Tuna bottarga (Find this salted and dried tuna roe online.)

Boil potatoes until tender. Then peel, cut into discs, and set aside. Blanch julienned fennel in salted water until tender, set aside.

Steam clams in ½ cup white wine and 1 tablespoons olive oil until they open. Do the same with the mussels. Save all the remaining juice. Pick clams and mussels out of their shells and discard shells.

Clean and trim scallops of connective tissue, slice into ¼-inch discs, then lightly poach in the reserved liquid from clams and mussels.

Toss boiled potatoes, blanched fennel, cooked mussels, clams, and scallops together in a large bowl along with diced tuna, minced parsley, and lemon juice. Adjust for acid, salt, and olive oil. Divide onto 6 plates and grate bottarga over the top to serve.