By Dennis O’Connor | www.VillageFishmongerNYC.com
I recently sat down with Village Fishmonger’s resident fishmonger, Ben Smallman, to get his take on seafood and why he loves what he does. He’s currently working as a tournant at Danny Meyer’s The Modern restaurant in Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
Village Fishmonger: Why do you like to work with fish and seafood? What attracted you to working with Village Fishmonger?
Ben: I like working with seafood because it’s one of the most delicate items in a kitchen, from receiving and storage, to butchering and then cooking, everything has to be done just right. If you don’t do all the little things right you’re wasting an opportunity with a not inexpensive ingredient. Plus, I love to eat seafood and enjoy the opportunity to share that with others.
I was attracted to working with Village Fishmonger because it was an opportunity to work with fresh, high quality fish in an environment where the focus was on sustainable and local fish. Luckily, the schedules worked out so that I could continue my current trajectory with The Modern and supplement that with working at Village Fishmonger.
VF: Why is sustainability important? And how important is it to you as a chef?
Ben: I believe sustainability is an extremely important issue in the foodservice industry today. If we’re going to take anything from the Earth we must do it in a responsible way that doesn’t negatively impact future food stocks and the environment. Being thoughtful about the environmental implications of getting fish to the table will ensure that future generations of both chefs and consumers have access to the ingredients that we love to cook with and/or eat.
VF: What’s your experience been with seeing “sustainability” as a general ethos in the restaurants you’ve worked in? (i.e., nose to tail eating, local ingredients)
Ben: Sustainability in the restaurant world is a touchy subject. Most restaurants strive to serve the best food possible, but depending on the cuisine or chef’s philosophy, that desire can be at odds with the customer whose expectation may be that the ingredients were sourced locally and harvested in a certain manner. For example, some restaurants I’ve worked at in the Hudson Valley would specifically source vegetables and produce from local farms, but would then order their fish from thousands of miles away in order to get what they felt was a superior product. It’s a good start and better than getting everything from a distance, but salmon from Alaska served with asparagus from the farm down the road is not a local dish. And though many of the “best” ingredients are not available locally or from a sustainable source, such as prosciutto di Parma or truffles, if a restaurant is going to advertise that their menu is local and sustainable then they should strive to align their sourcing with that ethos.
VF: Do you think that restaurants are moving forward in this regard at all, towards serving local and sustainable fish and other products on their menus and are there potential pitfalls?
Ben: There are so many factors that go into translating ingredients to a menu. The type of restaurant, its chef, the owners, the ingredients available to them locally, the price of the ingredients, the overall cost of the dish and where it is on the menu, and on and on, are all considerations. And not all restaurants have a philosophy that supports local sourcing — try to find a high-end sushi restaurant that doesn’t get uni shipped in from Hokkaido when it is in season! But I like to think as awareness increases restaurants will attempt to be more responsible and I’ves een that trend happening, so hopefully it will continue.
VF: What do you think about the idea of consumers “voting” with their dollars when it comes to food choices, whether it’s in restaurants or participating in programs such as our CSF?
Ben: As a chef, you should have your own opinion in terms of your cuisine and food philosophy, but you should be open to what your customers find important, and hopefully balance those sides accordingly. Sustainability is becoming a more important aspect of dining out for some customers so it should be top of mind for those involved in the food industry. As far as joining a CSF such as Village Fishmonger, I think it’s a great idea for anyone who likes to cook and can fit it into their schedule. You’ll be encouraged to try new fish – some that are hard to find in your market and even harder to find from local sources that use responsible catch methods. And because they need to stay abreast of current sustainability issues, they can help make you more aware of certain issues and provide information you might want to make your own decisions. How many times have you gone to a grocery store and been able to know when that fish was caught, and find out it was only hours ago, and be able to find out the names of the boats and fishermen involved?
VF: Do you have any words of wisdom for the home cook who is just learning to cook seafood?
Ben: Some fish needs to be cooked all the way through, though most fish should not undergo such torture. Don’t be afraid of eating certain fish “medium-rare” – to cook a scallop or steak of tuna all the way through is to not use the life that was given by those animals to its full potential. Also learn to temper your fish – though you should always store fish at lower than 40 degrees in your refrigerator, having the fish out about 20 minutes in room temperature before cooking will yield a much better result after cooking. And you should always season your fish on both sides before cooking. But most importantly, experiment! You won’t learn new things or grow as a cook if you stay in your comfort zone forever, and a bad experiment is still a fun evening in the kitchen with someone close to you.
VF: What’s a great recipe for home cooks to make this time of year using sustainable ingredients?
Ben: It’s a great time of year for bay scallops, which we’re currently offering as a special that changes every two to three days at The Modern. Recently, we’ve accompanied the bay scallops with risotto finished with squid ink, topped by some sautéed butternut squash and fresh Hudson Valley mushrooms. The bay scallops are simply cooked, seasoned with salt and pepper, seared with butter and thyme and then placed on top of the risotto. This is a quick easy, local and in season dish that any home cook could tackle.
VF: What’s the weirdest fin-to-scale dish that you’ve ever made?
Ben: While working for Chef Jason Wood in Garrison, NY we once did a tasting menu where one course was oil poached tuna spine. The bone marrow from large fish like tuna becomes almost a gelée of fish when cooked properly, then garnished with some capers, parsley, lemon zest and chili oil, becomes quite tasty.