When Jeremiah Bacon moved to town and took over as executive chef at Carolina's in 2007, the first thing he did was look around and try to ascertain where all the fishermen were. He'd been working at Le Bernardin in New York and took it for granted that there'd be a direct market in Charleston.
"It was really challenging to make those connections," he remembers, mainly because there weren't many fishermen selling to kitchens. Indeed, there was pretty much only one: Mark Marhefka, a name that should be familiar to those who eat out with any regularity.
Marhefka has been a fisherman all his life and wanted to create a business around his passion. He fished commercially and worked at the American Fish Co., a seafood distributor. After his father passed away and left a boat behind, he teamed up with his mother and brother and headed out to sea. Family politics being what they were, it wasn't long before he broke off on his own, bought the Amy Marie, and launched his business, Abundant Seafood, five years ago. "I've always been wanting to do it," he says. In the beginning, he'd spend five or six days out on the water, and then come back to town to sell the fish he'd caught, which could take 10 more days. Sometimes weather would prevent him from taking another trip out. It wasn't easy going.
"There aren't many owner-operators around," Marhefka says. "Commercial fishing boats are owned by people who own other companies and use the boats as write-offs. The captains just aren't vested. They'll fish and then do some carpentry and then the owner will fire them and someone else will run the boat."
The stereotypical fisherman is a guy who leaves shore because he's more comfortable alone on the water. Marhefka doesn't fall into the stereotype. He's friendly, well-spoken, and has a nose for entrepreneurship. When he started, he contacted Megan Westmeyer of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative at the S.C. Aquarium, who put him in touch with the kitchens that wanted to buy fresh, local fish, and he made connections with chefs like Bacon. On Friday mornings, he'd call his contacts, and they'd meet him at the docks upon his return. Early customers included Nico Romo from Fish, Craig Deihl from Cypress, Ben Berryhill from Red Drum, Charles Arena from the Boathouse, and a few others. "I'd have to borrow the catering van and go down there and load and unload it myself," Bacon says. "I was excited when [Marhefka] got a truck and I didn't have to drive over there. It's a nice Saturday morning, but it's a bit of a production."
Marhefka knew there was a growing demand, simply because of how much the chefs went through to get his product. "It was a hassle to come down to the dock at 8 a.m. It took some time, but now they don't even have to come down to the docks anymore."
A few weeks ago during our interview over lunch at Butcher & Bee, one of his newest clients (see story, p. 32), Marhefka fielded numerous phone calls from chefs around town. It was the beginning of Restaurant Week, and everyone was anxious to secure enough product to make it through the busy time. For his part, Marhefka was trying to provide fresh vermillion snapper, also called beeliner, at a reasonable price so it would work out profitably for everyone.
"I talk to chefs about the protein-to-plate costs. Understanding that is huge," says Marhefka, who tries to be aware of the challenges faced by his friends on the restaurant side of the business.
Maybe that's why his customers trust him implicitly. "Mark is so dependable, and he's so honest," Berryhill says.
In the last five years, Marhefka has grown his business, getting a truck for making deliveries, building rock solid relationships with chefs, beginning an innovative community-supported fishery program as a way to sell direct to the public, hiring another captain to help fish, and even becoming somewhat of a household name, thanks to the growth of the local food movement and articles in publications like the New York Times. Most of all, though, he's been the number one source for getting local fish from the water to the plate.
For the chefs who work with Marhefka, he's much more than a supplier. "With Mark it's not just a business transaction," says Berryhill. "He's part of our family. We see him and his wife in the Red Drum. ... Our customers know him and the Amy Marie, and people appreciate that."
At McCrady's, Executive Chef Sean Brock professes a staunch belief in him. "If Mark is bringing it, it's being done the right way," he says. "For us, our rule is we should only buy from him. When he doesn't have it, we don't have it."
Not only do the chefs like the guy for who he is, but the fish he provides is pristine. From the moment it's caught to the moment it's delivered, the fish is treated with diligence. "Mark takes so much pride in how he handles and cares for the product," Berryhill says. "It's in amazing condition when we get it."
But getting seafood to restaurants in that kind of condition is a huge challenge. Not only does he have a very limited time to move the fresh catch once he returns to land, but he also has to comply with strict regulations on what he can catch and how much he can take. "For long-lived, slow-growth fish, it takes a long time to get a harvestable fish," Marhefka says. "I try to make sure that chefs get fresh, solid product representative of what's available out there."
And what's available isn't always what's familiar. Take banded rudderfish, for instance, which recently showed up on a handful of menus around town.
"I'd never had rudderfish before," Brock says, but when Marhefka walked in with some, they tried it out, liked the taste, and put it on the menu. "That's the beauty of Marhefka. I think about where we were before he came into our lives. ... There's all this fish out there that's not utilized because no commercial boats are going out for it," he says. "People get stuck in their ways and are not interested in anything else."
But freshly caught, expertly prepared fish is not hard to buy when it tastes so amazing. For Marhefka, having chefs willing to try other things is extremely important. "It's breaking that stigma," he says.
At the Macintosh, Chef Bacon's new restaurant, he's been working with several species that are less familiar to the average diner, including beeliner. "From start to finish, it's pretty incredible," he says.
And at Berryhill's new place Next Door, they've been featuring golden tile fish along with the now familiar triggerfish, a species that was once considered trash but has become commonplace, serving as proof that educating diners is possible and relatively easy.
As for Brock at McCrady's, he's really into banded rudderfish, which is flaky and rich like mahi mahi. Recently they served it with spinach purée, fermented black garlic, local kumquats and parsnips, and kaffir lime. "Our goal is to create the simplest food possible in appearance," Brock says, "but with crazy flavor."
For these chefs, their trust in Marhefka lets them pass along what they get from him to their customers with confidence. "If he fished it, we can sell it," Berryhill says.