Now a menu staple, Charleston used to have a Jack complex 

You don't know Jack?

Jonathan Boncek

Mark Marhefka catches the banded rudderfish that Chef Mike Lata uses to create dishes like his Smoked Rudderfish

If you've eaten fish at a restaurant in Charleston, chances are you've seen the name Abundant Seafood on the menu. That's the company me and my husband Mark started in 2006. Mark's been a commercial fisherman for 38 years, primarily fishing for species in the "South Atlantic Snapper Grouper Complex" which is a group of 72 species (including snappers, groupers, jacks, porgies, grunts, and triggerfish) that inhabit the reefs off the southeast coast. We sell his catch to the general public through our Community Supported Fishery Program and also straight off our boat to local restaurants. But what many people aren't aware of is that the majority of the time what ends up on our boat and on your plate isn't a result of what's biting as much as it is a result of a very complex set of fishing regulations.

About a decade ago, in order to ensure that the nation's marine resources would remain sustainable, Congress amended the law that manages U.S. fisheries. The law mandated that fish populations must be rebuilt as fast as possible if they were over-fished and that over-fishing could no longer occur. The good news is that these stringent regulations have paid off. Not only are the vast majority of fish populations in the South Atlantic in great shape (and getting better), but we've shifted fishing pressure from fish that are most vulnerable to over-fishing, like the long-lived, slow-growing grouper species to faster growing, more resilient, abundant, and underutilized fish like those in the "jack complex" (this includes greater and lesser amberjack, alma jack, and banded rudderfish).

Mark and I have long been involved in fisheries management and we knew fairly early on that in order to make money with fewer fish we would need to create markets for these underutilized species or "trash fish." We've been beyond fortunate to have the support of local chefs that held true to their ideals of keeping it local even when that meant thinking outside the box. One of the first local chefs to embrace the concept of using local, underutilized species when the more popular ones weren't available was Mike Lata, chef/owner of FIG and The Ordinary. I recently sat down with him to talk about the rise in the popularity of fish in the jack complex.

click to enlarge Smoked rudderfish - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Smoked rudderfish

Kerry Marhefka: Thinking about back when we first started selling you under-utilized species like amberjack and banded rudderfish, it seemed, in my experience, that price was not the driving factor for you and other like-minded chefs? You weren't doing it to try to save a buck?

Mike Lata: No. At one point you guys had the rug pulled out beneath you. When Mark found the banded rudderfish and he told me it was about $1 off the boat, I told him, "Same guy, same boat, same quality, I'll pay you the same for rudderfish that I pay you for everything else based on yield."

KM: When did this process of experimenting with and using under-utilized species start?

ML: Mark kept talking about the quantity of amberjack that he was not able to move. I want to say it started around the same time as The Ordinary, four or five years ago.

KM: If I remember correctly Mark came to you with the idea of banded rudderfish as well?

ML: That was probably also four years ago. I remember Mark told me he couldn't take the boat out because there was nothing to catch. I said why don't you just bring me everything you can catch? I don't care what it looks like and we'll start going through it. If I find something I like and I use it, I'll pay you what I think it's worth, not what everyone else thinks its worth because they think it's trash. So we messed around with a couple of species but I think rudderfish popped up pretty quickly. I'm sure Mark already had it in his mind. This is a jack that is super clean and we fell in love with it immediately.

click to enlarge Mike Lata prepares a rudderfish at The Ordinary - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Mike Lata prepares a rudderfish at The Ordinary

KM: Did he bring you anything that you just couldn't work with?

ML: Well, we got some black belly rosefish and there were scorpionfish type stuff, but for the most part the exercise wasn't that fruitful if I remember correctly. But actually, back then porgy, like jolthead porgy went from being a B or C player to being an A player at that time. Then the tide shifted and the gloves were off and we would take whatever we could get and we knew we would figure it out but the real winner out of that whole thing was rudderfish. We could not believe it had not been a part of the conversation because it's amazing. The cool thing about that story was that when there was more catch than we could purchase, like-minded chefs, like Jeremiah Bacon or Craig Deihl, started buying the rudderfish which caught the attention of the reps for the regional seafood dealers and they started pulling in rudderfish from other ports and you started seeing it available in Atlanta and everywhere in between and I would say Charleston is solely responsible for that happening.

KM: If all of a sudden there were a lot of a better known species like grouper on the market are you likely to stop using that amberjack or banded rudderfish and put local grouper in it's place?

ML: That's a great question! I would say no because we use amberjack in a lot of ways that isn't suitable for grouper. In order to have diversity on the menu we like to have some more oily fish and some more full-flavored fish like jack. For smoking, jack is the best, because it's easy to clean, there's a lot of it, and grouper doesn't smoke the same way. Part of that decision is also the dedication we have to the local guys like Mark. I am not going to start buying grouper from someone else if he doest have any just because I need grouper. If Mark only has amberjack I am going to buy all he has.

KM: So should we talk about the worms? [Amberjack can have a harmless tape worm often concentrated in their tail section which is aesthetically unpleasing but easily removable and harmless to humans.]

ML: So basically you cut open a fish and if it doesn't look right we have to send it back but with the ones that do look OK we clean it up and it's excellent fish! Even I was sensitive to that concept at one point. You cut them out easily and generally they're concentrated near the tail area which isn't the best part of the filet anyway. Once you clean it out, the fish has gorgeous marbling, cooks up beautifully, smokes up beautifully, brines beautifully, and grills beautifully. I would draw the comparison to peeling back a banana and seeing a bruise and cutting it out and what you are left with is a good banana. We want to please people not trick them. It's our goal to create joy at the table so it's not in our best interest to serve anything that we think is a bad idea.

KM: How do you serve amberjack and banded rudderfish? You mentioned that amberjack smokes smokes well? Are there other ways you prepare it?

ML: Amberjack is the best fish for the fish schnitzel at The Ordinary. Banded rudder fish is a workhorse fish that you can grill, sear, or blacken.

KM: Have you encouraged other chefs to use these species?

ML: Yes! If you look at the family tree of the chefs in Charleston and how many of those people have gone through our kitchen; they learned how to cook using these species and to them there is no other way to cook. They know to remain competitive and relevant you can't ignore these species.

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