I have always been an ingredient-driven chef. My formula is simple: find the best ingredient, apply my thousands of hours of practiced craft, and deliver it to the customer in the best version of itself. What I have learned from “ingredient” cooking is that the success of the dish solely relies on the quality of the ingredient; for example, perfect arugula, in the right hands, can produce a perfect arugula salad. Anything of lesser quality will produce an undesirable result and seem foolish or careless. So for my style of cooking, to have a successful career you must find the best product.
The search is always on, and much to the chagrin of some of our purveyors, we taste everything that comes in the back door before we accept and pay for it. If we lose that edge that early in the process, there is no chance of producing a memorable experience for the customer.
All the years of tasting has given me a keen sense of what fresh and alive foods taste like and even feel like in my mouth. In the effort to find the most vibrant textures and flavors, we go closer to the source to capture the ingredients at their absolute peak. This leads us to their origin. We develop relationships with the producers and share our feelings about this and that in order to get the best result, which only comes through that kind of collaboration.
When you build a career around this philosophy, you gain a sense of place through food. You learn what it is about your region that is special and what products define your culinary landscape. In the case of Charleston, year in and year out, we have some of the best seafood I have ever eaten. The salinity of the water, the pluff mud, the way the oysters air out in the sea breeze at low tide, the proximity to the restaurants — all of this creates an unmatched expression of wild harvested seafood on the East Coast. The kind of ingredients that warrant their own classification of origin — a truly unique food
If you have ever had the pleasure of eating the first-of-the-season white roe shrimp, so plump and tender, laden with eggs, or soft-shell crabs just hours from shedding their hard protective shells, you know why I am so enthusiastic. When you add in the briny oysters and clams and the sushi quality line-caught fish right off the boat, it becomes clear that these foods are to be celebrated, and we are fortunate to have them.
And they would not be available without the exhaustive efforts of our purveyors. We have a husband-and-wife team, Kerry and Mark Marhefka, who are separated for days at a time: he’s out to sea, and she handles the chefs and coordinates deliveries. Kimberly and Bobby Carroll split three-hour shifts watching the shedders every night during soft-shell crab season just to make sure they can deliver the crabs as soft as can be. And then you have “Clammer” Dave Belanger, who chisels cluster oysters apart by hand so he can deliver you his famous Capers Blades as well as his nationally acclaimed clams.
Over the last couple of years the fishing regulations have become pretty stiff. Tighter catch limits and moratoriums on staple Charleston menu items like grouper, snapper, and black bass have disrupted the flow of local product into our market. Currently, the annual wreckfish catch is being re-evaluated, with the South Atlantic Fishery Management considering dropping annual catch limits from 2 million pounds to 235,000 pounds, a very significant restriction. These types of regulations have forced folks like the Marhefkas to start looking for alternative species and sources of revenue. In our efforts to share the challenge, we ask Mark to send us every oddball catch, junk fish, eel, and whatever else he can throw at us. As a result, we have cooked and eaten squirrelfish, moray eel, lionfish, ribbonfish, and local anchovies, among others. The jury is still out on a few of those, but we have kicked up some winners: jolthead porgy and banded rudderfish. Along with these items, we have been buying other lesser-known species with more frequency such as lesser amberjacks, grunts, mutton, and cubera snappers, red porgies, and whiting. Interestingly, it wasn’t that long ago that triggerfish was in this junk fish category.
Shrimp boats also pull all sorts of fish off the bottom in the shrimping process, and that by-catch has some interesting possibilities too. We started asking our friends at the docks to nose around to see if there was anything of value, and for the first time this year we served local skate wing to our customers with fantastic results. Kimberly Carroll, in addition to bringing us both hard crabs and stone crabs, has been dropping off local octopus as well.
The question of sustainable harvesting and overfishing casts a gray cloud over the industry and makes it difficult to feel good about promoting seafood. These issues are real and met accordingly with the strictest laws and regulations. As a matter of fact, our local waters are the most heavily regulated in the world. We are aware of the sensitivities surrounding the industry but also support the efforts of our local fisheries to find alternatives to the species that have experienced too much pressure over the years. So I say it’s OK that grouper isn’t available for months at a time. It’s no different from waiting for the spring to produce asparagus or anticipating the first summer tomato off the vine. But it’s still important to source our seafood locally, try new species, and continue to discover new options.
As the year rolls on we will still celebrate all the bounty Charleston has to offer. We will revel in the presence of the most perfect Red Russian kale from Sidi Limehouse. Celeste Albers’ eggs will continue to be the eggs against which all others are judged, and pork will settle into another year of popularity. But this is the year for fish. With our purveyors catching and producing at a high level, and the chefs demanding more of it, I think we will see Charleston come into its own as a seafood town.
Mike Lata is the James Beard Award-winning executive chef and co-owner of FIG, located at 232 Meeting St. (843) 805-5900.