Talking Fish with Seafood Buyer Max Harvey

This post comes to us from talkingfish.org, a project of the Conservation Law Foundation and other sustainable seafood partners around New England.

(Photo credit: Jasper White's Summer Shack)

Ask an Expert: Max Harvey, Seafood buyer, Jasper White’s Summer Shack, Cambridge, Mass. – Food is love.

TalkingFish.org: You are known for your commitment to local and sustainable food. Tell us about your philosophy.

Max Harvey: As a seafood buyer and processor dealing with an extensive product list, my philosophy is quite simple. I always do my best to buy dayboat quality fish and shellfish (sourcing products from fishing boats that bring their catch to the dock each day). Yet knowing that this is not always a guarantee, I try to estimate how much fish my restaurants will use so that I can maintain a pipeline of dayboat quality products.

Keeping in tune with which fisheries are open when, both locally and nationally, gives me the ability to find products that are at their seasonal peaks, which allows my restaurants to capitalize on these trends. I always do my best to feature underutilized species of fish that most consumers are not familiar with, thus helping our industries push toward sustainability. The challenge is getting consumers to try something new. I continue to be committed to providing sound and honest information to my customers so that they are comfortable with trying new things, which frankly is a defining goal of most in the seafood industry.

TF: What seafood questions do you get most often from your customers?

MH: It’s not really the questions that stand out. It is a general lack of knowledge. Most customers that tend to speak up are convinced that they know about seafood and the industry. I have had customers call me a liar, telling me that what I am selling is not fresh wild king salmon “because it is July,” and wild salmon is only a spring phenomenon. Far from the truth, but other than giving them my word, most are hard to convince. Often times questions revolve around price comparisons: “Why are your fried clams this much, while theirs are that much?” In this industry, more often than not, you truly get what you pay for.

If a consumer is buying lobsters for $2.99 in August, they are getting newshell lobsters, while at that same time of the year, hardshell lobsters are typically very expensive due to short supply. Try pan roasting a newshell, or stuffing a newshell lobster – it doesn’t work. Comparing these two grades of lobsters during the summer is like comparing apples and oranges.

Almost every single item, fresh and frozen, is broken down into countless different packing grades and quality levels. Take shrimp for example: One processor’s number one grade wild shrimp does not necessarily match another’s number one grade. The same thing with tuna, one person’s number one grade tuna may be another’s “two-plus” grade. Grade with processors is subjective, so finding packers who you are comfortable with is essential.

TF: How do you balance offering something fresh and local against having customer favorites always on hand?

MH: When there are fancy local products available, I always tend to try them. The problem with certain items right now is cost. Most consumers are hesitant to buy items like Nantucket Bay scallops due to their expensive nature. Currently, codfish is extremely pricey. People who are used to getting Atlantic cod, or haddock for that matter, don’t typically embrace these items unless they are affordable. Last week, before the New Year, cod fillets cost me upwards of $12.00 per pound. In a fish market, that would translate to $18.00. Who buys cod around here for $18 a pound?

It is a catch-22, because customers come in and don’t see cod, wonder why, and draw conclusions on their own that are often negative. It can be tough. I always have to remind myself that I need to buy the best and stick to my guns. It is easy to buy “treated scallops” (with preservatives added) for half the price of true “dry” sea scallops (fresh off the boat that day), but I just won’t do that. Once again, you get what you pay for.

The oyster bar at Jasper White's Summer Shack (Photo credit: Jasper White's Summer Shack)

TF: You might be aware that a new management system went into effect a year and a half ago for bottom dwelling species like cod, haddock, flounder and pollock – New England best sellers. Over the past year and a half, have you noticed any changes that have affected your business? E.g. In how much seafood is available, price fluctuations, diversity of species, size of fish?

MH: What I have noticed is higher average prices. I am fine with price stability, and by no means want binge and purge fisheries, which is part of why we are in the situation with groundfish like cod and flounder that we are right now, trying to rebuild depleted populations.  Most of the time there is always fish to buy, but the total volume landed is less, so there is more competition from the purchasing end.

One of the primary impacts to groundfish in the Northeast is the Canadian dollar. Canada has been a big part of our groundfish supply for a long time, but with the strength of the Canadian dollar, much of the Canadian harvest now stays in Canada, as the dealers and fishermen up there are able to get similar money without having to export their share of this wild resource. So there is less cod on the market here.

There are two sides to every story, and cod in particular continues to get bad press as a biomass that is overfished. The topic is a hot spot in the industry, but most fishermen will stand behind their frontline assessments that what they are seeing out there indicates a rebounding biomass. Scientific biomass assessments currently don’t back this up, but the question is: When, how and where did the scientists define their data? Fish move constantly. If I go and fish on top of Stellwagen Bank in April for cod, I’ll catch fish one after the other. If I go on top of Stellwagen in July, I will probably only catch an occasional cod, but bring in a whole bunch of dogfish. Biomass assessment is a difficult nut to crack.

TF: Would you like to share a recipe featuring a New England seafood item?

MH: This one is simple. I just want people to give pollock a chance.

Go and buy a fresh, glossy, pinky piece of pollock from your local fishmonger.

Smell it and assess freshness, it should have little or no smell.

Cut 5 oz. cutlets on the bias so as to even out the thickness of the fillets as you progress toward the loin.

In 3 bowls, line up one with seasoned flour (2 cups AP flour with 2 T old bay and 1 T kosher salt.)

One with 3 eggs, beaten with 2 T of water to thin it out.

One with a generous amount of white Panko breadcrumbs. Use a large bowl.

Place each cutlet into the flour, then into the egg after excess flour has been tapped off, then into the panko. Shake the bowl side to side and the crumbs will jump on top, press the cutlet into the crumbs, remove and set aside.

Chill cutlets for a 1/2 hour and then pan fry in vegetable oil. Preheat pan with 1/4 ” of oil covering the bottom. Once the cutlets are added and are sizzling, moderate the heat to medium so you don’t burn the crumbs. Flip when golden brown. It should take about 4 minutes per side. Place on a paper bag and hold in the oven at 150˚ if you are doing a couple of batches.

Mix 1 T of Sambal chili sauce with 1 cup of Hellman’s Mayo for your dipping sauce. Dip and eat.

If you bought quality pollock, now tell me you don’t like pollock!

Pollock can be used in place of cod or haddock and is versatile in all cooking applications except for grilling.

Remember, some sort of fat is always needed when cooking fish whether it be butter, olive oil, vegetable oil, etc. When steaming, adding a bit of olive or sesame oil to the fillets is always a good idea.

Originally posted here.

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

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