Inside Week 1 of my James Beard Foundation Work-Study Grant
My first week at Browne Trading Co. was jam-packed with learning. I met Rod Mitchell (founder of Browne) on Sunday for a quick tour of the facilities and a short drive through Portland. Along the drive Rod filled me in on the various departments of Browne, what I’d be doing during the week, and regaled me with interesting tales of his times with Jean-Louis, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller. Rod laughed as he told me how Chef Boulud and Keller would be in his old house, cooking up a storm during the summertime, and he “didn’t think much of it” because they were young then and mostly focused on drinking. He also quizzed me on my fish and shellfish knowledge, of which I had none, and determined me to be a work-in-progress.
On Monday, I was in the office for the AM “production meeting” (where everyone is caught up to speed on what products are needed, moving, or need to be sold that day). It took a few more production meetings to wrap my head around what was going on, but essentially Jeff (Head Fishmonger) would go through the pack-and-ship order list (what orders he has, what he will be processing / has processed). Clients varied from high-end places like Le Bernardin, The Dutch, Per Se, to huge clients like Disney to private chefs. Matt (Head of Sales) and Jeff would then go through the current inventory together to determine what was available, newest items, what needed to move ASAP, any delays/news on incoming inventory, and anything we needed to purchase at the auction (Portland Fish Exchange — more on that later). This all happens very fast and most everyone knows what’s going on already. Rod introduced me to everyone as their “new boss” which made us all chuckle. I quickly got to know everyone across most departments (sales, shipping, purchasing, marketplace, fish processing, packaging, caviar) and was able to shadow a great deal of the department heads in my first week. My main activities for the week were:
I spent my first day and a few subsequent shifts in the caviar room with Caviar Director Richard and his assistant, Kenny. Richard is a wealth of information and didn’t blink an eye as I bombarded with all sorts of questions about caviar, origins, sustainability, maturity, closed-loop aquaculture vs. free-flowing aquaculture and the like. My full caviar notes are in my long-format notes PDF, if interested. On the first day, I focused on learning the origins, process, and development of caviar. Some key takeaways were:
The original term for “caviar” only referred to the roe of wild sturgeon in the acipenseridae family from the Caspian Sea.
Caviar requires a long lifecycle, as sturgeon will need anything from 7–30 years in order to reproduce.
The pursuit of caviar, much like any prized possession in the world, has driven many sturgeon species into endangerment. Specifically, Beluga (huso huso) is no longer caught or sold.
Now, most of caviar is from farmed sturgeon carefully raised and matured in aquaculture systems. Caviar farms from around the world have cropped up in this game, given its lucrative nature, from China to the USA to Iran/Israel to Belgium.
I acclimated to the tasting of many types of caviar, something I rarely ate prior to my trip and something that requires repetition (much like wine) to pick up on nuance. On my first day, I admittedly couldn’t taste much beyond “briny” and could only pick up differences between caviars of drastically different qualities.
While “caviar” was originally meant for sturgeon roe, it has now grown to encompass any types of fish egg from all over the world. Browne specifically carries all types of caviar, from Osetra to Siberian (both sturgeon roe) to trout roe, salmon roe, and tobiko. There were other contenders too, like paddlefish and hackleback that I’d never even heard of. Trout roe is one of the most hardy types of caviar, so I practiced my packing skills with those eggs first.
Caviar is an expensive product, comprising of ~60% of Browne’s revenue, and thus requiring its own arsenal of packaging and design. Richard personally designed all the metallic labels used for Browne’s caviar program, which hung in large rolls from a formidable wall we called the “Great Wall”. Caviar also had its own little vacuum chamber, only for caviar use (I’d never seen one so small!).
As Kenny and I packed caviar side-by-side, I was able to sample every variety of caviar opened and talk about its differences. I first learned that the same can of caviar does not taste the same in all areas! Due to temperature fluctuations of the storage facility during transport, the best and “truest” taste comes from the caviar at the very center of the caviar tin. I was skeptical at first, but once Richard had me actually sample 3 bites of caviar (center, top, side) I saw the difference was readily apparent. I also tasted some closed-loop aquaculture (i.e. water for the fish are recycled and re-pumped) vs. free-flowing water (cages are placed in front of streaming fresh water) and there is also a subtle difference. Perhaps it’s the algae growth due to the recycling process, no one knows for sure.
I slowly moved up the chain of caviar to pack more complicated (and easily squishable) varieties such as hackleback. Richard began to tell me about how caviar is not as perishable as most people think as it has been brined in salt (usually 3.5% salt by weight resulting in 5%+ salt by moisture) but it is susceptible to oxidation and should be kept at temperatures below 28F. Some caviars, such as salmon roe, will always come frozen and that is the proper storage.
I was surprised to learn that what caviar connoisseurs looks for is size (grain) and lightness in color, along with sturdy membrane structure with a visible yolk and a “pop” upon eating. Most of the caviar I’ve seen has been jet black and very fine — not the good stuff! In fact, some of the most precious caviar in the world is a natural product where some anomaly in the sturgeon causes the roe to be golden! Richard told me he’s ever only seen it once in his whole life. It’s harder to move caviar that is darker / duller in color from others, even though it may be of the same quality, so it’s super important to check the caviar upon arrival for consistency. When I asked about byproduct / waste in the caviar supply chain, I learned that countries with higher caviar consumption (i.e. Russia) will eat caviar in various ways besides as fancy “Caviar Service”. It’s a regular on a dinner table, much like butter, and will sometimes be made into solid blocks (looks a little like Vegemite) to be used as a spread. I sampled some of the hard blocks and can’t say I enjoyed it, but it was good to know!
By my last shift of the week, Richard allowed me to package the granddaddy of all of Browne’s caviar: the tins for Per Se and French Laundry, and glass containers for Daniel. Even though I’d packed a lot of caviar of all sizes, I was a little nervous — these tins run $900+! Richard taught me a useful trick for holding my spatula to unsettle the least amount of roe before I started and I got to work very, very carefully.
We happened to have a couple of tins of caviar from the same facility, but from different fish, to pick from so Richard let me try all 4 and tell him which I liked best. There is no standard caviar tin “size” as the roe sack of every sturgeon is different, and as such every caviar tastes a little different even if it’s gone through the same lifecycle and ate the same foods. Also interesting to note is that caviar tins are supposed to be leaking somewhat from the sides — that’s why there’s a tiny air gap. As the caviar sits longer in the salt brine, it oozes a bit more moisture over time and if the tin were air-tight, that brine would take up more space and squish the roe. This reminded me of the process behind carbonic maceration! But anyway, leaking = good and thus, caviar is traditionally always packed in metal tins. Final fun fact about caviar — some unscrupulous suppliers will use the term “osetra” and apply it to all their varieties of caviar, even those that do not come from Russian Sturgeon (whose caviar is technically called Osetra). This because in Russian, osetra translates as “caviar”, so they use this convenient loophole to play off lesser-grade stuff as fancy goodies. Make sure to be cognizant and careful and personally evaluate all the caviar you have!
Field Trip: Winter Point
I was very lucky to take a field trip with Rod and Andrew (Browne’s social media consultant) out to Winter Point Oyster Farm, home of some of the most magnificent, camera-ready, easy-shucking oysters out there. The farm is on a beautiful property north of Portland (30 min drive or so), nestled in a large plot of land that’s been passed down through the family for 16 generations!
The farm is run by Oyster Master John and his dad, who were both out on the boat pulling up oysters as we arrived.
Winter Point Oysters are some of the most in-demand oysters on the East Coast. The demand far exceeds the supply — or at least, the supply John is willing to give. As the three of us headed to the shucking and processing barge, John showed us how carefully sorts his oysters. For every 50 oysters or so, he will hand-select maybe 13 to be sold to Browne or Eventide or his other accounts. He determines this through a long series of checks:
A deep oysters cup (the depth of the oyster, which is an indication of quality)
Flat top (desireable for smooth shucking)
The mantle (outer rim) with fat content (depletes as the oyster season wears and the oysters use its fat reserves)
The scallop (abductor muscle that connect oyster to its shell, which should be nice and large)
Abundance of liquor (mixture of water inside an oyster) — “dry” oysters are not seen favorably and often result from any cracked shells / spillage
Winter Points have a signature bright green shell, and you can see how perfect the cups are. Oysters grow from the bottom shell upwards, so as the shell grows in length the oyster’s cup increases to match.
While the demand is steady and increasing, the farm itself has been hit with some tough times over the last few years due to unforeseen weather changes. A late frost killed tons and tons of oysters one year, John told us, crabs had been eating oysters voraciously another, and variable weather caused a record percentage of oysters to spawn this year. Because of this, they’ve been having trouble with oddly shaped oysters that have grown around each other, jostling for space. Rod and him began to discuss the potential of an “ugly oyster” program, where just-as-delicious but not-as-attractive Winter Points could be sold for non-presentation uses (in a dish vs. raw in a tower). Personally, I didn’t find any of the Winter Points that ugly, but I could tell John had a specific eye for what he wanted.
The three of us crowded around him and his father as they began to wash and process their latest bag of oysters. First, it goes into a custom-made scrubbing machine that looks like a big plastic tub filled with bristles inside. This cleans the outside of the oysters by gently agitating them and removing any funky bits of the water’s floor. Next, they are spread on a big steel table and continually hosed as John sorts all of them into different buckets depending on quality and size.
There’s also a bucket of “random stuff we picked up”, usually consisting of hermit crabs and clams. We found 2 hermit crabs intact in shell, plus one that lost its shell. They all proceeded to fight for territory rights. We also picked up one voluptuous Cherrystone clam, which Rod awarded to me as Andrew looked on enviously. It was the best clam I’ve ever eaten, juicy and supple and creamy. I also found these perfectly circular holes in some clam shells, and John told me certain creatures (i.e. starfish) will bore these holes in order to eat the meat inside the bivalve. It takes a long time, but results in a good meal — isn’t that a beautiful show of nature!
John told us it was just this year they built a plastic encasement over the processing facility, and in past Winters he would be out here with layers upon layers while processing thousands of pounds of oysters. I just shook my head in disbelief at simply how hard they worked.
At the end of our trip, John remembered he had a special treat to show us. He had harvested some sea urchins from a different section of water and had been keeping them a little cage to see how they developed. They weren’t really thinking of going into the urchin business, but figured they could experiment and see.
These urchins were small guys, unlike the fat ones you’ll find on the Pacific Coast. We cracked them open with a small paring knife and sampled the uni.
This uni wasn’t as sweet as the ones we are accustomed to, but rather savory in character. John was surprised at how much the gonads had shrunk in a week, as he told us the urchins were much plumper inside last week. Maybe not on the roster for sale, just still a fascinating snack from the sea to complement all the delicious Winter Points we’d eaten! What a cool experience to peek inside the works of the oyster supply chain.
Fish & Shellfish Smoking Room
I was able to see the entire process of Browne’s very famous, very delicious Smoked Salmon from brine to rinse to smoke to packaging with Smokemaster Joe. Joe has been the Smokemaster for over a decade, taking over after Kenny (now in Caviar) left. He makes a large roster of products (5 types of Smoked Salmon, Smoked Scallops, Smoked Mussels, Smoked Shrimp, Smoked Haddock, etc.) and was responsible for creating the delicious Lemon-Dill and Lemon-Basil varieties. My favorite amongst all of them, however, has to be the Hot-Smoked Maple Salmon. It is so good. Joe put together a big sample pack for me to munch on at home, and I breezed through all of it quickly. The smoked scallops are fantastic for stews and sauces; the smoked shrimp really good for adding depth to curries or purees; cold smoked salmon I had for breakfast (of course). My favorite cold smoked flavor (as is everyone’s!) is the scotch-brined variety — I’ll go into details below ;)
The first step of the smoked salmon process is to brine the fish. Each variety is a little different, but they all start receive the same salt and sugar mix. The salmon is Atlantic Sapphire Salmon, a farm-raised salmon that tastes and looks like wild salmon. Rod had told me a lot about how picky he is with salmon, and this is the main variety they sell at Browne. The color is deep, the fat content just right, the flesh firm and moist. The scotch salmon is sprayed with scotch before being tossed in salt / sugar and carefully laid flat in batches. The lemon-based salmons are sprayed with lemon juice and the traditional flavor isn’t sprayed, but has a special rub which includes nori (seaweed flakes). The salmon is then covered and weighed with heavy water weights overnight. The next day at 7:30am I joined Joe in hosing down the salmon fillets, which had absorbed an incredible amount of the brine. They are then set to dry in racks labeled by type.
Once the salmon is suitably dry, they are loaded up into a humongous smoker that fits entire wheeled tray tables. There are two separate smokers, one for hot smoking (145F+ for at least 30 minutes) and one for cold smoking (<90F). All the salmon except for the Maple variety is cold-smoked, as that’s the classic version. Browne’s salmon is smoked for 6 hours in the 78–82F range, then for 20 minutes at the 85–87F range. Joe told me the last 20 minutes are very important as it brings the oil from the salmon to the surface, giving the fillets a beautiful sheen.
Besides temperature differences, there are other factors at play between hot and cold smoked items. For instance, Browne uses dry brines for cold smokes and wet brines for hot smokes. As items continue to smoke for longer times and/or higher temperatures, more moisture will leave the fish, resulting in a saltier end product. That explains why most hot-smoked fish are done with a sweet agent (i.e. maple syrup).
Joe gave me some time off and told me to come back at 2pm for freshly smoked salmon. I put my phone on countdown and showed up right at 2 with eager eyes and an appetite. “You have good memory!” he marveled. Freshly smoked salmon is so, so delicious. I ate an egregious amount, stopped only by my dignity and the fact I’d already chowed down on some Matzo Ball Soup made my Chef Linda (Browne’s resident Chef who makes all the goodies the Browne Store sells — more on that later).
It’s important for smoked salmon to be packed quickly after smoking as the smoke begins to dissipate from the product, so Joe will bring the smoked salmon down to the proper temperature and package it quickly. He processes the fillets depending on how it will be sold: whole sides the skin is left on, with ends trimmed. 4oz bags are skin-off and sliced through a giant mandolin-esque machine with big cautionary signs warning against putting your fingers anywhere in the center. The salmon belly is sliced off and diced, sold separately to be used for things like salmon dips. Other pieces, odds ’n’ ends, are also packed into bags and kept around for employees and friends to use. Joe told me while he doesn’t like salmon (I know, crazy right?! He’s never eaten any of the smoked salmon he’s produced), his son made a tasty salmon “bacon” from some of the scrap pieces he brought home. Sounds tasty!
I helped Joe package bags and bags of 4oz and whole sides once the salmon was ready. “It doesn’t have to be quite as exact as caviar,” he told me good-naturedly, “It can’t be under, but it can be a little over.” But all that caviar training had made me fastidious about weights, so I proceeded to pore over my salmon pieces and make them all perfectly 4oz anyway. After everything was packaged, we then took to the giant vacuum sealer (at least 10x my size) to seal everything, box them up, and bring them over to the freezer. Because of strict HACCP regulations, all the smoked items are frozen and kept frozen when sold. They are only to meant to be thawed prior to eating. It’s not ideal, but it’s so complicated to keep it as a refrigerated vs. frozen through the supply chain that’s the way it is.
After processing, Joe gave me the fun job of spraying the entire smoking room with soapy suds. I was delighted. “I knew you would like that job!” he said. I took the spray gun and went totally haywire on the room and managed to spray parts of myself with soap too. Then we got to hose everything down with water and squeegee (also very satisfying) before turning off the lights for the process to start again tomorrow.
All of Browne’s fish and shellfish are processed and packed in a giant, multi-roomed cooler to ensure safety. Head Fishmonger Jeff and Fishmonger Jared let me shadow them for a few days to scale/gut/fillet fish, pull product for orders, and observe larger fish (i.e. tuna) be cut up. The Fish Cooler is by far the hardest “station” at Browne and I’m still so impressed by how much is done there, so quickly and efficiently, day in and day out.
I first had to be suited up in something that resembled a Hazmat suit but with more insulation. I had 3–4 layers of clothing under the suit (it’s very cold in there!) plus an apron, plastic elbow sleeves, and 2 layers of gloves. I think I commandeered the only few boxes of size S gloves in the whole building that week! Jeff stands at the center of the room (the “podium”) and keeps all the wheels turning as he pulls fish for orders, checks in on Jared, inspects fish from the auction, looks through inventory, etc. Occasionally he also goes upstairs to the sales floor to clarify orders as some clients are very specific on what they want. I kept envisioning everyone at Browne adapting walkie-talkies and how funny (but efficient!) it would be. Jeff showed me how the whole fish room was laid out (domestic fish here, international fish here, shellfish and oysters here, larger-format fish here). I learned that the fish is dated not by our standard date (i.e. 4/13/2017) but by the day of the year (i.e. 106) as it is much better for fact-checking. While orders come in calling for a specific amount (i.e. 10 lbs) of fish, realistically the fish is fulfilled as close as possible due to its size and/or availability. It was fascinating to see who was ordering what fish, and how. Most high-end places like Le Bernardin will always ask for whole fish as their in-house fishmonger will process it upon arrival. As Jeff says, this is the most ideal for all restaurants as with whole fish you can really see exactly how fresh it is. Unfortunately not everyone has the capacity to do this, so much of the processing will be handled by Browne before it is packed on ice and shipped Next-Day Air.
I was stationed off to Jared next, who works in a sectioned off area for processing. Jared was extra-patient with me lack of filleting abilities. Orders usually come in 2 big waves, the AM (before 10am or so) and the PM (cutoff is 2:30pm). We’re only allowed to be in the cooler for ~2 hours at a time before a mandatory break as it’s very cold, but even with the short stretches of time Jared processed an ungodly amount of fish. We started a few big orders of various flatfish (turbot and fluke). The most important part of learning how to fillet is understanding the fish’s skeletal structure. For flatfish, there’s a large rib at the center of each side that must be handled gently to not break off bones into the flesh. For fish like Loup de Mer, this process can be less delicate as the fish bones are softer and can be simply cut through (if that’s the cut the customer asks for). Salmon and sablefish are similar in structure (obviously the salmon is much larger and more expensive, so I was not allowed to cut any salmon) and the filleting process also a little different.
Across all my stints in the Fish Cooler, Jeff and Jared spent a lot of time showing me the process over and over and over again, guiding my knife as I went through the fishes. As with any technical skill, it is a muscle memory and learned ability through repetition so I reassured myself I just had to spent more time in the cooler. A big difficulty I had was not really “feeling” where the bones were with the tip of my knife and angling my knife a little too up or down, which mashed it sorely into the harder bones. Poor Jared said “oh, not bad” for so many botched fish! Towards the end of my trip I was beginning to have better-shaped fillets, especially of the sablefish. I was even getting the majority of the hard-to-reach belly areas and capturing most of the meat around the fish neck. The easiest fish by far, however, was monkfish. It only has one giant bone, comes head-off, and you cut it in half and remove the skin. Voila! Felt like a champ doing these. For the bigger fish like cod and halibut, I stood back and watched Jared fillet these. An interesting fact about cod — it’s susceptible to many worms! It happens to eat a lot of seal poop, which contain worms, and they wiggle into the cod flesh and nourish themselves there. Once spotted, they are picked out of the fillet and it’s totally harmless (but slightly gross). As Jeff put it, “This is why we don’t eat cod sashimi.”
Besides filleting, I also got to hose off fish (my favorite activity), scale them, and gut them. Scaling proved a lot more difficult than I imagined with the industry scaler, a huge hose-like structure that comes out of the ceiling with a cylindrical whirring blade inside and a metal cover to block flying scales (and protect your hands). Genius me scaled off many layers of my thumb within my first hour of using the scaling and had to be escorted into the first-aid kit to dose my thumb with ointment and a lot of gauze. “Well at least we know the scaler works!” I announced to Jared when I returned to the cooler. I also managed to poke myself with a fish fin on the same day, which is poisonous (don’t worry, antibiotics will fix it in a jiffy). After that, Jared told me to stay away from the John Dory fish, a nasty looking thing with a huge gut, big roe sacks (that no one eats though?), a monstrous expanding mouth, and very poisonous spikes. The flesh yield on a John Dory is very low (~30%) but the fish is very delicate and tasty, so they are quite a prized item for restaurant menus.
During my time at Browne, a few smaller Yellow-Fin Tunas also came through. Jeff showed me how tuna is graded (a small hollow cylinder is inserted through the flesh and examined for quality.) When put up against a backlight, clarity and translucence in this little flesh tube indicates quality — the best stuff will then be graded suitable for sashimi. Jeff also will look at the blood line of the tuna to make sure it’s nice a red (indicator for freshness). Older fish will begin to brown unattractively.
The Blue-Fin tuna is the most prized variety of tuna as they are huge in size and their toro (belly) is superbly marbled and tasty. Yellow-Fins are usually a little smaller (the one I saw as 60–70 lbs) and there’s not much nuance to the toro. Interestingly, Blue-Fin and Yellow-Fin tuna actually have blue and yellow fins across the back end of their tails!
Each side of tuna will yield a top and bottom loin. As Jeff filleted the tuna, he weighed and recorded each loin (15+ lbs each!). He told me the biggest tuna he’d filleted was 200+ lbs, and that’s not unusual for a summer catch. That’s twice my size in a fish! The filleting didn’t take very long — perhaps 15 minutes or so, prolonged by my incessant questions — so Jeff also showed me how to tell fresh fish from its older counterparts (which are still fine, but better utilized as cutting fish). We rifled through a few large cods for an example. Clear, bright eyes, firm flesh, fresh slime (something fish secrete to protect themselves — icky but a good sign), bright red gills. More on this later as I go to the fish auction and picked out some fish to bid on!
I also learned a lot of facts by sheer osmosis / being in the presence of experts. I was able to sample some very fresh Dayboat scallops as our purchaser Andy picked through the best ones for Le Bernardin. These were maybe 8 hours old, harvested in the morning, shucked at sea. When flicked with your thumb, the scallops would bounce back like a rubber band. It was absolutely astounding. I ate one with great relish and it was unlike any scallop I’d ever had. Unfortunately Dayboat scallop season is over so the new scallops are being flown in from Hokkaido, Japan but…I can wait until next year to gorge!!
Rod told me a lot about scallops on our drive down to Southern Maine as we delivered some of these beauties to Joshua’s Restaurant. Dayboat scallops and Diver scallops are the same type of Sea Scallop, but harvested differently. Divers are uniquely identified and will dive 90+ meters for scallops these days. When Rod first went scallop diving (as Jean Louis wanted fresh scallops for his dishes), the scallops were plentiful by the harbor and shallow waters. Prices were nothing like the astronomical amounts they are now. Dayboat scallops are similarly expensive, but Andy says the scallops do get a tad bit dirtier as they are dragged into the boat versus being hand-plucked. “Not noticeable though,” he concluded.
Scallops vary in color due to its diet, so you can see some natural variation in the photo above. That’s not important though — restaurants usually are looking more for consistency in size. It’s also important to only buy “dry” scallops, as those are not brined to increase volume. Cook a brined scallop, Rod told me, “it leaks everywhere”. Yuck. Scallops are also packaged best in metal tins to keep the temperature fluctuations to a minimum (much like caviar!) and deteriorate quickly — Andy recommended using the within 2 days, but it is a visible decline after the first 24 hours. Like many other bivalves, scallops are filter feeders that naturally clean out the water. Because of this, they are susceptible to PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning) due to Red Tide that’s present in Maine. Thus, scallops can’t be sold whole as the PSP will sit in its gonads (which some chefs, especially European ones, like to serve). Scallops are unlike mussels and clams that they move around, so even if they were harvested in a Red Tide free zone, you’re never quite sure where that pesky thing has been traveling its whole life.
I also spent some time with Chef Linda learning about Mainers’ eating habits and preferences. Portland’s food scene is pretty varied for a smaller town, but the staples are clear: clam chowder, lobster bisque, haddock stew, etc. are the big sellers of her soups. Crab Mac & Cheese is the consistent top seller of the hot items in the store. But things are changing and tastes shifting as she experiments with more flavor combinations and new offerings. She made all sorts of interesting breads in my first week (Cacao Rye, Brioche, etc.) and lots of new sandwiches, not to mention Matzo Ball Soup and Borscht!
That’s a wrap of Week 1! Next week’s post will be covering my mussel adventure with Bangs Island Mussels, the Portland Fish Exchange, the Uni Factory, learnings about lobster and elvers, and staging at the esteemed Central Provisions! You can find my Week 2 post here.