“Striped bass, trout, and stuff like that. Scallops… That’s the ocean I come from,” Fi’lia chef de cuisine Tim Piazza begins. “When I was working at (Michael’s) Genuine, I began figuring out what South Florida has to offer as far as local sustainable fish. Golden tilefish is one we really look forward to.”
Coming from New York, Tim had to learn the seasons, the ingredients, all over again, and same goes for the sea as it does for land. With grouper out until summer, the arrival of swimmers at the top of the food chain is the perfect trigger for the kitchen to revisit fish dishes on the menu. Changing the set up is always on the table, but so is a switch more subtle yet maybe even more significant. Tim turned up the volume on one of my favorite dishes simply swapping snapper for golden tile.
“You get something a lot cleaner, with a little more firmness and structure to the fish. Which means a higher fat content, so the bite is a little more luxurious,” he explains. “I had to wrap my head around it but it’s just a constant thing and part of the process for our kitchen, menu development. It’s just about getting smarter as a cook down here. You flip the script like 100%.”
Talk to fishmonger George Figueroa of Trigger Seafood, Michael’s good friend and dispatch of what’s running since Genuine’s early days, and he’ll yarn a tail as only his dying breed can, one that makes the fish leap from the plate with context essential to the understanding – and therefore ultimate enjoyment – of the ingredient.
“Right now the season opened on the golden tile and the long liners are out off Florida’s north Atlantic coast, even at Pulley’s Ridge about 140 to 160 miles northwest of Key West in the Gulf,” he explains. “It’s where these guys like to be, deep in the trenches. That’s why they have this angled head, to bury in the sand.”
NOAA’s commercial season began on as appropriate day as any, January 1. Midnight on New Year’s Day the boats George works with went out from Port Canaveral. We received our first delivery last week. Deep sea fisherman like these are the real deal. They’re allowed a 4-5,000 pound haul per boat trip, each lasting about eight, sometimes 10 days. This is serious fishing, with in some cases five miles of hooks gleaning specimens of 20 to even 60 pounds from downwards of 1,000 feet. In keeping with regulation, the boats must be at least 200 miles from nearest land mass. This is a better fishery than close to shore, and where you can find the queens (snapper,) snowy groupers, wreckfish… basically all the stuff that keeps things interesting and cooks on their toes amidst schools of mutton, yellowtail and mangrove snappers. People will be fishing golden tile hook and line for the rest of the year, after the long liners finish their allotment.
Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink chef de cuisine Saul Ramos will receive 200 pounds this afternoon from Wild Ocean Seafood and, not unlike a whole pig, he’ll work through every inch, using the bones for a fish fume with lemongrass, the cheek on the grill with scallion, ginger and lemon, the fillet into the wood oven or pan seared. The scraps will go into ceviche at the raw bar, and the collar will be served crispy on the outside with fatty flakes of juicy white flesh in the nooks.
“These big fish are more fun. Carrying it, you feel the weight, and from the moment the knife cuts into the flesh,” he says. “One of the things I love about golden tile is that it has a subtle flavor of lobster and crab. Cooked perfectly, you really get a nice flavor of shellfish.”
Saul explains that when breaking down these big guys, you need to know where to enter and be precise, following the cuts to get the most yield. He uses three knives — a fillet knife, which is more fragile and has two different blades for a cleaner cut. Then there’s the chef’s knife to get at the bones. A pairing knife goes around tighter places like the neck.
Because of the challenges of this fishery, especially how long the fish are out of the water compared to shallow dayboat catch, George is careful who he works with despite what would seem to be a task only for the most seasoned, simpatico professionals.
Size and quality are top priority. First, you’ll want to put the fish into a chill brine, which is basically what it sounds like – a slushy mix of salt water and ice which really drops the temperature quick – and then on ice. And you must bring to shore as quickly as possible, not camp out for more yield when it compromises the catch.
“You have to stick to your guns, when some customers want fish that just isn’t available from sources you trust,” he reflects. “That’s how my business started. I can only work on small scale, because you’ll get old fish, and it’s going to hurt. I don’t want to get any bigger. You have to be willing to say it’s not available. Everyone wants the fish, but there’s only so much and we can’t just be like everyone else. When grouper season closed it was like disbelief. It’s like take it off your damn menu already! Take what’s available, the best product. Be flexible.”