By Laura A. Serrano
Fish: gill bearing, aquatic animals — a description that may not come to mind when ordering fish off a menu or when purchasing a couple of pounds of it at your local market.
As with anything that we consume, it is important to know where fish come from. What kind of journey do these fish go through before making it on to a menu and then to our dinner plates? How does a restaurant obtain the freshest fish?
Fishermen catch the fish at sea and once that portion of the process is complete, first receivers step in — but what exactly is a first receiver? Individuals who are licensed as first receivers are allowed to receive fish for the purpose of sale from commercial fishermen. A receiver is a person or company who receives, purchases, takes custody, control or possession of catch caught onshore from a vessel that harvested fish under the Shore Based Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all buyers must obtain a first receiver site license for each physical landing site. California State First Receivers Licenses cost $773.75 and are effective for one year from the date of issuance.
We have the information that a person needs if interested in obtaining a First Receivers License, but at Great Taste, we wanted to know what it is like being a receiver and the benefits of being licensed, so we asked Chef Arthur Gonzalez, Chef and Partner at roe xpress and eatery and Panxa Cocina in Long Beach.
Why did you want the receivers license?
As you know, I have a fish market. Through the years [of] purchasing fish through distributors, I’ve always tried to keep it as local as possible. With the fish market and the volume that we’re going through, I did some homework and found out that you can get
what is called a receiver’s license to buy from local boats that have a commercial fishing license. There are a lot of them and you can buy the fish direct from them […] or so I thought. You’re getting a better product that doesn’t go through a middle man. It’s straight from the boat to consumer. It allows you to be more competitive in price and you’re also able to get to know the fishermen and see their practices. Is it sustainable? Is it harming the environment? Do they have bycatch? It’s very seasonally regulated, giving the fish an opportunity to regroup and get their numbers back up.
How and where did you get the receivers license?
It’s actually pretty simple: you have to show up with your operating agreement, or what your business type is and you have to come with all the paperwork. I went to Fish and Game in Los Alamitos and it was about a day process once we filled out the application. They faxed it up to Sacramento and then gave me a license. They give you what they call a Landing Receipt Book that’s pretty cool because you have to put what type of fish you’re getting, the size, the weight, the gear on how it was caught. When I was reviewing it, the lady was telling me that we do this to keep record to ascertain if certain species are being over fished and it just helps keep track of what’s being fished.
What percentage of your menu do you think you will source directly?
“I am going to work really closely with Sarah Rathbone and a program called Dock to Dish, Gonzalez said. Sarah Rathbone, founder and Director of Operations of Community Seafood in Santa Barbara, decided to partner with Dock to Dish to bring the concept to the West Coast after meeting at a sustainable seafood conference two years ago. Community-supported fisheries are great because you know exactly where your seafood is coming from. The seafood industry is one part of the food world that sorely needs more transparency and a stronger commitment to sustainability (Huffington Post, 2014). Community fisheries aim for sustainability and practicing humane fishing. Fishermen in the US have some of the most stringent rules and regulations in the world which should ensure that we eat the best possible fish. The opposite is the reality, 92 percent of seafood eaten in the United States is from foreign waters and only about two percent of that is inspected.
The Aquarium of the Pacific’s Seafood for the Future program provides science-based information about seafood and its role in the global food supply to help businesses and consumers make informed seafood choices that benefit the health and well-being of fish, people, and the planet, important information for both fishermen and chefs like Arthur Gonzalez. [www.seafoodforthefuture.org] “A lot of the menu items that I am going to serve at the restaurant are going to be based off the local species of fish that we are already using, halibut, seabass, yellowtail, Santa Barbara spot prawns,” Gonzalez said. “They have a lot of sea snail up there and we will see if that’s something we can work into the menu. The percentage of my fish items that is be sourced directly is between 60 to 70 percent. 70 percent on a good day,” said Gonzalez.
“I love the fishermen, but they’re extremely guarded, they don’t easily let any outsiders in. A lot of these fishermen have boats that have been handed down to them from their family, it’s a job they’re used to doing, it’s comfortable, and they’re great at it. They pull to the dock and all these big companies are ready to buy the fish so what makes them wanna deal with one guy that’s buying a quarter of the fish that these guys are buying? It’s kind of hard to penetrate that fricking wall. That’s where I’ve been having problems, they just don’t want to deal with you,” Gonzalez said. “I found the program Dock to Dish and Sarah, the owner, is a fisherman. Being down on the docks she hand-picked a halibut person, a yellowtail fisherman, and a source for spot prawns so she has her fishermen. She collects the top tier of what they’re catching every day. You can sign up for her program, agreeing to how many pounds you want every week to your restaurant. She’ll deliver it to you but you probably won’t know what’s coming. She shows up at our back door and says, ‘Here’s 20 pounds of halibut, 30 pounds of yellowtail, 10 pounds of sea snail, five pounds of spot prawns etc. It’s just going to be a mixture of what they’re catching. Whatever it is, she works it to where you get that poundage of what they’re catching locally.” Most of the seafood species that Gonzalez mentioned (halibut, spot prawns, yellowtail) are available year-round. While other species, such as salmon are only in season during summer and spring. When asked how many pounds of fish he foresaw the restaurant serving per week, Gonzalez gave a quick response, ‘Holy crap’ and then filled us in with a few numbers so we can put this is in perspective at Great Taste. “It’s kind of skewed; yellowish due to poke sales, I’m going through about 200 pounds a week. That’s one fish. One of my best selling, halibut, 175-200 pounds a week and that goes the same with seabass. Salmon is probably up to about 300 pounds. Now mind you, this combines the totals from the farmer’s markets (Bixby Knolls, Long Beach Marina, and Cerritos) and by selling fish by the pound here in the market at roe xpress. It’s going to spike up with roe eatery opening and I would probably say close to 100 pounds on each species just on the restaurant side—at least.” Aside from Panxa Cocina, roe xpress, a market serving poke, fresh fish, seafood platters, fish and chips, and clam chowder; Gonzalez will open roe eatery in August 2016, a full service restaurant and patio.
How often do you think you will go to fishermen or will you get some kind of delivery schedule?
This is the part where I’m hitting road blocks. It’s surprising that there’s not a huge commercial fishing program or boats in Long Beach. The easiest and closest place that I have found is Santa Barbara, but these fishermen are not going to drive two hours down to Los Angeles just to deliver a weekly order of fish. We may have to get a refrigerated truck and go up there two times a week. There are also a few different programs that we can work with like Santa Barbara Fish Company. They come down to Los Angeles already and if I have an order they’ll be more than happy to bring me what I’m ordering directly from the fishermen—for a delivery fee, and I would still save money. My philosophy includes sourcing about 80 percent of my fish locally. I’m going to try to go as often as I can or at least meet in LA to get our product. We’re at the point where I have to have a true fish person dedicated to purchasing, making sure our prices are where they should be, making sure everything is super fresh, and keeping our rotation moving properly because fish is delicate. We are looking to getting a prep warehouse where we can bring all of our fish, fabricate it, portion it, and then distribute it to the restaurant because some of the fish we get are really big. When you’re cutting two to three-hundred-pound tuna it takes up a lot of space that I don’t have at the restaurants.
What kind of limits do you need to reach in order to have the fishermen deliver to you?
From the people I’ve talked to so far, there is none. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get the fishermen to deliver directly to me. They’re going to make their money out on the water, not driving the product to me. Either they’re going to sell to me or they’re going to sell to distributors and this is a problem I am running into. They’ve been dealing with all these big distributors for so long, it’s easy for them. When they pull up their boat, the people are there from the fish places and everyone bids on the fish that’s in that boat and whoever bids the highest—gets the fish. We are just going to have to be there with the fishermen, getting the product that we want to get, at the price we want to get, down at the dock. I have talked to a few people that fish up in Santa Barbara and come back down and dock their boat in Newport, so I’m trying to see if we can work something out for transport.
Now that you have the license, is it going to live up to your expectations for it?
“For a few weeks I’ve been a little discouraged because it’s tough finding people that will sell to you. They probably don’t think I’m committed, or they think I’m not going to buy enough. It’s like swimming upstream. The people that I have started with see the volume we’re doing, and they’re impressed but it’s going to take time. In some aspects it’s already living up to my expectations, and I think with persistence and patience we’ll see the pay off. I’m just going to keep pounding the pavement and try to find the fishermen that will give me the time and show them how dedicated I am. I’ve seen the difference in the product from a distributor and getting it right off the boat and I can tell you the shelf life you get, even keeping it on display in the market increases by a lot and that’s very important.”
“I try to keep fish no longer than a day and a half to two days in-house, but I don’t know how long it’s been sitting on a shelf at a distributor,” said Gonzalez.
We think it’s safe to say that Chef Gonzalez is a true seafood aFISHionado!