Diners may soon spot some unfamiliar fish on restaurant menus across North Carolina, such as sheepshead, scup, ribbonfish and grunts.
That may be the result of Pate Dawson Southern Foods, a North Carolina-based food distributor, making a big push at its October food show in Durham to sell chefs from Asheville to New Bern on buying lesser-known fish.
Not only was the company serving samples of skate wing, spots and spadefish, but it also brought in Barton Seaver, a well-known chef and expert on sustainable seafood, as keynote speaker. Seaver also was the special guest at a private dinner that brought together chefs, fishermen and seafood producers.
Despite the attention local food has gotten in recent years, Joel Sullivan, a Pate Dawson manager, says: “North Carolina seafood has not really had its day yet.”
Sullivan, whose great-great-grandfather started the company in 1885 as a Goldsboro grocery store, sees a business opportunity for fishermen, fish houses, distributors and restaurants. Fishermen can sell fish that they weren’t making any money on but have been catching as they targeted other species. Fish houses can sell these species to distributors, which deliver it to restaurants that can likely pay less for them than for the more popular species.
“Underutilized seafood offers an opportunity for everybody in the supply chain,” Sullivan said.
Underutilized seafood is the opposite end of the spectrum from the staples of restaurant menus: salmon, swordfish, mahi mahi, grouper and tuna. Many restaurateurs and chefs have these familiar fish on the menu to please customers and remain financially viable.
“If you cook salmon and put it on lettuce leaves, women will come to your restaurant – it’s an unwritten rule,” joked chef Jason Smith, who owns 18 Seaboard and Cantina 18 in Raleigh and Harvest 18 in Durham.
Once a restaurant is more established and gains customers’ trust, Smith explained, it can feature more lesser-known but tasty fish. When Smith opened 18 Seaboard in 2006, about 80 percent of the fish he served were mainstream choices. Now, king mackeral, croaker and speckled trout and other lesser-known fish account for 60 percent of the fish served. But Smith said, “We still sell a lot of salmon.”
Bolster fishing industry
Eating a wider variety of North Carolina seafood is one way to protect the state’s fishing industry, which has been in decline in recent decades.
North Carolina fishermen are under increasing pressure from imported seafood, a constant struggle to find workers and limited access to the markets with two primary seafood freight companies serving the coast, explained Sara Mirabilio, a fisheries specialist with N.C. Sea Grant.
Those pressures are having an effect. In 1982, North Carolina had 45 crab-picking facilities; by 2012, that was down to 11. Between 2001 and 2011, Mirabilio said, 47 fish houses closed on the North Carolina coast.
“Once a fishing dock is a Hilton, it will never be a fishing dock again,” said Seaver, during a break at the food show in Durham. Seaver, who now works at Harvard’s School of Public Health, added: “We’re familiar with ‘No Farms. No Food.’ But we’re never applied that to ‘No Fishermen. No Fish.’”
It’s only recently that there’s been a stronger push to bring more North Carolina seafood inland. Usually those are by smaller one- or two-men operations, such as Tim Griner of Charlotte Fish Co., Rock Stone of Stone Seafood in China Grove, outside Charlotte, and Ryan Speckman and Lin Peterson of Locals Seafood in Raleigh.
What’s unusual is a company such as Pate Dawson getting on the bandwagon. It is an independent food service distributor, otherwise known as a “broadliner,” which provides food, paper products and even social media training to food institutions, independent restaurants and regional chains, including the more than 500 Bojangles’ from Pennsylvania to Mississippi.
Training the waitstaff
One North Carolina chef that Pate Dawson didn’t have to persuade about underutilized fish was James Clark of the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill. Clark proudly noted that he hasn’t served salmon in the inn’s Carolina Crossroads restaurants since he started as executive chef three years ago.
“As many weird, off-the-wall fish I can get my hands on, I’m all about using them,” Clark said. “(Those) fish are my bread and butter.”
The key to getting diners to try striped bass or white grunts, Clark said, is to train the waitstaff. Not only does Clark have the waitstaff taste the fish dishes every day, but he tells them how the fish was caught, who caught it and what makes the fish unique.
“I just give them these stories,” Clark said.
Chef Jay Pierce, recently of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Greensboro and Cary, has a similar strategy.
“I may be the most educated person in the kitchen about seafood but I’m not talking to all the tables,” he said. Pierce has the staff taste the fish so they can describe its firmness, flavor and health benefits, a practice he will continue at Rock Salt, a new seafood restaurant opening in Charlotte in January.
While some chefs were an easy sell, others at the Durham food show weren’t so convinced about some of the lesser-known fish.
“I love skate but it’s a hard thing to sell,” said Andrew Baker, executive chef at Devils Ridge Golf Club in Holly Springs.
His sous chef, Steve Brooks added: “Any fish we sell that is potato-crusted sells. Skate didn’t move.”
But Baker said he would find some room on his menu for species such as rockfish or tilefish as featured dishes: “That’s what we try to do with our features – push the envelope.”