FIRST PERSON: SWIMMING WITH SQUID, FIRST PERSON AND OTHER POINT PLEASANT SURPRISES
Chef makes a fresh discovery at the Jersey Shore
I am the chef at Oceana, a big, bustling seafood restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Before that I was the chef/owner of Telepan, a farm-to-table restaurant on the Upper West Side. The menu at Telepan was small compared to the menu I watch over now. At Telepan, I served much less fish. Jumping in here at Oceana, I had to become a little more educated about fish, even though I have been a chef in Manhattan for 20 years.
I looked forward to working with different kinds of seafood and doing more raw fish dishes than I was able to do in the past. I really wanted to explore what was available locally. And because protecting our fish population is important to me, I wanted to know more about sustainably raised seafood.
I grew up in New Jersey, and spent many of my childhood summers at Point Pleasant Beach. However, never one to sit still, I am not much of a fisherman. Actually I’ve fished only a few times in my life. Most recently on the Atlantic, fishing for shark. I spent six of the seven hours white as a ghost and sick from the waves. My family didn’t eat a lot of fish when I was growing up. And I certainly didn’t know all of the species that were swimming under and around me while I was floating in the Jersey Shore waves as a kid.
At Telepan, I’d learned about some oysters coming out of New Jersey called Cape May Salt Oysters. I was introduced to them when my pastry chef went to a winter food market down at the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan. In 1997, Atlantic Capes Fisheries, working in cooperation with Rutgers University, began sustainable cultivation of these selectively bred, disease-resistant oysters (see related story, page 50). They were delicious. So, like any good Jerseyraised chef who discovers a great local product, I featured the oysters on my menu.
During my first few weeks at Oceana, I did a lot of research to learn how I could source local, sustainable fish. A fish purveyor called Sea to Table, which sends fish straight from docks all over the country, emails chefs to tell us what is available each day, and from which docks. To my great surprise, I saw they worked with a dock in Point Pleasant! I was thrilled by the fish that came out of there. Fluke, which I love for ceviche. Sea scallops, which I use both raw and cooked. Squid! Who knew they were swimming under me when I was in the ocean as a kid? Buttery, golden tilefish. Swordfish, which I love to grill. And one of my favorites, black sea bass.
Being a Jersey boy—and knowing that local food is the freshest food—made me want to use the fish from these docks as much as possible.
Because Oceana is a large seafood restaurant, we purchase directly from the New Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point as well. I asked my purchaser to try to focus on what came from New Jersey. As I put my menu together, I included all of it. We paired the swordfish with purple potatoes, broccoli rabe and pickled cherry peppers that I gathered before my October start at the restaurant. Scallops with a wheat-berry risotto, kale and oregano. We served the fluke ceviche with local fiery lemon drop peppers, which I had puréed and frozen to use throughout the winter, and the black sea bass with red kuri squash, hazelnuts and caviar.
I guess the variety of fish coming out of New Jersey really should have come as no surprise to me. Much of the seafood I bought in the past came from waters around New York, particularly off of Montauk and other East End locations. But I hadn’t heard much about New Jersey seafood, and it was a happy shock to see that Point Pleasant was one of the docks on my fish purveyor’s radar. I have so many childhood memories of Point Pleasant. Spending time there as a kid, I was more focused on eating Martell’s pizza, Kohr’s custard and sticky caramel corn, but now I am even more excited about the fish. I can’t wait to see what comes through the Point Pleasant dock this summer.
In the warm summer months, the New York City green markets are bursting with delicious produce, lots of it from New Jersey. I could do an all-Jersey menu! Ha! That would be funny coming from the kid who never fished, and swam obliviously above the squid.
I wasn’t sure how I would apply seasonal, local cooking at Oceana. But now I can look forward to the changes of the seasons in seafood selection just as much as I’ve always looked forward to the season-by-season cycle of fruits and vegetables.
It’s been a great learning experience. And our fish at Oceana is better than ever. Thank you, New Jersey—the Garden State, and the Fresh Fish State, too