How Dallas Gets the Freshest Seafood in the Country
We're known as a city that likes its protein on the hoof. But a savvy group of Dallas chefs serves up the fairest fish the ocean has to offer.
We are on a lobster boat called the Hannah Mary, rolling on choppy waters in the Gulf of Maine, a few miles east of Gloucester, Massachusetts. On this early mid-July morning, the waters are as dark and gray as the sky. This is one of the most fertile fishing areas in the world. The seafloor, sculpted long ago by glaciers, is a series of valleys plunging 1,500 feet below the surface and 800-foot mountains. Strong, cold water currents rush through deep channels that cut through shallower pools. In these sandy-bottomed areas, the sun creates a Las Vegas-style buffet of vegetation, crill, plankton, and small baitfish for the many species that thrive in deep waters off the continental shelf.
Our crew of landlubbers consists of Jim “Sevy” Severson, the chef-owner of Sevy’s Grill, in Preston Center; his wife, Amy; and their daughter Jenna, 15, and son Erik, 18. For his family vacation, Sevy enrolled his brood in Steve Connolly Seafood’s School for Chefs, to learn more about what our host, Willy Warner, likes to call the last hunted protein a chef has to deal with today: fish. Warner is the national sales manager and corporate chef at Steve Connolly Seafood, and he’s aboard with us, too. Dean Fearing, Kent Rathbun, Marc Cassel, and Sharon Hage are just a few of the Dallas chefs who have visited Connolly’s operation, which includes a processing plant on the water in Gloucester and another in South Boston.
Our goal is not only to complete the intense, two-day course, but to complete a class project of sorts. Before we left Dallas, Sevy and I decided to locate a species called the wolffish and follow a specimen from the Gulf of Maine to a plate back in his restaurant. But like so many who’ve gone before us, risking life and limb in pursuit of the sea’s bounty, our restless, dirty minds turn from the work at hand to sex. More specifically, lobster porn.
“This is a cock,” says captain Bruce Deltorchio, referring to the male lobster in his left hand. “And this is an egger, a female with eggs,” he says, lifting his right hand to reveal a fat, squirming lobster.
The human females on the boat aren’t looking at lobsters. They are swooning over Deltorchio. The ruggedly handsome fisherman is a cross between Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg. He wears orange rubber, high-bibbed waders over a sleeveless t-shirt. Thick, black suspenders embroidered with “GRUNDE” dig into his broad, muscular shoulders. He wipes his brow, slips a tattered Boston Red Sox cap over his blond buzz cut, pulls the worn bill down to shade his deep blue eyes, and continues his lesson.
“The female has a wide tail and two holes that are hard to see,” Deltorchio says with a thick Boston accent that turns “hard” into “had.” “Males have bulbous crusher claws and two hard appendages. That’s how they impress the females. Once the female is seduced, she sheds her shell, and the male raises himself on his claws and tail and uses his legs to flip over the female and get on top.”
Sevy turns to his two children and says, “Hey, kids, isn’t that just the way we told you?”
Captain Deltorchio and first mate Fred Carter steer the Hannah Mary past a small fleet of herring boats and out toward open sea. For miles, the surface of the water is dotted with color-coded buoys marking the thousands of lobster traps on the seafloor.
Carter grabs a pole with a hook on the end and pulls up a buoy attached to a trawl, a long string of traps connected by one line that has a buoy at each end. He attaches the line to a mechanized pulley, and, as the motor huffs, a slimy, wet rope rolls out of the water until the first trap emerges. Other than a handful of seaweed and one tiny crab, the banged-up wire trap is empty. The duo pushes the trap down a slide rail, slams it to the flat bottom of the boat, and slides it across to the other side. They repeat this process until all 15 of their traps are lined up, rebaited, and released back to sea. We’ve been out for two hours and our total catch is one “keeper” (over a pound and quarter), a load that would bring us about $4 at auction.
“That’s a tough way to make a living,” Sevy says. “Hey, Willy, we need 60 lobsters for a wine dinner next Monday. At this rate, I’ll have to stay here all week to come up with that many.”
Warner has handled this type of supply and demand for the Dallas market for more than 20 years. He believes, despite Dallas’ reputation as a steak lover’s paradise, that the city has a core of fish-savvy chefs. “When I first went to Dallas, most restaurants bought fish locally from distributors who were buying from other distributors or dealers,” he says. “As a result, the shelf life was short, and the eating quality was poor.” Now, though, more Dallas chefs have discovered that they can get fish direct from the source only a day or two out of the water. “Diners in Dallas are eating fish that is as fresh as that served in the best restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and Boston,” he says.
After our lobster lesson, Deltorchio and Carter drop us off on the pier behind Connolly’s plant in Gloucester. Employees unload containers of iced fish from a boat and stack them on palettes. A forklift hauls the catch inside to a large cooler room.
We step inside to check out the fish that was sold at the 6 am auction. It’s around 9:30 now, and each species has already been weighed, boxed, iced, labeled with a lot number, and made ready for processing. We move across the wet, red floor, passing thousands of dead eyes and stiff tails. At the end of one row, Sevy spies the head of a ferocious-looking, bluish-gray fish with thick jowls and a bulging forehead. The downturned mouth gapes open to reveal long, scraggly teeth. The 3-foot-long fish is covered with what appears to be yellow snot.
“Hey, guys, look at this disgusting fish,” Sevy says.
“He may be ugly, but you sell a lot of it,” Warner says. “That’s a wolffish.”
After we tag it, our wolffish is whisked off to begin its journey through the processing plant, and we continue our studies with an oceanography lecture in an upstairs classroom overlooking the harbor. It’s not very high tech. David Coombs, executive vice president of Connolly’s, pulls out a map and uses a pointer.
“The best part of the Gulf of Maine is the area of Georges Bank,” he says. “Here, the water is shallower, and there is a sandy, flat bottom that makes it easier to fish. The Labrador current, a strong, cold body of water, moves slowly south and collides with the warmer water of the Gulf Stream moving north from the Bahamas on top of Georges Bank.” Fish in this area have to swim hard because the nutrient-rich water is turbulent. “A muscular fish eats much better than a fat or a lean fish,” Coombs says as he moves his pointer up to Canada. “If you’re up here, the fish are eating okay, but they’re paddling around and not getting any exercise. The resulting catch doesn’t have the body mass.”
Many species of quality fish migrate through the Gulf of Maine. Halibut and scallops are abundant in the spring, striped bass and blue fish run in the summer, and yellowfin and bluefin tuna and mackerel journey in the fall. Year-round staples include lobster, the largest percentage of groundfish sold from this area. Many experts consider the salmon pulled from the nearby Bay of Fundy to be the best in the world. “We also get great-quality swordfish around here because we catch them as they begin to migrate south in October, and they have a higher fat content and eat like butter,” Coombs says. “By the time they’ve reached the Caribbean, they’ve lost it all.”
Coombs stresses how crucial timing is to the seafood business, how important the conditions are under which an animal is caught and transported. But a big part of his lesson is exposing the fraud and deception that goes on in his business. Even seasoned pros have difficulty, for instance, distinguishing the exact species of a fish once it has been filleted. Many are so similar in taste and texture that it is easy to substitute and market an inexpensive species such as tilapia for one of higher value like snapper. Restaurants all over the world knowingly serve lower-priced fish in place of what is printed on their menus.
Then there are the legal techniques of marketing seafood that just seem like cheating. Many companies soak sea scallops and shrimp in a sodium tripolyphosphate water solution to add to the product’s weight. Besides water, some operators use color additives to enhance the pale orange of a salmon or the pink of a trout. The FDA sanctions the use of carbon monoxide to give fish flesh a fresher appearance, but the visual transformation could mask the chemical breakdown of a fish, such as tuna, that hasn’t been stored correctly. A quick blast of carbon monoxide can turn the decomposing toxic flesh from dirty brown to a brilliant red. It sure looks good enough to eat. But is it safe?
Tucked in his lab and surrounded by test tubes, gauges, and odd-looking piscine gadgets sits Brad Curcuru, the biologist on staff at Steve Connolly Seafood. He says his job is “trying to correct fish problems before they start.” Every species represents a different biological hazard. He performs daily checks on the histamine and temperature levels of incoming fish.
Curcuru picks up a refractometer like those used to measure the sugar content of grapes in the winemaking process. “We test the protein level of a lobster with these,” he says. “The higher the protein, the stronger the lobster. We know the stronger lobsters can survive a cross-country trip, so we separate and ship them accordingly.”
“Know your supplier” is a common mantra in the restaurant business. Steakhouses go to great lengths to develop relationships with reputable companies to ensure they are procuring the highest-quality beef for the price they can afford. So why shouldn’t professionals in the seafood businesses do the same? Researching this story, I interviewed chefs who didn’t know much more about the fish they were serving than what was printed on their invoices. But they had little difficulty describing the quality of their locally sourced produce, poultry, and dairy.
“Delivered fresh today.” Too many chefs buy this line without really knowing what it means. Did the king crab “delivered fresh today” arrive from a local supplier that bought the supply a day or two earlier from a regional supplier that trucked it in? Or was the king crab “delivered fresh today” directly from the packaging plant in Alaska? Depending on the delivery system and the person selling the fish, “delivered fresh today” can describe a product that has been out of the water anywhere from one to seven days.
Seafood professionals who take the time to know their suppliers generally pick one with a representative at the source to “put their eyes on the fish” and see what looks good before they make a buying decision. These reps talk to the fishermen to find out how long their boat was out, when the fish was caught, and how it was stored on the boat. Sharp buyers ask for “top of the trip,” the fish that is only a day old. Smart chefs also insist on “top of the trip.”
Many fish are so similar in taste and texture that it is easy to substitute and market an inexpensive species such as tilapia for one of higher value like snapper.
Robert Chandler is a marine biologist, senior buyer, and general manager at Connolly’s Boston plant, our wolffish’s last stop before departing for Dallas. He assures Sevy that the newly de-slimed fish, covered with flaked ice and sitting on a shelf in front of us, is “top of the trip.”
“Wolffish is a funky, tiger-striped, angry fish that swims deeper than haddock,” Chandler says. “His morphology suggests he eats lobster and sea urchin. His teeth make it easy for him to devour a sea urchin like an apple. He’s mean but great-tasting, a mild, muscular fish, with a whitefish texture. He’s pretty once you get past his face.”
Chandler knows fish. After he graduated from the University of Miami, he worked at a hybrid striped bass farm in the Everglades and a cannery in Alaska. He also “lived on cigarettes and coffee” as a commercial fisherman off the Alaskan coast and looked into fish farming in South America.
“So what’s the deal on farm-raised fish?” Sevy asks. “Is it all bad?”
Chandler says it’s a complicated question. Forget the environmental hazards (see more here). Chandler describes just the logistical problems presented by raising salmon off the coast of Chile. There, a farmer takes a salmon from the North Atlantic and breeds it in similar conditions off the coast of South America. The first thing the farmer has to consider is shelf life. Once harvested, that fish has to travel farther and longer to reach the U.S. market. Therefore, most Chilean farmers fatten the fish before harvest by feeding them a high-protein diet, which makes them grow fast. A few days before harvest, they quit feeding the salmon and force the fish to live off accumulated fat for the last few days of their lives. Some farms put their catch in a blast freezer after harvest to ice over the flesh and preserve the interior of the fish. “They sacrifice flavor for shelf life,” says Chandler. Then the catch spends at least one day at a plant in Chile and another on a truck to Santiago. On day three, the fish is flown to Miami, where it could take another 24 hours to clear customs. The shipment then moves from a regional distributor to a local supplier. By the time the farm-raised fish reaches a restaurant or store, it could be close to seven days out of the ocean.
Chandler points to the Atlantic salmon that is farmed in the Bay of Fundy as an example of well-balanced fish farming. Salmon there are held in lower-density pens in water with strong currents that force the fish to swim and build muscle richer in flavor. “And they don’t have so far to go to get on your plate,” he says.
A forklift carrying containers of beautiful striped bass skids to a stop. Our group huddles together, trying to stay warm as we listen to Chandler. Every area of Connolly’s plant is cooled to 40 degrees. Chandler reaches down, hooks one of the bass through the jaw with his forefinger, and holds it up with pride. “I love this fish,” he says, absentmindedly massaging the mouth of the fish with his thumb. “They are the quintessential Massachusetts summertime fish. You know when the striped bass are running. The Red Sox are playing, and times are good.”
As with the Red Sox, times have not always been so good for the striped bass. Its population was hit hard in the 1980s by environmental degradation and gill-net fishing. As the fish neared extinction, the federal government put a moratorium on commercial striped bass fishing. Maryland and Virginia developed methods for raising the fish in captivity. The young fish were trucked up to their hometown waters along the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, where they mingled with the dwindling striped bass population. “It’s one of the greatest success stories of an endangered coastal fish,” Chandler says. “Now you barely get your rod out before they are jumping in your boat.”
Government regulations have also resuscitated haddock and swordfish, and both have survived the endangered species list. “I have customers who look at me like I am a leper because I serve swordfish,” Sevy says.
“Customers are like some chefs,” Chandler says. “They are driven by something they read a long time ago, and they don’t have a clue about current conditions.”
Another forklift carrying covered plastic containers passes us on its way to the shipping area. On top of one pile is a package with “Sevy’s” scrawled in red ink across the top. “It’s time to pack your fish,” says Willy Warner.
Like schoolchildren heading for recess, we hustle across the room to the packing area. Several stacks of boxes bound for Dallas are already filled, wrapped in clear plastic, and stacked on a palette. They are marked with familiar names: Nick & Sam’s, Neighborhood Services, Aurora, Ritz-Carlton, Neiman Marcus, Hotel Adolphus, Lakewood Country Club, Stephan Pyles, Old Hickory Steakhouse, and Ama Lur at the Gaylord Texan. Jay Gregory, the “packer for Dallas,” hands Sevy a silver package. “Look, it’s my four-pack of salmon,” he says like a kid on Christmas morning. “And here are my scallops and my swordfish. Somebody get me a pen. I want to write Buzzy a note.”
Michael “Buzzy” Zeve is a chef and partner of Sevy’s Grill. Zeve is a big part of our class project. His job is to receive the wolffish in Dallas and cook it for me the following night. We all write notes to him and load 20 portions of the now beautifully filleted wolffish into an insulated carton. Gregory’s crew wraps the boxes with clear plastic and stacks them alongside the other Dallas-bound orders. Another forklift arrives. We grab our cameras and follow the driver out of the plant to the loading dock. “You guys are the fish paparazzi,” Warner says. “Let’s get out of here and eat some oysters.”
We say goodbye to our fish as the truck departs for Logan International Airport, and we head to a park at Castle Island. “Your fish is going to fly right over us in about 20 minutes,” Warner tells us. And, sure enough, we are sipping beer and eating Blue Point oysters when American Airlines flight No. 3465, loaded with our precious cargo, roars over our heads. Warner and Chandler hand out another round of Samuel Adams, and we toast our graduation from Connolly’s School for Chefs. Once dismissed, the Seversons head to a Red Sox game to start their family vacation in earnest.
Twenty-four hours later, I am sitting at table No. 71 at Sevy’s Grill. Zeve is here holding the crinkled notes we’d packed with the fish delivery. He presents our party of six with beautifully prepared plates of wolffish. The ugly, snot-covered fish has had a complete makeover. The thick slice of flaky, white fish has been seasoned with sea salt and coarse brown pepper, pan seared in olive oil, laid on a bed of orzo folded with a purée of basil and reduced cream, and surrounded with a roasted red pepper beurre blanc.
I close my eyes and take a bite. Images of seagulls, mating lobsters, rooms full of iced fish, and forklifts carrying whole tuna flash through my mind. I flip out my cellphone to show Zeve a picture of the wolffish. “That is one ugly fish,” he says.
I look down at my plate. “He’s pretty once you get past his face.”
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org .