How do you go from being law school-bound to becoming a renowned fishmonger? Ask Scott Weinstein. He's the fishmonger at BlackSalt in Washington, D.C.
Having lived in the Mid-Atlantic region all my life, I realize how lucky I am to have fresh fish and seafood at my disposal every day. Having shopped around quite a bit over the past few years, I now buy all my seafood at BlackSalt, not because it's close to my house or convenient (it's not), not because it's inexpensive (it's not), but because the quality is outstanding, and because Scott knows his stuff and has never steered me wrong.
Having a good relationship with any food purveyor (or a plumber or electrician, for that matter) is critical to experiencing consistent quality coupled with those little extra special pointers or products. I've gotten to know Scott over the past year and a half and find him to be not only charming and funny, but incredibly knowledgeable, resourceful, and savvy.
It's my nature that when I find a great service, product, or person, I like to share it with only the people closest to me. However, when it comes to food I'm a huge advocate of spreading the word far and wide, because I think it's important to learn from the best and buy product from the best. And in this case and in this region of the country, Scott is the best. So, in the spirit of The French Laundry Cookbook's stories about the restaurant's purveyors, I thought it only appropriate that I introduce you to some of the folks who have made French Laundry at Home such a joy to do.
With that then, today, instead of reading about a dish, I'd like you to read about fish, and the man who has almost become a curator of sorts when it comes to all things from the sea: BlackSalt's fishmonger, Scott Weinstein.
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A Washington, DC-area native, Scott grew up in Bethesda, MD, graduated from Churchill H.S., and left town to go to college in Vermont. Not really loving life in Vermont, he soon transferred to University of Maryland in College Park, MD and graduated in 2001. Having majored in political science and sociology, and hailing from a long line of lawyers, Scott figured he'd spend a year or two after college traveling and working, and then head off to law school.
Instead, he took a job cooking at Addie's in Rockville, and enjoyed cooking so much there that he then did a year-long stint at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, Canada. Having learned proper French technique, he came back to the DC area and worked as a cook under David Craig at Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda for a year. During this time, he perfected his skills, learned how kitchens and restaurants were run, and quickly rose up through the ranks. When Jeff and Barbara Black were in the final stages of preparing to open BlackSalt in 2004, their fishmonger backed out and Scott, who was already planning to be BlackSalt's lead cook, was asked to take the job. Here's where I let Scott take over the story, and where I share the interview I did with him a few days ago...
Scott Weinstein: I grew up loving seafood, and I knew how to prepare and cook fish, but I didn't have any experience as a fishmonger. So, I spent the six months prior to the restaurant opening traveling, meeting vendors, going to markets, learning from other fish experts, and basically teaching myself how to do this job.
Carol: So, when the restaurant and the market finally opened, had you sufficiently prepared?
SW: Well, it was hands-on from that moment forward, and it's been great. There were some bumps in the road getting started -- I learned early on I had to perfect my cutting techniques, which I did, because we were bringing in this great product, and I wanted to do it right. But it's been an amazing three and a half years.
C: What kind of budget do you have?
SW: That's the great thing. I have carte blanche, with the only directive really being 'bring in the best you can find.' Obviously, I have to make sure we make money, but as long as the numbers match up, I can focus on bringing in the very best I can find.
C: Let's talk about a typical day for you -- what does that look like?
SW: I get in between 6 and 6:30 every morning and spend the first two hours of the day ordering, taking phone calls, doing inventory. Most restaurants in DC put in their orders the night before, but I do mine in the morning, which means these guys are champing at the bit to get me on the phone to get me what I need. It also means I'm getting the freshest possible fish. I love talking to my vendors every day, and seeing what they have. I've gotten to know these guys really well over the years and they're really great to work with. They know I have really high standards, and they want to get me the best stuff.
C: Okay, so you spend the first two hours of your day "in the office." When the fish market opens, do you spend the rest of the day on the floor? Then, when the restaurant opens, does it get even busier?
SW: Yeah, from the minute the doors open, I'm in the market serving customers and supporting the kitchen. On any given day, I've got 6 or 7 people working in the market with me, and I'm there with them until we close up shop, usually between 7:30 and 8:30 every night. Sometimes, I leave around 6:30, but most nights, I'm here along with everyone else.
C: Do all of you work just in the fish market side of the business, or do some swing over to help out the restaurant?
SW: We handle all the purchasing, receiving and fabricating for the restaurant, too. One of the other things I do before opening the market in the morning is write up the food guide for the kitchen so that the chef knows what we have available for use.
C: Legend has it that at Per Se, 75% of what's brought in on any given day to the receiving area gets turned away. How much do you have to turn away every morrning?
SW: I look at every piece of fish that comes in. That's very important to me. I've built great relationships with my vendors, and they know exactly what my standards are, so I rarely have to look at anything that's substandard. That said, every now and then, a fish will come in that looks great, but when we cut it open, there are dark areas, which means it's bruised. It's certainly nothing the vendor could've spotted, so it's not his fault, but I can't sell it or use it in the restaurant, so it has to go back.
C: Sustainability is a big buzzword when it comes to seafood. What does that mean to you?
SW: It's definitely a big part of our overall business philosophy, because we buy as locally as we can and rely on wind power for our restaurants. But, we also look at the whole picture when it comes to product. We put pressure on our vendors to source responsibly.
C: What does that mean?
SW: When buying domestically, we only work with fisherman who are working within strict quotas and state and national management plans. That way, we can still serve good wild-caught product responsibly. We carry swordfish, but do it responsibly. We only sell shrimp that's been wild-caught by domestic fishermen who are using turtle-safe gear. We're not bringing in stuff from China or who knows where. That's important to me. I have brought in organic farm-raised salmon from Ireland and Scotland because the EU has developed strong organic guidelines, which the U.S. and Canada have failed to do at this point.
C: It seems like there are so many studies, articles and opinions on this issue. What should people do to better educate themselves?
SW: It's important to not just read one article or listen to only one point of view. Every day, I try to learn more about changes in netting, bi-catch issues, and who is doing their catching properly. But I have to go to more than one source to learn about the issue as a whole. And people should make decisions based on a wide variety of information available to them, not just one thing.
C: What fish do Washingtonians eat the most of?
SW: Salmon, for sure. We sell as much salmon as anything else combined. But we also work with a lot of private chefs, really experienced cooks, and people who love to try different things, so I like to stock and sell things that no one else carries.
C: Any advice for my readers on how to buy a great piece of fish?
SW: Sure. You can poke, prod, and smell it -- all those tips you read about -- but really, it's most important to know the person you're buying the fish from. Develop a relationship with that person. Talk to them about the fish, make an effort to learn from them and know that it's all about trust. Let them take care of you, because when you build that relationship, we end up looking out for you and making sure you get what you need.
C: Many of my readers don't live as closely as we do to the water and great seafood resources. For people who don't have access to fresh fish, is frozen okay?
SW: Fish is always best fresh. However, if the fish is vacuum-packed-frozen right away, it's good for about two weeks and the taste won't suffer all that much when you do cook it. It is important to thaw it properly, though -- and that means letting it thaw slowly and naturally in the refrigerator. Never in the microwave. Never.
C: What's the biggest mistake home cooks make when preparing fish?
SW: Underseasoning and overcooking. Most people are afraid of salt, so they don't ever use it, and then wonder why their food doesn't taste as good as it does in a restaurant. It's important to learn how to use salt throughout the cooking process because it makes a huge difference in the final product.
C: What do you do on your days off?
SW: Well, I don't cook. Usually, I go out to eat -- sushi, Thai, Vietnamese. Here in DC, the best food is either high-end or ethnic. It's kind of difficult to find a great middle-of-the-road type of place that's worth the time or money. I'm also into sports, so I play and watch on my days off, when I'm not hanging out with friends.
C: When you do cook at home, do you make fish?
SW: Sometimes I see a piece of fish in the case in the morning when we open, and I think of all the different ways I want to cook it when I take it home at the end of the night. Then, I end up getting sushi on the way home instead. But when I do make fish, I like it grilled, with a little salt and pepper, maybe some fresh lemon juice. I like fish to taste like fish, not something else.
C: If you weren't a fishmonger, what else would you do?
SW: Probably go back into the kitchen... be a chef or a sous chef... maybe someday have my own place.
C: I always end each one of my posts with a little blurb about what music I listened to when I cooked that particular dish. So, let me ask you, if I were to turn your iPod on right now, what would be playing? Anything particularly embarrassing?
SW: I'm probably the only person in the world who doesn't have an iPod.
C: I'm not letting you get out of answering this question, but nice try. What CD is in your car's player right now?
SW: (semi-sheepishly) Okay, fine. I kind of have a thing for 80s music.
C: So, you got some Phil Collins goin' on? Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam?
SW: The Breakfast Club soundtrack.
... which was, for me, the perfect way to end this interview. Because really, when your fishmonger can go from talking about sustainability and bi-catch prevention netting technologies to The Breakfast Club soundtrack, you know you're working with someone pretty damn fantastic.
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Up Next:Île Flottante (I know I promised this earlier, but the electrical system in my house is experiencing some technical difficulties and I had to adjust my cooking schedule to accommodate repairs. Sorry.)
Read my previous post: Citrus-Marinated Salmon with a Confit of Navel Oranges, Beluga Caviar and Pea Shoot Coulis