Browne Trading was one of the first sponsors of the Jean-Louis Palladin Professional Work/Study grant – which is now a part of the James Beard Foundation. This internship program brings young chefs from around the country to Browne for an intensive education in seafood procurement, quality, and preparation.
This year Browne welcomed Chef Jenny Dorsey. Below you can read her compelling and wonderfully well-written story of her time at Browne. It is a must-read for anyone who wonders what actually happens on a day to day basis inside this historic organization. If you would like to read about Jenny’s first week at Browne, Click Here!
Chef Jenny Dorsey’s Second Week at Browne
Week 2 was even busier than Week 1, if that’s possible. I had fully adjusted to a 7:30am in-office time and was up earlier than usual making breakfast, walking my dogs, drinking tea, and occassionally chiding my small dog for eating ants (so many ants in our AirBnB — harmless little black ones and she loves to bully them and eat them). I spent a good amount of time in the Smoke Room, Caviar Room and Fish Cooler in Week 2 as well, but since I covered that in my Week 1 overview I’ll just straight into the new experiences!
Portland Fish Exchange
After eyeing many a tub of purchased fish from our Fish Auctioneer, Steve, last week, I finally was able to go see the auction live on Monday. This turned out to be a perfect day as the weekend weather was wonderfully warm (82F on Easter Sunday!) so the fishermen had time to go out and catch a lot of fish. There was 40,000+ lbs of fish for auction at the Exchange on Monday whereas most winter days average in the 10,000–15,000 lb range. Rod told me in in the early days of Maine fishing, every PFE would have 50,000+ lbs of fish available. Due to overfishing, lots of regulations have since been passed to limit catching seasons, weight/size minimums, and quantity maximums per boat as well as what types of traps are allowed.
The PFE is modeled after Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market and is the only fish auction in the States done so. The auction starts around 11am and usually runs 2–3 hours until all the fish have been sold. Each boat has 2 chances to sell its catch; if it isn’t successful after that, it must take the fish elsewhere to sell. Walking in, huge painted wall signs list instructions on how the Auctioneer, Fishermen, and Buyers were to behave in the ‘olden days’ and numbered wood paddles line the wall. Now everything is done by computer, but these relics helped me visualize a boisterous time of the past where fish auctions were full of yelling and not typing. Now, every bidder is assigned a desktop and a number and the bids are done virtually — but in the same room. The first step for Steve every auction is to run through the list from Matt to see what Browne needs to fill its inventory. On the day I shadowed him, we needed monkfish tails (large size), halibut, cod, and hake.
All the fish up for auction is stored in tubs in a giant facility adjacent to the bidding room. All the fish are sorted by type, then by size, with tags as to which boat it came from. Each tag has a unique identifier so Steve can write down which tub of each fish he wants to bid on and know when that’s up on the auction block. He walked me through a variety of different fishes to examine which ones were the freshest and most consistent. He passed down a useful tip from Rod as well: for whole fish, the best indicator of freshness is the presence / state of the brown ring within its pupils. I don’t know what the technical term for this is, but it proved very useful when Steve then asked me to pick out the tub for Browne across 3 tubs of cod.
I gave each a once-over and picked one with baited breath. Steve congratulated me for being a fast learner and wrote down the tub number to bid on, so aha! I’m a mini auctioneer. I asked him about headless fish, and he told me to look carefully at the firmness of the flesh (should be firm) and the color of the blood lines (should be bright red). We also talked about rigor mortis, the state after fish are killed where its body becomes stiff. Especially for fish that struggle a lot in nets and exhaust themselves, these fish go into rigor pretty quickly. I did some additional research into this and it appears fish need be rested properly to come out of rigor mortis before it is cooked, as that affects the taste and quality of the end product. In the case for frozen fish, rigor can cause a slew of problems such as gaping (muscles coming apart), dripping, shrinking, etc. I believe the idea for non-frozen fish is to catch it properly, store it immediately on ice, and try to keep it in rigor until it is meant to be thawed and consumed.
There were tons and tons of fish to sift through, so I took my time wandering around and taking photos. I rather liked the tiny little flatfish (I believe grey soles) and the small sardines, though they didn’t appear too popular as an auction item. I saw in-person that hake is a really ugly looking fish, like a sea creature you’d hate to meet in the depths of a lake. I asked Steve why certain fish always came head-off, and he told me it was to keep the weight on the boat at a minimum. Since no one usually wants monk head, it’d be cut off and tossed to make room for revenue-generating fish parts. Of course the liver would be kept though, as ankimo fetches good moolah. Back in the Fish Cooler, all the fish extras (bones, skin, etc.) are kept in a big tub and Jared told me they’re eventually sold in bulk to a pet food company. No wonder all those Fancy Feasts proclaim to have “fresh salmon” in them — they sort of do.
Once the auction officially started, I rejoined Steve in the bidding room and he walked me through the bid process. We sat patiently through a lot of bins we weren’t interested in and watched the other bidders make phone calls and discuss quietly what the price per pound they were willing to stake. The most interesting fish of the day was halibut — there was only one for sale, and Steve was carefully making sure we could take it home. Another bidder called someone (I’m assuming his boss) and told him/her “Browne is hot on the halibut” in a tone so severely dry I snorted and proceeded to back out of the auction. We ended up with a decently priced per-lb halibut and Steve nodded at me, pleased with the results. Depending on how some of the fish look, Steve will also add in some bids for items not listed on Matt’s inventory sheet. The PFE usually only deals with groundfish, but occassionally there will be some events around other types of seafood. There was a recent workshop on Maine shrimp, a rarity now that fetches astronomically high prices compared to just years ago. It was somewhat chilling and absurd to hear such consistent stories of how the seafood industry and prices have changed so much through the course of just Rod’s life and Browne’s company span.
Bangs Island Mussels
My big at-sea adventure for the week was with Bangs Island Mussels, the premier mussel provider in Portland and throughout Maine. Rod put me in touch with the founder, Matt, to coordinate a harvest trip with his team bright and early at 6am. The Bangs team typically harvest 2 days a week, but will sometimes step it up to 3 days a week during high season (summer). I was a little worried about getting seasick, as it’s a 6am-3pm shift completely at sea, but luckily the waters were smooth and it was close to sunny the day I went.
I met Matt at their processing facility down the pier from the Portland Science Museum. He introduced me to the boat captain, Jonny, and harvesters Liz and Andy. Coincidentally Andy had just started working at Bangs that week (after 14 years at Bristol, another fish company) so I was the lucky recipient of the knowledge Jonny/Liz were transferring onto him. We loaded up the boat with tons of rope (more on that later), an extra waterproof Hazmat-looking suit (I would imagine the ‘At Sea’ version of what I wear in the Fish Cooler), lots of water and food, and off we went!
Our first stop was the mussel farm ~30 minutes from the port. Bangs has multiple locations around Portland, and this is the closer one. “Bangs Island”, the namesake location, is roughly 1 hour away, but Jonny assured me the mussels from both locations taste the same. As our boat cruised along I peppered him with all sorts of questions about mussels, per usual. I learned that Bangs believes in “hands off” farming, so there’s no extra feeding or nutrients distributed to the mussels — only what they would eat naturally. They do, however, protect the mussels against predators, namely the eider duck, by using nets to shield the farms (as you can see above). What’s crazy about these eider ducks is that they eat mussels whole! Apparently their stomach acids are so powerful they can digest the shells, kind of like vultures I suppose.
We docked briefly so Jonny, Liz and Andy could do a quick walkthrough of the mussels and make sure everything looked the way it should / see how large the mussels were and how long they needed before being “market size”. Market size is 2–3 inches and it usually takes mussels ~18 months to reach that size. Each rope chain contains ~125 lbs of mussels! As you can see from the wooden beams, there about 4–5 ropes per half-beam and 4–5 full beams per section. That’s a lot of mussels! There’s a wider plastic area where bystanders (like myself) could stand watch as the three of them danced around the beams with great finesse. I imagined following Liz to look at some mussels on the other side of the farm and immediately was met with a vision of myself tipping over into the ocean water at 6:30am. Even with a life jacket I would certainly scream loudly and look ridiculous while flailing and upsetting the mussels.
After the first walkthrough we loaded up to the Bangs Island barge. The barge is floating out at sea at a certain location and that’s where all the mussel processing action happens. An average harvest day is 1,600 lbs of mussels but today we had a light day of only 1,100 lbs or so and would spend the rest of the day seeding baby mussels onto ropes to start growing for next year. I was extremely unhelpful as I watched Liz and Andy untie the barge from its deep-hanging constraints and attach it to our boat. Nautical knots, I’ve learned, are a different class of being in and of itself. Once the barge was secured against our boat, we were off again to the farm to Section 4!
Jonny told me about mussel feeding on our way there. Underwater, they will open up when they’re feeding (he later pulled up some mussels to show me this in action). Mussels, like scallops and oysters, are also filter feeders so in Maine they are subject to PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning). Bangs is careful to be in tune with any weather changes or water advisories — if there’s any sign of problems, harvest stops for 3+ weeks so the mussels have time to rid themselves of any contagions. It sounds like mussels, unlike scallops, do not store the toxins in their gonads long-term. Unlike oysters, mussels can re-attach to different things using its beard (byssus), so small mussels can be uprooted and moved to new locations to grow if needed. The ropes Bangs have been testing out are these cool plastic ones from New Zealand that are very sturdy and frays out nicely, so there’s tons of surface area for the growing mussels to attach to. Mussels are also resilient little creatures can can fix cracks in its shell! Who knew?
The first part of harvesting mussels is to remove them from the rope by hand. This large pulley system above will pull up the mussel ropes along a metal slide and one of the crew will use a thick-gloved hand to manually shred the mussels off the rope. They are then shoveled into a big pile, where they are continuously kept watered with a big hose (that was my job!) before going through a de-clumper machine. The de-clumper has 3 separate grades of sorting towards the end for different-sized mussels. The smallest ones are labeled “3”, then “2”, then “1”, then “0”. These are later used for seeding new mussels for the next year. The biggest, market-sized mussels will come out of the de-clumper into a big tub where they are put onto a metal table and de-clumped by hand through these large metal grates. The final step is to get the mussels onto ice immediately so they go dormant and haul them onto the boat.
I helped hose the mussels down as we pulled up line after line of mussels. The toughest part of the process is to remove the mussels off the brick (which is what weights each rope down) while the pulley is still moving in action. With the mussels we also pulled up lots of sea squirts, this squishy objects that eat a similar diet as mussels and hold water inside of them. Also some sea stars, little fish, and baby crabs. Liz has a degree in the marine world and knew all of this stuff, so she pointed out all these little creatures to me as the ropes came in. There was a sea squirt that’s also called a sea potato, and it really did look like a parsnip of the sea. I was tempted to pocket it and cook it for dinner to see what it tasted like. After the harvest stopped, I was dispatched to be part of the hand-declumping station, which involved gently moving the mussels back and forth over smooth grates and tossing any broken mussels. I tried to help bring mussels on-board the boat, but I could barely lift the end of a tub filled with mussels. Wonderwoman Liz hauled everything on-board without problem, because she’s not a spoiled New Yorker.
We took a break between the 2 harvests for lunch and Jonny told me about how Bangs mussels actually tasted. I hadn’t had any yet — I took some home later from the harvest — but Chefs here prefer Bangs because the meat to shell ratio is really good and it tastes so clean and smooth. I can confirm both these things are true when I cooked up some mussels in wine later in the evening for myself. These mussels don’t take much in preparation, they have a real flavor all their own and the meat is extremely plump. They have this soft, almost floral aroma when cooking too, and that ocean breeze salinity that floats nicely on your tongue without yelling “I am from the sea!!” Chef Joshua of Joshua’s restaurant told me he doesn’t even bother looking at the PEI mussels anymore!
After another harvest we took the barge to a different section of the farm for seeding. Throughout every harvest the team will collect the 0/1/2/3 size mussels that fell through the de-clumper and put them in floating bins to keep for a seeding day.
We had many bins of all sizes to seed that day, so it was a fun experience to watch. I was responsible for detangling ropes since seeding really only needs 3 people, so mostly I spent the time watching the process. Andy would shovel in the baby mussels into the seeding machine and feed the rope in at the same time. The twine would spin off from a giant Mummy-looking thimble and wrap around the mussels as Jonny kept watch. In between rope changes, Jonny would cut the twine and knot the end of the rope appropriately before handing the new mussel rope to Liz. Liz would demarcate which size mussel rope went to what section of the farm and tie that rope to the appropriate beam. Seeding was fast too, we whizzed through 10+ tubs of mussels in maybe an hour.
After seeding we sprayed down the whole barge, returned it to its floating home, and headed back to the the port. At this point my Dramamine had really kicked in and I was napping peacefully while sitting upright. Back at the port, we met up again with Matt who showed me the rest of the processing plant. Harvest has a 3pm cutoff as the processing team loads in once they are back to get started on de-bearding, final picking, and bagging of the mussels. The de-bearding machine is the most interesting, with little rough-edged metal rods that spin in opposite direction as the mussels tumble downhill. Matt also showed me some experimental scallops he was working on growing out with the mussels, currently housed over at Scales restaurant next door. There’s no farm-raised sea scallops in the U.S., but the are in Japan, so he’s been out there investigating best practices. I was awarded a Bangs shirt and a bag of mussels for my efforts at sea and off I went to tell my tale!
I was most successful at bugging (I mean, asking repeatedly) Rod if I could go see the uni processing plant down the street from Browne. Eventually he caved and let me tag along to ISF Trading Co. with Andy to scope out the scene. The uni factory also processes sea cucumbers in this surgical-looking chamber full of frighteningly shaped equipment resembling a dentist office. But back to urchins! The urchins are brought in early morning and move along a metal table where they are opened and cracked into 4 by a hose-like machine. The workers then carefully scoop out the uni and place them into plastic baskets. The fresh uni is then submerged in a cold water solution with ~4% salinity for about 45 minutes to help firm them up slightly without affecting its taste. Andy told me ISF was the only place he knows that takes this extra step, and it really makes a difference.
Once the uni is removed from the solution, it is then sorted between male and female, then graded on color and packed with its like counterparts. Male urchins secrete a white fluid (its sperm) so it’s easy to tell them apart from females. The workers then use uni-tweezers to pack them into these perfect layers in light wood trays. The uni packing room had maybe 8 tables filled with packers, so so so so much uni being processed for one day. One of the packers was a nice woman who gave me some uni to sample. I marveled at her amazingly fast tweezer skills and she giggled, “Guess how long I’ve worked here?” I responded with “a long time?” and she corrected me: “28 years!” Holy cow. I can’t even imagine how much uni she’s seen in her lifetime.
The color of uni is a good indicator of quality, so the nicest uni (the lighter, bright orange ones) are separated from its darker cousins to be used for various culinary purposes. The latter are great for emulsions, sauces, pasta, etc. while the former is generally reserved for sushi. ISF is the main uni supplier to essentially everyone in Portland, so they have tons of different sizes from baby 2oz boxes to humongous trays, fit for a Uni Banquet in Panem’s Capitol.
Rod also arranged an awesome stage for me at Central Provisions, “the” place to eat in Portland. I didn’t have too much equipment with me — just my chef’s knife and paring knife — but he assured me that was fine. I came in when Executive Chef Chris was gone, but Chef de Cuisine Erik got me situated and working alongside Sous Chef Nick for prep. I did some light vegetable and fruit prepping, herbs, etc. and watched excitedly as Nick demonstrated how they make their Suckling Pig, essentially a whole animal pressé. The whole pig is roasted, low and slow, at 225F before being shredded down. The skin is stretched across a plastic-lined sheet tray and the braised meat distributed evenly across. The collagens of the meat will naturally bind everything together as it is pressed and sits, so the final result is this nice rectangle of pressed pig. It’s then divided into quadrants and sliced up thinly to be cooked to order on the plancha. The skin on the outside is super crispy and the inside so soft — a definite must order at CP.
At 3pm we moved from the downstairs prep area to the upstairs kitchen (the main kitchen you see upon entering). I met the other chefs and was assigned to shadow the saute station for the night. CP’s saute chef is new, formerly the Executive Sous at a place in Denver, and I just cannot remember his name (Dan?) which is driving me crazy. Anyhow, we had a great time on the saute station that evening. CP opens at 5pm and it’s not too crazy immediately, so I was able to walk up and down the line and hover at the pass while CDC Erik finished the dishes. He let me try some of the fresh hamachi they just received, talked about the toppings per dish, which ones were new vs. staples, etc. On the far side of the line was Mary and…Josh? who both work all things cold / garde manger. Nick explained to me CP’s hierarchy is opposite from what you expect and starts at saute, through the plancha (Nick’s current station) and ending at garde manger is a “tale of success”. Garde has a LOT of items for pickup, including the entirety of the raw menu / oysters and sliced meats, and I could see Mary fearlessly shucking oysters in between salads and tartares and carpaccios.
The newest item on the menu was an asparagus folded tart/bread, which required Nick to walk away from the plancha, roll out dough, and wrap asparagus per order. I’m not sure how he did this as the restaurant was fielding 400 covers but there he was, calmly nestling Jersey asparagus into fluffy yeast dough and waiting patiently for it to brown. I, on the other hand, was frantically trying to help — let’s call him Dan? Chef Dan! — with the saute orders: Clam and Noodles, Rabbit Agnolotti, Bone Marrow Toast, Key Lime Pie, Smoked Carrots, Bread & Butter, Steak Au Poivre. CP usually does 3 turns a night, so by the second turn I was mostly up to speed and cooking things as orders rolled in. At some point I dropped a Bone Marrow Toast and moaned in despair, but everyone reassured it was okay. My favorite thing to plate was the Smoked Carrots, which Dan & I called Carrot-Henge. No matter how you plated the carrots, they always looked pretty good. Very organic and rustic. The Bread & Butter was also fun the plate, because smoothing down soft butter on a plate with a spatula is a #1 relaxing activity. I also got a refresher on quenelles plating Key Lime Pie; it’s never been my strong suite, but I have to say my whipped cream quenelles were looking much better by the end of the evening.
The night I was at CP was relatively ‘relaxed’ compared to a normal night, Erik told me, probably because it was raining that day. By 10pm the trickle had mostly stopped, so we were able to get a head start on reorganizing the station and labeling things for tomorrow. Dan told me I was OCD when I borrowed Josh’s scissors to cut all my tape. “But it looks so much nicer!” I insisted. He just rolled his eyes at me. I can’t help it — that’s now ingrained in me from my time at SPQR. Through the course of the evening I also managed to eat almost everything on the menu, which made me quite happy. I ended up coming back for dinner the next day to complete my sampling. CP is truly a gem in a gem, for most of the night I thought I was in the hippest new joint in Brooklyn!
I went through the bi-weekly inventory process at Browne on the second week, which was a great peek into how the business is run (and why it’s very complicated). I helped Kenny pull out every single jar of caviar and count how many of each there were in both the freezer and the fridge. I followed Jeff and Jared around as they accounted for every single fish in the warehouse, fillets, loins, sides, whole plus shrimps, uni, crab meat, oysters, mussels, you name it. The only inventory I was recused from was Smoke Room, where Joe told me I didn’t have to do inventory with him the freezer since it was so cold in there and I had developed a nasal drip.
I also learned some new fun facts about shellfish on my second week. Lobster, for instance, like waters 40F and above, which is why most lobsters weren’t yet close the the harbor. Rod attempted to arrange me to go on a lobster boat, but unfortunately they were 2–3 days out at sea this time of year. Lobsters are also carnivorous, so if they are placed in those tight tanks they will start to eat each other. Thus, their claws are bound to prevent fights but they will still eat each other’s antennae. So if you’re curious which lobsters are the freshest in the tank, look for ones with long, non-nibbled antennae.
During one of our drives, Rod also pointed out some nets in the estuaries. Those are eel nets, meant for catching baby eels (glass eels / elvers). Baby eels are in high demand, especially in Asian countries like Japan and Korea and Taiwan, and market prices for baby eels go for $300+/lb. Because of this, licenses are very tightly restricted and on lottery; only a few open up each year. Rod has 2, naturally, because he used to go out with Jean Louis and catch eel, roast them on the bank, and eat them. I thought to myself that would be a good cartoon idea or the ending to a Western movie. Eels come in only at night, so eel fishermen work the “graveyard shift”, usually starting midnight-1am. There’s a few levels of fishermen and they are allowed different types of nets. As you move up the food chain, your net grows bigger and your potential eel catch grows exponentially. Eel catching is a lucrative cash-only business, so the IRS has been cracking down on eel fishermen and resellers recently to make sure taxes are being paid. I mean, $300/lb and 90+ lbs a night (at least in Rod’s day) is a lot of money to be made!
I also spent a good amount of time this week processing my fish notes and poring through the Browne Trading Co. sales guide for all fish. Since I sat in the office with the Sales team, I could listen and learn first-hand how they talked about fish to chefs and customers. There’s really no biz like the fish biz! I also spent some time in the store with Chris and Jasmine, peering through all the wonderful wines. Rod started his career as a wine merchant, because of course he did, and has been to almost all of Bordeaux’s top 5 growths, because that’s just what Rod does. He also met Jean Louis at one of them and kick-started his fish career, so isn’t that serendipity and fate for you! Rod reminds me a lot of my father-in-law, who also used to work on boats and loves the sea and now manages a lot of factories for Kohler. The two of them have very similar personalities and kept snerking to myself whenever Rod said something that sounded like my father-in-law. Chris also gave me some haddock to take home, since I’ve never (!!) eaten fresh haddock and I was surprised to find I liked it more than cod. I also followed around Chef Linda for a while as she prepared all the goodies for the Browne Monthly Lunch — she made this delicious goat stew, kibneh, cucumber salad, and this Middle-Eastern cheesecake. SO GOOD. Even those who were hesitant about the goat eventually caved in and ate it, to her great delight. On my last day I also brought donuts from Holy Donut for everyone, but found out Linda didn’t like donuts. WHY! I’ll make her a pie and bring it up next time I’m in town.
Through my two weeks I was also able to enjoy a lot of great activities in Portland and dine at some wonderful places. You can find my download of that on my Huffington Post blog. Portland, Maine is such a wonderful city and I thoroughly loved my time there. A huge thank you to James Beard Foundation for this opportunity to expand my knowledge and Browne Trading Co. for allowing me to poke around their business for 2 weeks with a nonstop stream of questions. I was a little sad to leave but as Rod bid adieu in his very Rod-like style, “We’ll be here if you need fish.”