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. This article is a must-read for anyone who wonders what actually happens on a day to day basis inside this historic organization. For Chef Dorsey’s write-up of her second week at Browne, Click Here!
Chef Jenny Dorsey’s First Week at Browne
My first week at Browne Trading Co. was jam-packed with learning. I met Rod Mitchell (founder of Browne) on Sunday for a quick tour of the facilities and a short drive through Portland. Along the drive Rod filled me in on the various departments of Browne, what I’d be doing during the week, and regaled me with interesting tales of his times with Jean-Louis, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller. Rod laughed as he told me how Chef Boulud and Keller would be in his old house, cooking up a storm during the summertime, and he “didn’t think much of it” because they were young then and mostly focused on drinking. He also quizzed me on my fish and shellfish knowledge, of which I had none, and determined me to be a work-in-progress.
On Monday, I was in the office for the AM “production meeting” (where everyone is caught up to speed on what products are needed, moving, or need to be sold that day). It took a few more production meetings to wrap my head around what was going on, but essentially Jeff (Head Fishmonger) would go through the pack-and-ship order list (what orders he has, what he will be processing / has processed). Clients varied from high-end places like Le Bernardin, The Dutch, Per Se, to huge clients like Disney to private chefs. Matt (Head of Sales) and Jeff would then go through the current inventory together to determine what was available, newest items, what needed to move ASAP, any delays/news on incoming inventory, and anything we needed to purchase at the auction (Portland Fish Exchange — more on that later). This all happens very fast and most everyone knows what’s going on already. Rod introduced me to everyone as their “new boss” which made us all chuckle. I quickly got to know everyone across most departments (sales, shipping, purchasing, marketplace, fish processing, packaging, caviar) and was able to shadow a great deal of the department heads in my first week. My main activities for the week were:
I spent my first day and a few subsequent shifts in the caviar room with Caviar Director Richard and his assistant, Kenny. Richard is a wealth of information and didn’t blink an eye as I bombarded with all sorts of questions about caviar, origins, sustainability, maturity, closed-loop aquaculture vs. free-flowing aquaculture and the like. My full caviar notes are in my long-format notes PDF, if interested. On the first day, I focused on learning the origins, process, and development of caviar. Some key takeaways were:
The original term for “caviar” only referred to the roe of wild sturgeon in the acipenseridae family from the Caspian Sea.
Caviar requires a long lifecycle, as sturgeon will need anything from 7–30 years in order to reproduce.
The pursuit of caviar, much like any prized possession in the world, has driven many sturgeon species into endangerment. Specifically, Beluga (huso huso) is no longer caught or sold.
Now, most of caviar is from farmed sturgeon carefully raised and matured in aquaculture systems. Caviar farms from around the world have cropped up in this game, given its lucrative nature, from China to the USA to Iran/Israel to Belgium.
I acclimated to the tasting of many types of caviar, something I rarely ate prior to my trip and something that requires repetition (much like wine) to pick up on nuance. On my first day, I admittedly couldn’t taste much beyond “briny” and could only pick up differences between caviars of drastically different qualities.
While “caviar” was originally meant for sturgeon roe, it has now grown to encompass any types of fish egg from all over the world. Browne specifically carries all types of caviar, from Osetra to Siberian (both sturgeon roe) to trout roe, salmon roe, and tobiko. There were other contenders too, like paddlefish and hackleback that I’d never even heard of. Trout roe is one of the most hardy types of caviar, so I practiced my packing skills with those eggs first.
Winter Point Oysters are some of the most in-demand oysters on the East Coast. The demand far exceeds the supply — or at least, the supply John is willing to give. As the three of us headed to the shucking and processing barge, John showed us how carefully sorts his oysters. For every 50 oysters or so, he will hand-select maybe 13 to be sold to Browne or Eventide or his other accounts. He determines this through a long series of checks:
A deep oysters cup (the depth of the oyster, which is an indication of quality)
Flat top (desireable for smooth shucking)
The mantle (outer rim) with fat content (depletes as the oyster season wears and the oysters use its fat reserves)
The scallop (abductor muscle that connect oyster to its shell, which should be nice and large)
Abundance of liquor (mixture of water inside an oyster) — “dry” oysters are not seen favorably and often result from any cracked shells / spillage
Winter Points have a signature bright green shell, and you can see how perfect the cups are. Oysters grow from the bottom shell upwards, so as the shell grows in length the oyster’s cup increases to match.
While the demand is steady and increasing, the farm itself has been hit with some tough times over the last few years due to unforeseen weather changes. A late frost killed tons and tons of oysters one year, John told us, crabs had been eating oysters voraciously another, and variable weather caused a record percentage of oysters to spawn this year. Because of this, they’ve been having trouble with oddly shaped oysters that have grown around each other, jostling for space. Rod and him began to discuss the potential of an “ugly oyster” program, where just-as-delicious but not-as-attractive Winter Points could be sold for non-presentation uses (in a dish vs. raw in a tower). Personally, I didn’t find any of the Winter Points that ugly, but I could tell John had a specific eye for what he wanted.
The three of us crowded around him and his father as they began to wash and process their latest bag of oysters. First, it goes into a custom-made scrubbing machine that looks like a big plastic tub filled with bristles inside. This cleans the outside of the oysters by gently agitating them and removing any funky bits of the water’s floor. Next, they are spread on a big steel table and continually hosed as John sorts all of them into different buckets depending on quality and size.
This uni wasn’t as sweet as the ones we are accustomed to, but rather savory in character. John was surprised at how much the gonads had shrunk in a week, as he told us the urchins were much plumper inside last week. Maybe not on the roster for sale, just still a fascinating snack from the sea to complement all the delicious Winter Points we’d eaten! What a cool experience to peek inside the works of the oyster supply chain.
Fish & Shellfish Smoking Room
I was able to see the entire process of Browne’s very famous, very delicious Smoked Salmon from brine to rinse to smoke to packaging with Smokemaster Joe. Joe has been the Smokemaster for over a decade, taking over after Kenny (now in Caviar) left. He makes a large roster of products (5 types of Smoked Salmon, Smoked Scallops, Smoked Mussels, Smoked Shrimp, Smoked Haddock, etc.) and was responsible for creating the delicious Lemon-Dill and Lemon-Basil varieties. My favorite amongst all of them, however, has to be the Hot-Smoked Maple Salmon. It is so good. Joe put together a big sample pack for me to munch on at home, and I breezed through all of it quickly. The smoked scallops are fantastic for stews and sauces; the smoked shrimp really good for adding depth to curries or purees; cold smoked salmon I had for breakfast (of course). My favorite cold smoked flavor (as is everyone’s!) is the scotch-brined variety — I’ll go into details below 😉
The first step of the smoked salmon process is to brine the fish. Each variety is a little different, but they all start receive the same salt and sugar mix. The salmon is Atlantic Sapphire Salmon, a farm-raised salmon that tastes and looks like wild salmon. Rod had told me a lot about how picky he is with salmon, and this is the main variety they sell at Browne. The color is deep, the fat content just right, the flesh firm and moist. The scotch salmon is sprayed with scotch before being tossed in salt / sugar and carefully laid flat in batches. The lemon-based salmons are sprayed with lemon juice and the traditional flavor isn’t sprayed, but has a special rub which includes nori (seaweed flakes). The salmon is then covered and weighed with heavy water weights overnight. The next day at 7:30am I joined Joe in hosing down the salmon fillets, which had absorbed an incredible amount of the brine. They are then set to dry in racks labeled by type.
Once the salmon is suitably dry, they are loaded up into a humongous smoker that fits entire wheeled tray tables. There are two separate smokers, one for hot smoking (145F+ for at least 30 minutes) and one for cold smoking (<90F). All the salmon except for the Maple variety is cold-smoked, as that’s the classic version. Browne’s salmon is smoked for 6 hours in the 78–82F range, then for 20 minutes at the 85–87F range. Joe told me the last 20 minutes are very important as it brings the oil from the salmon to the surface, giving the fillets a beautiful sheen.
Besides temperature differences, there are other factors at play between hot and cold smoked items. For instance, Browne uses dry brines for cold smokes and wet brines for hot smokes. As items continue to smoke for longer times and/or higher temperatures, more moisture will leave the fish, resulting in a saltier end product. That explains why most hot-smoked fish are done with a sweet agent (i.e. maple syrup).
Joe gave me some time off and told me to come back at 2pm for freshly smoked salmon. I put my phone on countdown and showed up right at 2 with eager eyes and an appetite. “You have good memory!” he marveled. Freshly smoked salmon is so, so delicious. I ate an egregious amount, stopped only by my dignity and the fact I’d already chowed down on some Matzo Ball Soup made my Chef Linda (Browne’s resident Chef who makes all the goodies the Browne Store sells — more on that later).
It’s important for smoked salmon to be packed quickly after smoking as the smoke begins to dissipate from the product, so Joe will bring the smoked salmon down to the proper temperature and package it quickly. He processes the fillets depending on how it will be sold: whole sides the skin is left on, with ends trimmed. 4oz bags are skin-off and sliced through a giant mandolin-esque machine with big cautionary signs warning against putting your fingers anywhere in the center. The salmon belly is sliced off and diced, sold separately to be used for things like salmon dips. Other pieces, odds ’n’ ends, are also packed into bags and kept around for employees and friends to use. Joe told me while he doesn’t like salmon (I know, crazy right?! He’s never eaten any of the smoked salmon he’s produced), his son made a tasty salmon “bacon” from some of the scrap pieces he brought home. Sounds tasty!
I helped Joe package bags and bags of 4oz and whole sides once the salmon was ready. “It doesn’t have to be quite as exact as caviar,” he told me good-naturedly, “It can’t be under, but it can be a little over.” But all that caviar training had made me fastidious about weights, so I proceeded to pore over my salmon pieces and make them all perfectly 4oz anyway. After everything was packaged, we then took to the giant vacuum sealer (at least 10x my size) to seal everything, box them up, and bring them over to the freezer. Because of strict HACCP regulations, all the smoked items are frozen and kept frozen when sold. They are only to meant to be thawed prior to eating. It’s not ideal, but it’s so complicated to keep it as a refrigerated vs. frozen through the supply chain that’s the way it is.
After processing, Joe gave me the fun job of spraying the entire smoking room with soapy suds. I was delighted. “I knew you would like that job!” he said. I took the spray gun and went totally haywire on the room and managed to spray parts of myself with soap too. Then we got to hose everything down with water and squeegee (also very satisfying) before turning off the lights for the process to start again tomorrow.
All of Browne’s fish and shellfish are processed and packed in a giant, multi-roomed cooler to ensure safety. Head Fishmonger Jeff and Fishmonger Jared let me shadow them for a few days to scale/gut/fillet fish, pull product for orders, and observe larger fish (i.e. tuna) be cut up. The Fish Cooler is by far the hardest “station” at Browne and I’m still so impressed by how much is done there, so quickly and efficiently, day in and day out.
I first had to be suited up in something that resembled a Hazmat suit but with more insulation. I had 3–4 layers of clothing under the suit (it’s very cold in there!) plus an apron, plastic elbow sleeves, and 2 layers of gloves. I think I commandeered the only few boxes of size S gloves in the whole building that week! Jeff stands at the center of the room (the “podium”) and keeps all the wheels turning as he pulls fish for orders, checks in on Jared, inspects fish from the auction, looks through inventory, etc. Occasionally he also goes upstairs to the sales floor to clarify orders as some clients are very specific on what they want. I kept envisioning everyone at Browne adapting walkie-talkies and how funny (but efficient!) it would be. Jeff showed me how the whole fish room was laid out (domestic fish here, international fish here, shellfish and oysters here, larger-format fish here). I learned that the fish is dated not by our standard date (i.e. 4/13/2017) but by the day of the year (i.e. 106) as it is much better for fact-checking. While orders come in calling for a specific amount (i.e. 10 lbs) of fish, realistically the fish is fulfilled as close as possible due to its size and/or availability. It was fascinating to see who was ordering what fish, and how. Most high-end places like Le Bernardin will always ask for whole fish as their in-house fishmonger will process it upon arrival. As Jeff says, this is the most ideal for all restaurants as with whole fish you can really see exactly how fresh it is. Unfortunately not everyone has the capacity to do this, so much of the processing will be handled by Browne before it is packed on ice and shipped Next-Day Air.
I was stationed off to Jared next, who works in a sectioned off area for processing. Jared was extra-patient with me lack of filleting abilities. Orders usually come in 2 big waves, the AM (before 10am or so) and the PM (cutoff is 2:30pm). We’re only allowed to be in the cooler for ~2 hours at a time before a mandatory break as it’s very cold, but even with the short stretches of time Jared processed an ungodly amount of fish. We started a few big orders of various flatfish (turbot and fluke). The most important part of learning how to fillet is understanding the fish’s skeletal structure. For flatfish, there’s a large rib at the center of each side that must be handled gently to not break off bones into the flesh. For fish like Loup de Mer, this process can be less delicate as the fish bones are softer and can be simply cut through (if that’s the cut the customer asks for). Salmon and sablefish are similar in structure (obviously the salmon is much larger and more expensive, so I was not allowed to cut any salmon) and the filleting process also a little different.
Across all my stints in the Fish Cooler, Jeff and Jared spent a lot of time showing me the process over and over and over again, guiding my knife as I went through the fishes. As with any technical skill, it is a muscle memory and learned ability through repetition so I reassured myself I just had to spent more time in the cooler. A big difficulty I had was not really “feeling” where the bones were with the tip of my knife and angling my knife a little too up or down, which mashed it sorely into the harder bones. Poor Jared said “oh, not bad” for so many botched fish! Towards the end of my trip I was beginning to have better-shaped fillets, especially of the sablefish. I was even getting the majority of the hard-to-reach belly areas and capturing most of the meat around the fish neck. The easiest fish by far, however, was monkfish. It only has one giant bone, comes head-off, and you cut it in half and remove the skin. Voila! Felt like a champ doing these. For the bigger fish like cod and halibut, I stood back and watched Jared fillet these. An interesting fact about cod — it’s susceptible to many worms! It happens to eat a lot of seal poop, which contain worms, and they wiggle into the cod flesh and nourish themselves there. Once spotted, they are picked out of the fillet and it’s totally harmless (but slightly gross). As Jeff put it, “This is why we don’t eat cod sashimi.”