Know your fish: Dayton experts on sourcing seafood locally for Lent

It’s arguably a widespread opinion that it can be difficult, to say the least, to find a fresh and varied array of fish in Midwestern regions like southwest Ohio. Coastal metropolises like San Francisco and New York City are the cities to indulge in that Chilean Sea Bass or Wild King Salmon dish because the fish will be fresher off the vessel, the thinking goes.

With national food trends showing that the number-one dining movement in 2016 is locally sourced meats and seafood and number nine is sustainable seafood, local chefs and seafood purveyors say that absolutely isn’t the case anymore.

“I think the notion that one cannot find fresh seafood in the Midwest is a concept that is holding on from past difficulties in the seafood supply chain,” said the Oregon District’s Corner Kitchen co-owner and Chef Jack Skilliter. “But if you think of a restaurant on the East Coast selling King Salmon, halibut or Dungeness Crab, they are no different than the items that we can receive here in Dayton; in fact, they will have to travel farther from the Pacific in order to reach their destination.”

How has local sourcing changed in Dayton?

Many independent and commercial restaurants in the area, Corner Kitchen included, use Foremost Seafood as their fresh fish purveyor. What began as a wholesale operation in a couple of rooms at 1904 Woodman Drive in Kettering in 1983 expanded into a small retail store in 2001 for select fresh catches and various seafood accompaniments, serving over 300 types of fish wholesale.

The process is decidedly old-school; every day, customers walk up to the front desk, scan the list of daily fresh fish with price per pound, and cross-reference it with the chalk “eighty-six” board, which lists the fish that are already sold out. You can then get your fish custom-cut, skin-on or skin-off, to your need and fancy, and they provide menus in several languages to help with their international customers.

All of these features have helped Foremost earn a reputation for great knowledge and detailed customer service, but the transparency and sustainability of their products are also of the utmost importance to owners Tom and Pam Patterson.

“As a biologist, I am a conservationist by nature,” Tom Patterson said. “Sustainability is very important to me.”

Back when the former shrimp farmer was a kid in the Dayton area, a fish dish usually meant catfish caught in the local lake, maybe battered up and served at a local fish fry. While that visual may have persisted, over the years his customer growth proves (December 2015 was their best month ever, he said) that the local area is hungry for fresh fish from around the world, and trust the quality thanks to his relationship-building and their transparent sourcing.

Accessibility to specialty sourcers in more recent years has helped as well, Patterson said. These specialty companies can be domestic, or international — like the sashimi-grade Highland Blue salmon from Wester Ross Fisheries in Scotland.

“I buy scallops from a scallop company; tuna from a tuna company,” he said. “Back then (when Foremost first opened), you would do more of a grocery store list from seafood companies.”

What should we, as seafood consumers, look for when we buy fish in-store and in-restaurant?

Fresco Foods Chef Jenn DiSanto emphasized that because seafood is not as regulated, “you really have to make sure you’re purchasing from a reputable seafood purveyor and they’re handling the fish and seafood well.”

“When selecting seafood to serve on the menu or for a daily feature, we always consult with (the Monterey Bay Aquarium program) Seafood Watch for the better to best choices for sources and species of seafood,” said Corner Kitchen co-owner Natalie Skilliter. “Certified sustainable seafood with the Marine Stewardship Council label is a good indicator of quality sustainable seafood when shopping personally.”

As for farm versus wild-caught?

“The question is, do you know your farmer? How good is your farmer? We are very comfortable with the farmed products that we carry, and really think that we have sourced out some of the best in the world,” Pam Patterson said. Foremost Seafood offers both farmed and wild products.

Have questions? Just ask.

Above all, chefs and the Pattersons both emphasized that when you want to know more about the fish you’re buying in the store or on the table, simply ask.

“You could go to a store, and they could say that they just got the fish in this morning,” said Tom Patterson. “But that doesn’t matter how often you get it in if it’s not fresh to begin with. So the question here is not when did you get it, but how old is it when you get it?”

At Corner Kitchen, the source and type of salmon, for example, may change, so Natalie Skilliter encourages asking your server to check with the chef if you’re curious.

“Some salmon may be farmed, but will only be so if organic and sustainably raised, usually from Scotland,” she said. “Wild King, wild sockeye, or organic farmed king are Corner Kitchen’s top choices.”

For DiSanto, fresh fish should never smell “fishy;” it should smell of the ocean.

“I really do feel when someone says they ‘hate fish or seafood,’ it’s because they haven’t had fresh seafood or it hasn’t been cooked properly,” she said.

A quality fish counter in a supermarket ideally should have whole fish on display and the eyes should look clear, DiSanto said. If the eyes are cloudy or sunken in, the fish is on its’ last leg. Shellfish should be on ice. The filets itself and the whole fish should be firm to the touch; if an indent stays when touching the filet, that’s another sign the fish is going bad.

“And most importantly, the attendant should be knowledgeable,” she said.