Chef David Santos of New York’s Louro restaurant often wears a black ballcap emblazoned with the slogan “I [HEART] PIG.” He wears it ironically. Sure, Santos loves pork just as much as the next guy. But, his heart truly belongs to the swine of the sea. “Fish is more my strong point,” says Santos. “It’s what I concentrate the most on. Most of my menu is seafood.” Trouble is, Santos says, “they don’t even make a hat like this [for fish].”
The headwear gap highlights a broader dichotomy within America’s gustatory zeitgeist. Our love affair with pork is boundless. Nose to tail, it’s all edible. There’s even a cutesy saying that nicely encapsulates our appetite for the four-legged mammal in its entirety: “Everything but the squeal.”
We have no comparable phrase for fish. Oh, we like it fine. We say that we like many kinds: bass, halibut, salmon, snapper and tuna, among them — you know, the milder stuff. “Fish without the fish,” as Santos puts it. But, really, we like one particular type: the fillet. Beyond that boneless, anonymous hunk of protein, we tend to get a little squeamish. Fish, of course, have nostrils and tails, too; we just don’t celebrate their utilization the way we do with pig parts.
Present a roasted hog’s head on a platter and the table erupts in applause. Try the same thing with a big honkin’ bass noggin and you might need smelling salts to revive your dining companions.
For a guy like Santos, who grew up in a Portugese family living along the New Jersey shore, fishing and breaking down his catches since an early age, the general short-sightedness of America’s seafood repertoire is a big cause for concern — especially given the sorry state of our oceans. As a chef, he considers it part of his mission to help us broaden our horizons. “Not everybody grew up like me,” he says. “It’s up to the restaurant to educate people.”
Part of that effort is done through omission. You won’t find any depleted fish species on Louro’s menu, even despite the chef’s own culinary heritage. “I’m Portugese and I won’t put cod on my menu — that’s, like, unheard of,” he says.
The other part is much more overt: Coconut Lime Braised Fish Head, for one thing, has a permanent place on the dinner menu.
“Fish heads have been eaten across Europe and Asia forever,” says Santos. And, with good reason: “There’s actually quite a bit of meat on the head, through the cheeks, the jowls, the collars,” he says — roughly the equivalent of a six-ounce fillet, in many cases. It just takes a little more work to pick through it all, and to get past any qualmishness from the inital sight of the thing.
Chefs, food writers and other adventurous eaters — we live for this stuff. But, despite an increasing culinary sophistication among the general populace and the rise of food-themed TV, which often glamorizes the consumption of unconventional things, most Americans are still more likely to opt for the ever-safe fillet. Even among otherwise worldly New Yorkers, fish heads, especially, can be a hard sell.
“If we get a lot of Asian guests, who are very familiar with stuff like that, we’ll sell two or three a night sometimes,” Santos says. “But, other times, we’ll go three nights without selling one.”
For decades, chefs have been trying to expand America’s palate when it comes to fish, with mixed results. Back in 1992, chef David Burke famously introduced the “swordfish chop” at New York’s Park Avenue Café — “a sensational idea, if I say so myself,” he says. A break from the traditional fillet, this particular cut of meat from behind the fish’s head came served on the bone, a novelty at the time. “It was groundbreaking,” says Burke, “and it was the utilization of a product that was usually thrown back to sea, and/or cut up into bait.”
A big part of the chop’s success, Burke explains, was how relatable it was for even unsophisticated diners. “There was a market for that because people understood what a chop was,” he says. “You didn’t have to bone it out yourself. It was one big bone and the rest was all meat — just like a rib-eye.”
Today, Americans are more receptive to types of seafood that used to draw sneers, eating things like skate, monkfish and other former “trash fish” that used to get tossed out. But navigating a fish carcass is still an issue for the regular diner, according to Burke. “You can serve anything on the bone, fish-wise, as long as it’s not bony, if that makes any sense,” he says. In other words, a hunk of flesh attached to a sizable bone is pretty accessible for most people; a skeletal network with morsels tucked into nooks and crannies just isn’t.
Take a fish head, for instance. “You’ve got to know what you’re eating,” Burke says. “I would like it, but I wouldn’t wake up and say to my girlfriend, ‘Hey honey, let’s go out and get fish heads.’ That day is not around yet.”
On the opposite end of the sea-creature spectrum, you have what fishmonger M.J. Gimbar calls “the tail dilemma.” At BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant in Washington, D.C., where Gimbar brings in a diverse array of seafood, most fish arrives whole. Most patrons, though, want only a specific piece. “I‘d say 85 percent of our customers come into the market and say, ‘I want the center cut of the fillet, two inches thick and make it quick,’” says Gimbar. “People don’t want the tail cuts,” he notes. So, the staff tries to make them seem more appealing — basically, by helping them to not look like fish tails. “We kill so much salmon that we’re taking our tail cuts and curing those and slicing them up and turning them into cured salmon, something people will recognize and want, and selling them that way,” he says.
At a market-driven restaurant like BlackSalt, the cooks tend to have a lot of off-cuts like fish tails to experiment with. Executive chef Mike Huff has been known to make ravioli with fish head meat, a Béarnaise-like sauce using swordfish bone marrow and topped with crispy fried scallop eyes. “We try to use everything,” Gimbar says.
Some enterprising chefs will even salvage unwanted fish parts from other people’s restaurants, then repurpose them for their own unique creations. Take Mads Refslun of Acme in New York, who forages trash-bound salmon skins from neighboring sushi joints and turns them into a crispy appetizer at his own spot. “Scrap cooking,” as he calls it.
“Sushi restaurants cut the skin off, but they leave the brown side on, where all the flavor, all the fat, the healthiest part of the whole fish, is sitting,” says Refslun, who didn’t want all those nutritious omega-3s to go to waste. Refslun takes the skins, grills them and serves them with fermented cucumbers and a horseradish-buttermilk dressing. “It’s a popular dish,” he says. “On a Saturday night, we sell maybe 50 orders of it.”
Refslun would like to serve more interesting fish parts at Acme. He talks about experimenting with things like cod livers and even cod sperm. In Denmark, where he’s from, such aquatic exotics would be far from the strangest things that people are eating these days. At Copenhagen’s famous Noma restaurant, which Refslun co-founded, a big draw is ants.
We Americans, meanwhile, are still figuring out what to do with simple things like fish skins.
Refslun relates a story about a recent visit to a popular Italian restaurant in Manhattan, where he watched a woman order a beautiful whole grilled fish. And, then, ruin it.
“The first thing she does is scrape all the fish skin off and then all the fat until there’s almost no fish left. And then she asks, ‘Can I get some ketchup?'” he says. “It’s such a shame. It could happen anywhere in the world, but I’ve seen it more in America.”
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