A Willy Wonka of Seafood Charcuterie Is Working His Magic in LA
It’s not every day that you visit your local fishmonger and find silky smooth monkfish pâté or a rich fish-head terrine sitting behind a glass case.
It's not every day that you can visit your local fishmonger and find silky smooth monkfish pâté or a rich fish-head terrine sitting behind a glass case.
And that's because the people behind Cape Seafood and Provisions in LA aren't your average fishmongers. This sustainable seafood destination is helmed by Michael Cimarusti, the chef and co-owner of the celebrated Providence. His fish shop's culinary director and general manager, Brandon Gray, is the Willy Wonka in the kitchen working his magic in seafood charcuterie.
During a morning visit to the white-tiled outpost, Cimarusti and Gray both slip back and forth from behind the counter to the kitchen as staff members filet gorgeous cuts of fish near aquariums full of lobsters and crabs. When the duo stand next to each other, they joke about who is taller since they're both about the same height, and they also have practically matching lumberjack beards.
Gray, 31, pulls out his pièce de résistance: a wooden slab artfully topped with a dozen of his latest creations, including some new items he's been experimenting with. Slices of purple-hued octopus terrine are marbled with swirls of squid ink, the edges of the sliced salmon pastrami are gingerly coated in coarse seasonings, and the monkfish liver pâté easily doubles as a foie gras doppelgänger.
The Providence and Trois Mec alum approaches seafood charcuterie pretty much the same way as you would with meat, in terms of curing and smoking techniques. Working at Cape Seafood and Provisions inspired Gray to get creative with the fish he sells behind the counter. "It's a little challenging, because most of the time when you work with charcuterie it's mostly a meat product, and the fact that I work at a seafood establishment, it gives you time to just play around a little bit," Gray says. "And I've always been interested in charcuterie, so I just thought, Hey, why not just try [making] seafood charcuterie?"
That's not to say it isn't a challenging feat to do this. One of the main problems Gray runs into is that fish doesn't have a lot of fat content, which is often needed in these kinds of rillettes and terrines. That's where Gray's creativity shines. His scallop mortadella comes out as peach-colored rounds that are dotted with pistachios and black peppercorns that have been poached in white wine. In following the tradition of making mortadella, Gray keeps the classic 70-percent whipped pork meat to 30-percent fat ratio in his own special way. He beats scallops until they're creamy and chops up chunks of raw scallops to emulate the white blocks of fat that you normally see in the Italian sausage. And for a touch of color so that the white chunks will stand out, Gray adds red pimentón to the forcemeat. Then he cooks the filling in a warm bath for exactly 12 minutes to give it the consistency of a sausage before letting it set for the next 24 hours.
He doesn't like to cheat when it comes to his charcuterie. "If you're going to do seafood charcuterie, you're just going to want to use all fish products," Gray says. "I thought it would be a little biased to use a meat gelatin product inside of it, so I'm just keeping up with the integrity of the fish and the product. It's a little more time-consuming to achieve the results that you want but that's what you've got to do. It's all about time and effort. I've worked in fine-dining restaurants for about five years. That what it's all about: the time and effort that you put behind it. That's ultimately what I'm trying to get with the seafood charcuterie."
Gray's fish-head terrine requires one of the most difficult processes out of all his items, mostly because he's trying to replicate a gelatinous texture without using land-animal products. He starts with 45 pounds of golden tilefish bones and heads, and slowly cooks that in a boiling pot of water for hours until the collagen falls off the bones. Gray will meticulously pick off all the meat from the fish heads, cheeks and bones; strain the fish stock; and then keep reducing the heat until he ends up with a super gelatinous, savory jelly. He flavors the terrine with bonito flakes, kombu and saffron, giving it more complex flavor notes.
It's hard to imagine that Gray mostly learned how to make charcuterie from reading a book. But as you get to know Gray, you learn that when he has an idea, he'll dive in head-first. At 18, he got his humble start in a military kitchen in Virginia as a cook in the US Navy before going to culinary school at the Art Institute of California in LA. In those last days leading up to his graduation, Gray was struck by something he saw on TV. On No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain was extolling the flavors of a mere carrot from the Royal Mail Restaurant, which has one of most sought-out dining experiences in Australia. "[Bourdain] said, 'This is the best fucking carrot I've ever had,'" Gray explains. "And from that I was like, Who's making carrots that just taste this good? So, I got a one-way ticket to Australia in hopes of working at that restaurant."
Gray did eventually land a gig at Royal Mail. After his time there, he kept traveling, this time to Southeast Asia and Europe. When he finally returned home to LA, he worked at Providence under Cimarusti, and then Trois Mec under chef Ludo Lefebvre before joining the Cape Seafood team earlier this year.
Cimarusti's staunch beliefs toward advocating sustainable fishing practices fall perfectly in line with Gray's. They're all about the nose-to-tail philosophy when it comes to fish—and it shows in everything that they do. After filleting a golden tilefish, instead of discarding the bones, they'll keep them for a flavorful fish stock. They'll sell salmon collars, or smoke fish fins to add depth to a broth. While monkfish liver is normally tossed out, Gray implements it as the star of a pâté in part so that it might bring awareness to it and make people want to eat it. Even his gravlax and Langer's-inspired pastrami all come from wild-caught, sustainable salmon, which is something you don't always see.
"I come from a kitchen where we grew our own vegetables so I know the time and effort that it takes to grow this product or to fish for this sustainable product; it wouldn't do the product any justice if you would just throw it away," Gray says. "It's upsetting when you work in a restaurant and the trash cans are super heavy with all the trash because of product that they just throw away."
His ethos of "100-percent yield" for products even extends to the Japanese-style pickles that serve as an accompaniment to his charcuterie. The nukazuke starts off as slices of cucumbers and carrots that get buried and fermented in rice bran—the outer layer of brown rice that gets polished off to make white rice—along with the flavors of kombu, bonito flakes, chili, and persimmon peels. What you get is a deliciously crisp pickle with earthy, sweet, and sour flavor notes.
While the concept of charcuterie is usually connected to countries like Italy and France, Gray's dishes don't stay in any one particular region. While you'll get Italian influences like in his scallop mortadella or a cured vermillion rock cod bottarga, you'll find Japanese ingredients in his other items, like his gravlax that's made with yuzu and shiso. He's also working on a Bengali mustard, dubbed kasundi, which is an intense, tomato-heavy mixture that is a perfect amalgamation of sweet, spicy and tart. It pairs well with milder charcuterie items like his octopus terrine, which you might also find stuffed into a Greek sandwich he serves at Cape Seafood.
As the seasons change, you can expect Gray's charcuterie to as well. After all, "charcuterie is using off-cuts of [available] product and utilizing it to the best of your ability," Gray says. And so far, he's doing that just right.