Seattle Fish Co.’s lead fish cutter, Jerry Lambert, looks like he just stepped off a fishing boat.
He wears a royal blue knit cap, a slicker-style apron that reaches nearly to his ankles and insulated rubber boots to keep his feet warm as he walks through the occasional puddle of water. But his ruddy cheeks come not from exposure to biting salt air but instead from the 32- to 34-degree temperature in the distribution warehouse where he fillets yellowfin tuna, Ora King salmon and mahi-mahi.
If Lambert seems out of his element working indoors and far from the nearest seashore, consider this: Seattle Fish Co.’s Kansas City facility processes more than 3 million pounds of fish and 1 million pounds of oysters a year.
“If the sea ever ran out of fish, I wouldn’t know what to do. Cutting fish keeps me young,” says Lambert, 57, who climbed aboard his first fishing vessel off the coast of his native California at age 17.
With every job promotion, Lambert has moved farther inland, transferring a dozen years ago from the company’s Denver headquarters. Seattle Fish Co. set up an outpost in Kansas City’s East Bottoms in 2003 then moved into a 30,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art distribution facility in 2015 in Riverside — strategically located a stone’s throw from Kansas City International Airport.
“We hear it all the time: ‘You’re in the Midwest. You can’t get fresh fish.’ But we can get seafood delivered within 48 hours of it coming out of the water,” says Jacquie Brockhoff, a sales manager who has worked in the seafood industry for more than three decades, all of them while living in Kansas City or Wichita.
It turns out geography is not destiny. Think of airports as the Midwest’s seaports, and we are only a three-hour flight from either coast. Yes, live lobsters routinely fly Southwest Airlines.
Air deliveries arrive twice daily, and refrigerated trucks hauling cargo from both coasts back up to the company’s docks to unload every Sunday and Wednesday night. The catch dropped off at one of five refrigerated docks is headed for more than 500 restaurants and supermarkets in 12 cities and six states throughout the Midwest.
Customers include major chain restaurants (Red Lobster), supermarkets (Whole Foods), premier sushi bars (Bob Wasabi Kitchen), modern steakhouse concepts serving surf and turf (Stock Hill) and tiny independent eateries (Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos).
The warehouse is powered by six refrigeration units, each calibrated to keep the catch as fresh as possible at various stages of processing. If the temperature ever dips or rises, the production and warehouse managers are notified by a computerized system of alarms that go straight to their cellphones.
A dozen fish cutters work six days a week, split between two shifts that go as late as 2 a.m. and start as early as 5 a.m. Before entering the warehouse floor, workers suit up in lab coats and hair or beard nets. They also walk through a sanitizing solution to minimize contamination.
The fish and seafood arrive tagged with information about the source and are kept on ozonated ice, which limits bacteria growth and is 5,000 times more effective than chlorine. Cutters use ozonated water plumbed throughout. The warehouse also is equipped with a special lighting system to reflect the true color of the fish for quality assurance and grading.
Independent third-party audits give the company high marks for food safety, and sustainability has become an increasingly important focus at Seattle Seafood Co., a third-generation family business started 99 years ago by an Italian immigrant.
The company is a member of Sea Pact, a nonprofit environmental alliance of nine seafood distributors aimed at fostering sustainable fishing and fish-farming practices.
Seattle Fish supplies local chefs with newsletters containing recipes and information. It also encourages participation in the Whole Boat Harvest program, which offers oddball fish and bycatch (unwanted sea life that gets caught in a fisherman’s net) that may be delicious but rarely seen on restaurant menus.
“We feel like we’re selling everything that is not nailed to the wall,” Brockhoff says.
Theresia Ota grew up in Hawaii, so fish has always been a part of her life and her table.
But the chef de cuisine for Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar on the Country Club Plaza was moved when she took her staff on a field trip to Seattle Fish Co.
As they watched Lambert fillet a tuna, Ota says, “I saw a light go on with a lot of my staff when they realized that fish had to survive for 20 years to get to that size, and it takes five minutes to eat it.”
American fish and seafood consumption is on the rise again (we’re eating an average of 15.5 pounds per year, according to the Institute of Food Technologists). But we’re not meeting the amounts the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines recommend (at least two fish meals per week).
These statistics are both a blessing and a curse for those eager to maintain the ocean’s resources. Regulation of fish and seafood also falls under a patchwork of federal and state oversight, sometimes making sustainability difficult to ascertain.
Seafood Watch is Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s effort to help consumers and businesses make sustainable choices. Its pocket guides, initially designed to fit into a wallet, have morphed into a free mobile app available at seafoodwatch.org.
The guide offers at-a-glance recommendations of “best choice,” “good alternative” and “avoid” for specific fish and seafood. Diners can search by the name they see on a menu or at the supermarket and determine the status of the domestic, imported, farmed or wild fish.
“I think that there is a lot more need for outreach, and we’re doing that through individual chefs,” Seafood Watch’s Sheila Bowman says over a lunch of sustainable seafood, including the whole grilled pike mackerel prepared by chef Carlos Falcon of Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos in Kansas City, Kan.
“But we also work with a lot of food service companies, and we’re starting to work with larger chain restaurants with the hope that they realize that this is a place where they have to work up to,” says Bowman, who is manager of culinary and strategic initiatives. “If they’re going to be functional (as a chain) in California and Florida and Kansas City, they have to really address conservation issues, health issues, vegetarian issues.”
Menus at most restaurants include unsustainable quantities of shrimp, salmon and tuna. But experts say there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Jax chefs added sustainable grouper and sablefish. They also try out lionfish, dogfish and West Coast ground fish — all underutilized or bycatch products, sometimes referred to as “trash fish” — as daily specials.
Since it’s a member of the Seafood Watch program, Jax’s sales are fed into an algorithm used to calculate the chain’s sustainability. “It’s a lot of work,” says Sheila Lucero, Jax’s corporate executive chef. “We do a lot of homework.”
The homework and third-party certifications — from Seafood Watch and others — come at a financial cost as well, a price that is usually passed along to the consumer. A well-trained waitstaff is part of an intricate in-house ecosystem that can educate consumers about best choices.
“For the most part, there is no paper trail out there, and you don’t know what you’re getting,” says Dave Query, chef and founder of Big Red F Restaurant Group, which owns Jax and a host of non-seafood concepts. “Few places give a rip about sustainability.”
But for the past decade, Kansas City has been a leader in the farm-to-table movement, and consumers have learned to ask questions about where their meat, vegetables and dairy come from and how they were handled.
“Really, we’re in the place that vegetarians were 25 years ago: You have to keep asking … if people can ask questions about (heirloom) tomatoes, I know they can ask them about fish,” Seafood Watch’s Bowman says.
For a decade, chef Jonathan Justus of Justus Drugstore in Smithville has been a leading proponent of sourcing as close to home as possible.
“I’ve never had seafood on the menu,” Justus says of his restaurant, located in a farm community 25 minutes north of downtown Kansas City. “We’re (a) farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, root-to stem, foraging (restaurant).”
But his refusal to put the ubiquitous crabcake on his menu has not extended to farm-raised fish grown in the Midwest: “I don’t think I can go without fish (on my menu), so I try to make the best decisions I can,” he says.
He serves the trout with a honey-garlic-sorghum-ginger glaze with a sweet potato puree and a Chinese cabbage, carrot and fennel medley. He garnishes the $35 entree with finely grated smoked horseradish and puffed rice.
To get maximum use of the fish, he cures the tails to take the place of anchovy for his Missouri Caesar salad. Simply frying the whole fish could easily send the prices into the $50-plus entree range. “If you wanna make money, open a pasta restaurant,” Justus says with a laugh.
“It all fits into that local, sustainable mindset, and if you talk to anyone forward-thinking about food and our growing population, everyone knows (aquaculture) is the most sustainable,” says Calvin Davis, chef/owner of Freshwater, a new restaurant in midtown scheduled to open in March.
Davis also insists “we’re not going to be able to eat as much meat as we do now in 50 years.”
Fish and seafood have a lighter environmental footprint than beef: It takes a pound of food to produce a pound of fish compared to a 30:1 ratio to raise cattle, says Davis, who speaks at the Kansas City Zoo’s annual Seafood Soiree, a Seafood Watch event.
But what does a rising tide of farmed fish and seafood options mean for a city whose culinary identity is rooted in beef?
Kealan O’Boyle has one foot firmly planted on Kansas farmland and the other in the sea.
He grew up in Lenexa and graduated from Olathe North High School’s award-winning culinary program and the New England Culinary Institute. He has worked at Renee Kelly’s Harvest, a farm-to-table restaurant in Shawnee, but he has also had a job at a restaurant on Cape Cod.
As he takes the reins as executive chef at the newly opened Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar in Lawrence, he plans to tap into seasonality and regionality: He uses local boutique farmers, and he even has access to a $40,000 smoker in his kitchen — a remnant from a former barbecue restaurant.
To O’Boyle, the possibilities are as wide as they are deep.
“When you go from standing in the surf in Cape Cod, and here I am shucking oysters. …” O’Boyle says. “I could definitely picture working at a farm-to-table restaurant, but now I can kind of do both here, because we got great oysters today that were pulled out of the ocean yesterday.”
For more info about the Kansas City Zoo’s Seafood Soiree on April 22, go to kansascityzoo.org.
Home cooks can buy fish and seafood direct from Seattle Fish Co.’s warehouse: Order 24 hours in advance during business hours, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is a 10-pound minimum. 816-920-7070. The warehouse is at 4300 N. Mattox Road in Riverside.