Mark Marhefka starts working the satellite phone while he's still miles out to sea, heading homeward after three days out on the Amy Marie. He's carrying a load of grouper, black sea bass, triggerfish, and even a wreckfish or two, carefully iced belly-down within 20 minutes of being caught. Calls go out to local chefs from East Bay Street to Coleman Boulevard, letting them know what's on its way to the Shem Creek docks and when it will arrive. Later in the day, chefs start calling back to Marhefka's cell phone to place their orders, jockeying and cajoling for a few extra pounds of the good stuff.
And that good stuff is revolutionizing dining in Charleston.
Marhefka started selling directly to restaurants in 2007, and some of his first customers were Ben Berryhill at the Red Drum Gastropub, Nico Romo at Fish, and Jeremiah Bacon at Carolina's. At the time, few chefs thought it worth the trouble to drive down to Shem Creek, especially for fish that they were unfamiliar with and didn't have a standard preparation for. Marhefka delivers directly to restaurants now, and more and more chefs are seeing the light. Kimberly Morales at Raul's Seafood and Dan Long at Crosby's are popular suppliers, too, reliably delivering fresh, top-quality fish to their restaurant customers.
Grouper and red snapper have long been local favorites. In recent years less familiar names like triggerfish, wreckfish, and amberjack have started showing up with more regularity, especially at restaurants with a commitment to fresh, local food.
"You can always find grouper and snapper on restaurant menus," says Megan Westmeyer, the Sustainable Seafood Coordinator for the South Carolina Aquarium, "but very often they're brought in from out of state." Or, for that matter, from outside the country — especially Mexican grouper brought in through Miami. Even more varieties come in from as far off as Chile and Vietnam, where industrialized fish farming has become big business.
But, the tide is turning, and more chefs around town are making a conscious effort to use only the best local seafood.
"I get the most excited about triggerfish," says Sean Brock at McCrady's. "It's so cool, unique, and delicate." In recent months he's taken to serving it in a fresh vegetable pistou, a deeply-flavorful, sea-green sauce made from tender, blanched green veggies like peas, asparagus, and beans — whatever's currently available from the restaurant's farm out on Wadmalaw Island — along with fresh herbs and edible flowers, too. It's an explosion of fresh vegetables and fresh fish, the essence of summer in Charleston.
Brock isn't the only triggerfish fan. Mike Lata of FIG was among the first to serve it in a Charleston restaurant. Back in the 1990s, when he was the executive chef at Anson, Lata started buying triggerfish from Dan Long at Crosby's Seafood. At the time it was considered a trash fish, and Crosby's could barely give it away. "I used to get it for $2.95 a pound," Lata remembers, "which was incredible. That's $1.50 a portion." (These days, $11 a pound is the going rate.)
Perhaps the best local fish special in recent months was Lata's pan-roasted triggerfish with Nicolas potatoes, white shrimp succotash, and corn broth, which headlined FIG's menu during the first week of July. The pureed Nicolas potatoes — an heirloom variety from Wadmalaw farmer Celeste Albers — are so creamy on their own that they don't need anything more than butter and a little milk. The shrimp succotash combines fresh sauteed shrimp with ultra-fresh sweet corn, okra, and blackeyed peas, and it's all surrounded by a small pool of corn broth that's taken from the water the corn is cooked in. In the middle is a slab of tender triggerfish that's been pan-roasted a light golden brown. It's hard to get a dish that's any fresher or more local than that.
Triggerfish can be found in Georgia and the Gulf States, too. If there's one fish that Charleston can truly call its own it's the wreckfish. Though it has often been mistaken for grouper, wreckfish is actually part of the bass family. It gets its unusual name from the tendency of juveniles to swim amid floating seaweed and wreck debris.
The only commercial fishery for the species in the U.S. occurs over the "Charleston Bump," an underwater ridge about 100 miles southeast from the Charleston coast. Huge wreckfish — often weighing greater than 50 pounds — thrive in the Bump's caves and overhangs, and it's their only known spawning ground in the western North Atlantic.
Wreckfishing is not easy: the fishermen have to work in the middle of the Gulf Stream using expensive gear in very deep water. There are only three boats that fish for it today (Marhefka's is one of them, as is Sam Ray's Lien Machine), so its availability is sporadic. Plus, the wreckfish fishery is closed from Jan. 15 until April 15 due to its spawning season.
Almost all of the chefs I talked to have some reluctance about wreckfish. With the skin off, the uncooked filets look almost identical to grouper. But, unlike grouper, Sean Brock says, wreckfish can be challenging to prepare; it gets tough and rubbery if not cooked just right. Some avoid wreckfish altogether, but Brock uses a CVap (controlled vapor) oven to cook it slowly at low temperature, then finishes it quickly on a plancha. Over at Anson, a big triangle of wreckfish is seared a golden brown and served over a bed of diced summer squash and sweet corn with a drizzle of bright green pesto.
These days, the Sustainable Seafood Institute is promoting red porgy to local chefs. Also known as pinky or pink snapper, porgy is a sustainable shallow water reef fish. Ben Berryhill at Mt. Pleasant's Red Drum — a longtime proponent of local sustainable fish — has been serving red porgy recently, but it has yet to make much headway with other chefs.
Both Lata and Bacon point to king mackerel, which is abundant off the Carolina coast in spring and fall, as an under-appreciated gem. "A lot of people think it's too oily," Bacon says. "But it's not if you cook it the right way." Bacon likes to use it in dishes with lemon and olive oil, while Lata coats it with a mustard crust — preparations that work well with the mackerel's high fat content.
Perhaps the most elusive of local fish is the barrelfish, a species that has never been observed underwater but is occasionally reeled in as by-catch by commercial anglers working the Charleston Bump. Bacon has served it recently down at Carolina's, and he says the big, round fish — they easily run 20 to 30 pounds — eat much like black cod or sable fish. I predict this is one we'll be hearing more about it upcoming months.
Be it mackerel, triggerfish, or even barrelfish, the quality of Charleston's local, fresh catch is unsurpassed, especially when it comes from fishermen like Marhefka who treat it properly. "Mark's fish is beautiful," Jeremiah Bacon says, "because he handles it with care."
Eating local fish is a good thing in so many ways. When they move beyond the standard lineup of snapper and flounder, our chefs exercise their culinary muscles and experiment with new recipes and techniques that bring a dynamic variety to their menus. By spreading the strain of fishing across a wider range of species, varied dining helps ensure the ongoing availability of a broad range of different fish from our local waters. Eating fresh fish from South Carolina boats creates market demand for species that are not as constrained by fishery restrictions, which helps our local fisherman diversify and maintain their businesses during a time when it's very challenging to make a living as a commercial fisherman.
Most important of all, fresh local fish is good for the eater. The bounty of the South Atlantic fishery is at the heart of the Charleston culinary style, and diners are literally eating it up. Mike Lata estimates that on a typical night, FIG serves 150 entrées, and between 110 and 125 of them are fish. And little wonder. Whether you are buying yours fresh from Raul's or Mt. Pleasant Seafood to cook at home, or trying the latest fish special at a local restaurant, you're bound to have a spectacular meal.