In one of the country's great seafood cities, we go behind the scenes to meet the pros who make it happen.
IN THE DANCE that pairs Seattle with seafood, Pike Place Market fishmongers toss fish and sing in chorus while sturdy vessels with names like Vigorous and Rigorous share the dock at Fishermen’s Terminal with salty crews from “The Deadliest Catch.”
Waterfront restaurants woo with a view — and the promise of Dungeness crab cakes — while the city’s fooderazzi hit the latest oyster happy hours at their favorite neighborhood bistros.
From South Seattle to Shoreline, Mercer Island to Mukilteo, home cooks rev up their palates in the wide world of supermarkets selling ahi and mahi, beltfish and milkfish and seasonal seductions like Hood Canal shrimp and Columbia River sturgeon.
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Seattle is synonymous with seafood for good reason — one that goes beyond the great fortune that comes with living where the land meets the lakes, the rivers, the sea and the Sound. Here, it’s as much about the people — the ones who make it their life’s work to bring all that great seafood to our table. Today, we celebrate just a few of them.
At 8 a.m., driver Gene Ikeda emerges from the basement of Mutual Fish, his white coveralls tucked into Neoprene boots. He clocks in, as he has for 17 years, with co-workers who file past the cramped office that 96-year-old patriarch Dick Yoshimura shares with his son, Harry, and grandson, Kevin.
It’s the start of another long, busy day at the Rainier Valley store that has stood as a seafood mecca since 1965.
Mutual got its start at 14th Avenue and Yesler Way in 1947. Back then, Harry Yoshimura was a toddler and Alaskan Way a working waterfront. “In the old days, the whole waterfront area had seafood-processing places,” recalls Harry. Fish was packed in wooden boxes and sent out by truck and railcar. His dad, who worked the fillet lines as a young man, knew all the old-timers.
There was David Levy, who bought Pike Place Market’s City Fish in 1922. And Solly Amon from Pure Food Fish, the Market’s longest-standing vendor, who took over where his father — a Market fixture since 1911 — left off.
“Even though they were competitors, they’d help each other out,” Harry remembers. Today the majority of the Yoshimuras’ product — much of it wild and born in the USA — arrives in wax-lined boxes via Mutual’s refrigerated trucks.
Grabbing the keys to one of two big rigs plastered with colorful fish murals, Ikeda noses onto Rainier Avenue South, headed for the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. First stop: Alaska Airlines Cargo, where he’s greeted by name, asked about his golf game and sent into a spotless warehouse where a pallet of rockfish, sablefish and halibut awaits.
From Alaska, it’s off to Delta for 45 pounds of Maine lobster; on to freight-forwarders in South Park for swordfish from the South Seas, and back to Mutual for drop-off.
Later, Ikeda tramps through the back alleys and dishwashing rooms of restaurants on Capitol Hill, Lower Queen Anne, Fremont and Belltown, leaving halibut fillets and whole dorade at a lineup that reads like a critic’s “best-of” list. He knows it’s quality stuff because as Harry Yoshimura insists, “My philosophy is to buy from people I trust.”
Chef Maria Hines does her best to purchase direct from local fisherfolk. “But if I can’t find a single source of halibut, I call Mutual,” explains the owner of Wallingford’s organic restaurant Tilth. “They’re super-knowledgable about their product.”
Late in the afternoon you might find Ikeda in Mutual’s retail shop, cutting and weighing alongside a crew in blue “Three Fish” caps. That brand, which recognizes the three generations of Yoshimuras, is on house-made products like kasu cod, kippered salmon and the fried fish cakes Naty Serquinia has been preparing in the big room out back for more than 40 years.
Naty is related by love or blood to everyone she works with, including her sister, Josie, and brother, Junior. You’ll find them heaping fresh ice in display cases, arranging fish in alternating colors and hauling tubs of California sardines and Louisiana shrimp from cold storage. Come 5:30 p.m., they turn off the “OPEN” sign and do it all in reverse, scrubbing display cases and hosing down the cutting-room floor.
Together, Mutual’s crew greets a steady parade of customers. Like Rivi Poupko Kletenik, who knows they’ll expertly fillet a whole salmon with kosher care (using a special knife), and cut it into chunks for pickling — so she doesn’t have to. Every Tuesday, like clockwork, Yoshio Teshima arrives with his wife, Florence. “I’ve been shopping here since they opened,” says the 86-year-old former Boeing engineer, who buys salmon and halibut, and occasionally treats himself to Naty’s famous fish cakes. “In fact,” he laughs, “I’ve been coming here since before they opened: I was a customer at 14th and Yesler!”
The sushi chef
For those addicted to sushi, Greater Seattle has become a Japantown in its own right. The demand for it has skyrocketed locally and nationally, driving up the cost economically and environmentally.
“Prices are crazy,” says sushi chef Ryuichi Nakano, citing a rise in airfreight costs and poor foreign-exchange rates for the U.S. dollar. “Right now, I’m sucking it up, compressing my profit.”
Twenty years ago, it was difficult to get the vast variety of fresh fish he offers now, says Nakano, owner of the popular Wallingford restaurant Kisaku. “Now we have a lot of different suppliers — from all over the world.”
The majority of that supply comes via True World Foods, a sushi specialist with a strong local presence, known for its ubiquity nationwide and its controversial affiliation with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Nakano spends approximately $20,000 each month purchasing seafood for his 70-seat restaurant. Half goes to True World. Otherwise, he pledges allegiance to T.H. Seafood, an unmarked warehouse and seafood-processing plant in South Park.
At T.H. Seafood, he’s greeted like an old friend by owner Shin Nishimura, because that’s what he is. Buyer and seller met while working together at I Love Sushi, where Nishimura cooked before going into the wholesale trade, and Nakano spent a decade learning how to run a sushi restaurant.
“I knew what kind of seafood he could provide,” says the chef, who opened Kisaku in 2002. “He’s good at tuna,” for instance, one of the few fish the chef doesn’t buy whole. And fresh black cod, “which you never see out of True World.”
What sets chefs like Nakano-San apart is that willingness to put his money where our mouth is, says Nishimura, whose business depends widely on the sushi trade. “It’s my job to know my customer.”
The happy wholesaler
As operations manager for the wholesale-seafood division of Anthony’s Restaurants, Tim Ferleman’s connection with seafood suppliers is the name of the game. That, and playing the numbers.
He’s got six trucks, sent to the airport sometimes twice daily from a weathered warehouse at Pier 91 off the Magnolia Bridge — where he’s been buying seafood since 1987. Those trucks fan out to pick up and deliver, supplying 24 Anthony’s restaurants in Washington and Oregon with fresh and frozen product.
Anthony’s seafood sales have come a long way since 1977, when Ferleman was a teenage dishwasher at Budd Gould’s original Mad Anthony’s in Bellevue. Back then, a bartender made midnight runs to Bellingham in a VW bus to supply a single Anthony’s HomePort, in Kirkland, with whole Dungeness.
Today Ferleman depends on Trilogy Crab Company to deliver sturdy 2-pounds-and-then-some Dungies — bought directly from crabbers, held live in tanks in Bellingham and trucked to Seattle. Got crabmeat? Northwest processor Bornstein Seafoods does, and they deliver daily. In 2009, Ferleman purchased 65,000 pounds of its Dungeness: more than a million bucks.
He buys 100,000 pounds of Manila clams a year from a clutch of local growers like Tom and Marie Madsen from Port Discovery Seafarms. When Marie showed up in Magnolia with a delivery and overheard there were no trucks available to fast-track a load of fresh fish from the airport to Anthony’s in Bend, Ore., she offered to make the run. Ferleman swapped her halibut for her trouble, and the fish was in Bend by lunchtime. “It’s all about relationships,” he says. His toughest job, Ferleman says, is projecting the need for halibut, and freezing the right amount of wild fish for the offseason.
Pinpointing usage and volume and protecting his price-point is a struggle, and the secret to his success is never to have too much on hand.
“Your inventory should be low when the fresh season starts, and it can be a very volatile market. You’re trying to make your buy when you think the price is at a low point because inventory only lasts so long.”
Ferleman relies on historical data from years of computer spreadsheets as well as a wall-size whiteboard behind his desk. And on those close relationships with purveyors to keep menu prices consistent.
During the season, “one of my buddies in Sitka might call and say, ‘We’ve got a boat coming in today with halibut and ling cod, what do you need?’ I say 3,000 pounds of halibut.” If things go well, they’ll offload the boat in the morning, and his fish is flying to Seattle that afternoon.
“The biggest, most important thing about having our own seafood business is we know exactly where our product comes from all of the time,” Ferleman says.
To illustrate his point, he gestures toward 300 pounds of Penn Cove mussels hand-delivered by his pal, Rawle Jeffords, who’s been selling shellfish to Anthony’s since its inception. “Rawle gets up at 2 a.m.,” says his customer. “Those mussels came out off the water this morning” — and within 24 hours they’ll be coming out of the kitchen at Anthony’s restaurants from Everett to Olympia.
The oyster man
Rawle Jeffords is the face of Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove Shellfish, and his family’s product is revered across the land. But his isn’t the only name associated with a mighty Northwest mollusk.
“Oyster Bill” Whitbeck earned his name 30 years ago when he played the drums in a marching band whose members met every year at Lake Stevens for a picnic. “I’d always bring a bag of oysters to put on the grill,” he recalls.
For nearly 10 years, the co-author of the cookbook “The Joy of Oysters” has worked for Shelton-based Taylor Shellfish Farms. Bill’s bearded face is the one you’ll find behind the Taylor banner at farmers markets all over town, selling everything from dime-sized Olympia oysters to gargantuan geoducks — a clam he’d never seen growing up around the docks and oyster boats in Connecticut on Long Island Sound.
The first time he laid eyes on a geoduck was in 1976, after riding his motorcycle to Seattle. His cousin introduced him to some of the area’s best-known seafood restaurants. “The food was terrible!” he recalls, choosing instead to get his seafood fix in Chinatown.
In the decades since, Oyster Bill says, he’s witnessed a sea change.
Taking his cue from the most prominent of Northwest seafood marketers — Jon Rowley, who’s promoted product for Taylor for 25 years — Oyster Bill helped convince his employers that direct sales to restaurant clients and at farmers markets was a way to step up the company profile. Chefs shop at farmers markets. Farmers-market customers dine at local restaurants. It’s win-win.
Introducing chefs and shoppers to hot commodities like Shigoku oysters (hand-sold and sold out after their limited release in 2008), and sweet Island Scallops (grown in Qualicum Beach, B.C.), Oyster Bill has become both mover and shaker, salesman and teacher.
Building momentum for a new product takes time and effort, says Rowley, who has done just that for Taylor’s Mediterranean mussels and Virginica oysters. But “a good product sells itself,” insists Oyster Bill.
Direct marketing has turned fisherman Joe Malley into the “Charlie Tuna” of Greater Seattle, though he’d bristle at the analogy. Perhaps you’ve seen Malley practicing his pitch a few booths away from Oyster Bill at the Ballard Farmers Market. He’s the guy whose eyes are bluer than the deep blue sea — where he and his wife, Joyce, once sailed their 95-foot troller, the Fishing Vessel St. Jude.
After 12 years as live-aboards and the birth of their children, they’ve left that task to their captain and crew, and make it their business to sell their product — Pacific albacore — themselves.
Step on up to purchase a piece of buttery albacore, smoked, frozen or canned, and you may learn that the tuna is line-caught, blast frozen and mercury-tested. And you’ll want to know that it tastes as good thawed and served raw as it does cooked in its own juices and sold for $3.50 in a 3.5-ounce can marked “Dolphin Safe” and “Zero Bycatch.”
What you’ll likely not hear is the personal cost of bringing that fish to your table.
“My captain comes in, and I owe him his crew share,” Malley explains. On a 62 ½-ton catch worth $135,000, Malley owed him $40,000, “but he wants his $40,000 in cash before the boat leaves again. In green dollars! Do you know how hard it is to scrounge that up from these little banks? I sometimes have to drive all around to six banks in Ballard.”
But the payoff is the undying devotion of his biggest fans, including chefs like John Sundstrom, who highlights the tuna at Lark, and Tilth’s Hines, who met Malley eight years ago while shopping at the farmers market. “It’s such a beautiful product. I sear it rare and change it up seasonally,” says Hines. “As a chef you come up against consistency issues, and fishermen like Joe have more incentive to take really good care of their catch.”
“Running a kitchen is a lot like running a boat,” Malley says. “You have a lot of responsibility, and if something goes wrong, it’s all on you.” But when things go right? “Seattle people seek connection,” he says. “They have a special disposition. When I go to a farmers market, I don’t feel like I’m selling fish. I feel like I’m helping my friends.”
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times food writer. Check out her blog at www.seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat. Mike Siegel is a Times staff photographer.