Welcome to Behind the Plate, a new Eater San Diego feature that profiles the often unheralded men and women, from fishmongers and butchers to farmers and bread bakers, who are responsible for the food we eat. Know someone who'd be a great candidate? Send us a note.
[Tommy Gomes by Cass Greene]
Tommy Gomes, Director of Public Relations and Marketing of Catalina Offshore Products, a local seafood wholesale company, is one of the city's most knowledgable fishmongers. A native San Diegan whose family settled here in 1892, Gomes comes from a long line of professional fishermen (he used to work the tuna fleets going in and out of San Diego) and has become a leading voice in seafood education. In addition to working with some of the area's best chefs, he has served swordfish marrow to Bizarre Foods' Andrew Zimmern , owns a successful bait company, occasionally films some of his own cooking segments and is working with a well-known author on a book about his life. Gomes, who first started working at Catalina twelve years ago as a fish filleter, sat down with Eater to talk about the seafood distributor's latest projects, his favorite restaurants and the kinds of sustainable seafood we should be eating more of.
How did Catalina Offshore get started?
Catalina was founded over 25 year ago; it's the typical old school fairytale of the American dream. (Owner) Dave Rudie had a leaky boat and a rusty pickup truck and wanted to start harvesting sea urchin. He cracked and packed them his own garage and went out to sell them to sushi bars and it finally caught on, then the local sea urchin craze in Japan started.
Besides sea urchin, what kinds of seafood do you bring in here?
We deal primarily in fish from Baja and California, sustainably-harvested from pongas, small boats and by hook and line and other responsible fishing practices. We buy very little factory-caught fish. Are we 100% sustainable? No. We sell bluefin tuna harvested off of northern Baja and Southern California. We sell Chilean sea bass, but we can trace the fish back to the boat that harvested it. There are things that we're doing in order to be responsible as a purveyor.
Is there something unique about local waters and the seafood here?
The great thing about the water off of Baja is that the majority of it is still underdeveloped so they don't have these giant flood channels after it rains that are washing down all these pesticides and motor oils, etc. into the coastal waters. The acidic level is more or less stabilized and has less urban runoff from human interaction.
Do you find that people are intimidated by buying and cooking seafood? How do you help them?
I started a up a walk-in program several years ago and we just opened up concept that I wanted to start a long time ago, an Educational Seafood Nutrition Center. We have guest chefs come in, usually on Fridays and Saturdays, and we teach people how easy it is to cook seafood. Seafood is very simple and one of the things I kid about is if you burn it, you cover in sauce and call it blackened Cajun-something and people will think you're great. People come in and want to know and how you cook a shrimp; I show them how to clean it and then how to easy and fast it is to cook it.
How many local restaurants do you work with?
I personally work with about 32 restaurants. As a trusted fishmonger, you need to know the menu of each restaurant, you need to have a personal relationship with those chef and know their cuisine.
When chefs come in, do they know what they want and what to do with it? Or do they need a little education too?
They have a general idea of what they want to work with, but sometimes that come in and ask for stuff that didn't make the regular list. Paul McCabe did things with black cod liver and tuna hearts and collars — utilized the whole fish. When you have a chef that's willing to work outside the box and give their customers something beyond the menu, that's what culinary talent's all about.
What are some types of sustainable seafood that you think should be seen on more menus?
The Pacific mackerel and the sardine, there's some restaurants around that already have sardines. Sea urchins are a great product and they're sustainably harvested and so are the local spot prawns that come out of the nine mile bank in La Jolla canyon. Our spiny lobsters are great, but because of the overseas market we've priced our local shoppers out of that; it's good for our local fisherman, but it's a shame for our local consumers and chefs.
Who are some chefs that you think do a particularly good job with your product?
Tommy Fraioli at Sea Rocket Bistro, Urban Solace's Matt Gordon, Paul McCabe, Anthony Sinsay at Burlap and Chad White, just to name a few. One of the most underrated restaurants is Mitch's Seafood in Point Loma, it's not just a fish and chips place.
This is a hands-on seafood market; chefs can walk the floor with me and pick out the best fish. I can tell them what other chefs are doing with it — not give away secrets — but give examples of ways the fish can be prepared.
Where do you eat most often?
BO-beau and Tender Greens in Liberty Station, Gaijin Noodle House, Farm House Cafe. One of my favorite places on 30th Street is Ritual Tavern. If I want high-end, I'll go see Jeff Jackson at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, Trey Foshee at George's or Paul McCabe at La Valencia. And every Monday morning at 8:30 a.m., I meet a group of chefs and foodies at Las Cuatro Milpas for breakfast.
What's the Collaboration Kitchen event that you do here all about?
It started four years ago, I had an idea that I wanted to teach the general public how to cook seafood. Once a month, we have guest chefs come in for a cooking demo and dinner; we partner with Specialty Produce and through the event we have raised a lot of money for local kids.
What's the next event?
On January 27 we have Chef Javier Plascencia from Mision 19, Diego Hernandez-Velasco Baquedano of Corazon de Tierra, Ryan Steyn from L'Escargot Bistrot, Flor Franco of Indulge Contemporary Catering and Chad White? from Plancha Baja Med. Andrea's Truffles is providing desserts. It sold out in seven minutes; it's the best underground dining event going on.
· Catalina Offshore Products [Official Site]