“Give me that stuff, that funk, that sweet — that sweet, funky stuff. Oooooooh!”.
It’s in my ear at precisely 5:27 pm each work day, those lyrics crafted by the scandalously misogynistic 80s R&B Soul icon, Rick James. This tune, among others, is part of a recurring playlist prescribed by my management team, and generally loved by guests who cherish our sense of unhinged luxury mixed with feel good vibes and moody ambiance at Aphotic. My restaurant has established its reputation based on a strong moral foundation in resourcing and transparency, while maintaining its attractiveness in most other, less ethically driven categories. “That sweet, funky stuff.”
At any rate, when the 5:27 pm moment does arrive, I typically mumble to myself, almost uncontrollably in a stream of consciousness born by repetition, the lyrics of a song expressing desires commonly felt by most drunken men in their times of pitiful need, all while I perform some delicate finishing moves on our tasting menu set in preparation for the opening of service - some Makrut lime zest in the abalone ribbons for the dashi set - blending the fish liver mousse for VIP spot prawn Banh Mi - portioning the dry aged tuna for the supplement grilled set at the Chef’s counter - and folding preset napkins as underliners for a wide range of small-bite material that softens our service experience for the guest. It goes without saying that to be a hip restaurant in these modern times is, well, not obvious.
It has dawned on me, many of these early evenings before guests really start filling the house, the stark juxtaposition of a song advocating this sense of immediate satisfaction in its most carnal form, with the brutally time consuming and high-minded culinary mission of my restaurant. At the same time, I have to concede that as the chef and proprietor of this restaurant, I am also perversely the agent that provides the setting where people may satisfy their culinary lust for an impeccable seafood experience in the most immediately consumable fashion that fine dining can provide. And so, logically, as I apply this Rick Jamesian sense of desire to the very artistic work of my hands, I can see that with little imagination needed, that I too, am advocating for, and providing an experience of immediate consumable satisfaction to our paying guests on a daily basis.
Conclusion: Bizarrely, the racy Rick James tune, “Give it to me baby”, actually kind of matches the mood of the restaurant, I guess? Or at least, we can all admit, from this narrow perspective.
“But now, Peter! Don’t be so hard on yourself,” (someone in the backdrop yells out - hopefully. It’s actually my mom. Thanks, mom.)
To be fair, I do everything in my power, to procure seafood from the best practicing local fisherman, oftentimes meeting them directly at the various ports along our coast of California, and synthesize that into a Michelin caliber culinary offering for a dining community that adores good food and sustainable actors, though sometimes not necessarily both together.
“You are better than Rick, fucking, James!”, they cry. (Actually, that’s just what I tell myself in times of contemplative crisis.)
In reality, for all of my efforts in this continued crusade of traceability torment, I was actually awarded a Michelin Green star in 2023, (of which I am quite proud of!) - putting me on the same Californian stage as the likes of Thomas Keller, Kyle Caunaughton, Dominique Crenn, and Michael Tusk (All 3 Michelin starred, world renowned chefs - and with farms). It was thought that the prerequisite to a Green Star rating was having a farm, which all of the above mentioned have, and I was the only one on stage that was not engaged in farming myself. (Well, not yet, at least.) It had dawned on me then, as well as others, that Michelin has expanded its mission in considering other non-agriculturally based activities as qualifiers for “sustainable gastronomy”, and I was dead center in that crossing of the Rubicon.
But stars and accolades do not come without pitfalls, and a “clean” Green one comes with some shitty brown reality too, if I have to be brutally honest. As my esteemed colleagues on this platform might collectively concede if asked, the achievement of a Green Star as a restaurant is something of a curse; it opens up your whole operation to environmental critique, 95% of which we are powerless to affect for the better.
Let’s expand on this last statement. Like all restaurateurs, I am fully aware that restaurant spaces are inherently wasteful, and quite impoverished from a “sustainability” perspective. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that we all know and understand that not operating a restaurant is by far less wasteful than keeping our doors open for business. I often think about the tremendous amount of waste that is unavoidable - plastic, packaging materials from deliveries, glass bottles, paper goods, energy use, food waste, water use, spent oils, the fragile souls of line cooks, single use napkins, my social and family life, take out bags for the 25% of your meal left on the plate, 4-5 gallons of bleach usage on a weekly basis, and other harmful “cleaning” chemicals - the list goes on.
Ultimately, as the one who chooses to be open for business, like any other actor out there, am responsible for all and the waste created from my business activities.
Switching gears to a more positive note. It must be agreed that as plain fact, most of us out there absolutely love restaurants. We appreciate them as places to nourish the soul, feed the body and mind, and provide community. Rarely, but importantly, with a little luck and intention, these places can actually inform and change culture. And, let’s not forget that chefs and people like to cook as a practice? Yes, it’s true. We enjoy this painful job, like Sadists to a whip. And the kind of cooking that we like to practice would not be possible without the structure of a restaurant. In fact, we all like restaurants even though we know there is unavoidable waste.
So, the moral conundrum for me, as the Green star chef here, finally bears its ugly head: does the status a Michelin Green star shield me somehow from the hypocrisy of sustainability when operating a restaurant, particularly when I know full well that most of my efforts are spent on producing an ephemeral experience of gastronomic consumption with incredibly and inevitably wasteful practices?
To answer this question, I’m going to loop in Kelly Fukushima. “Who the hell is Kelly Fukushima!?”, you say. Well, I will tell you.
I was introduced to Kelly through spot prawn fisherman Adam Aliotti about 2 years ago. Standing there on the wharf one day in Monterey shooting the shit, Adam had instructed me that Kelly was not only a top gun San Diego fisherman and friend, but a best practices fisherman, a swordfish harpooner, a hook and line expert, a gill net guro, a rock crab trapper, squid spotter, and also, one “hell of a guy”. Kelly, Adam related, was a pure soul; a veritable voice of reason on the global subject of sound practice, “sustainability”, and state of the nation in the weird world of commercial fishing.
Texts led to a scheduled call, and a lengthy conversation about what I was doing as a chef. Once on the line, Kelly’s voice rang through with the casual cool of a laid back Hawaiian surfer, as spiritual about his craft of fishing as a yoga master, but with a selfless practicality of the “boy next door” type that kind of made me think of Tim Allen’s neighbor in “Home Improvement”. Kelly is therapeutic and down to earth, which I guess matches well with my general brand of “head in the clouds” ambitiousness, lack of complacency, and mood swings born out by fatigue, alcohol, and self-inflicted pain. Imagine the awkward hypothetical meeting of Gerry Lopez, the Big Wave surfing icon and yoga guru, and Ernest Hemingway, the famous war-torn novelist known also for his tragic death, and you have something of an idea of our first exchange.
With an open spirit, Kelly agreed to start working with me from the very beginning of my journey, and taught me much about the respect needed to gain trust of partners in the fishing industry, and also to be grateful for what one can get when you do have an opportunity to have fresh beautiful fish. Kelly provided introductions to other best practice fishermen in the SD vicinity, and was instrumental in legitimizing some of my efforts in Southern California; working with a guy like Kelly gets you automatic street credit in the trade. Powerful thing.
Kelly is of Japanese heritage, which probably accounts for his clock-like meticulousness (guy’s got the cleanest boat in the harbor, he wears tucked in t-shirts?, and you could calibrate a right angle to the gel-set on his flat top). His grandparents, first generation Japanese immigrants, were interned during WW2, and left the Sacramento area after the war for the bliss offered by the Southern California dream. Fishing was in the family, and practiced primarily for recreation. Kelly’s father, Wesley Fukushima, was an automotive repairman, who fished on the weekends, which is probably where the bug was caught for Kelly.
It wasn’t until his uncle Larry really got into sport fishing in the 80s that the 12 year-old Kelly, working as a deckhand, started to see the family a recreational pastime as something that he was passionate about. From the age of 12-17, Kelly spent his summers and free time working on a day boat sport fishing charter. That boat, the F/V Holiday was where Kelly worked with one hell of a character named Tommy Gommes. Now in his 60s, Tommy hosts a popular show on the Outdoor Channel that shadows best practice fishermen, aquaculture practitioners, and hospitality professionals around the country. Tommy also runs a fish market in San Diego, the Tunaville market, which buys fish from Kelly and his two sons, aka, you guessed it, the Three Boys fish company.
17-19. Before buying his first boat, Kelly worked for various other outfits, including spiny lobster boats, swordfish, spot prawn, and crabbers. This seemingly sporadic work history actually has proven to be a valuable asset to Kelly over time, because the Department of Fish and Game favors granting permit access to persons who already have a precedent and experience in a certain specified fishing vocation.
All of the aforementioned types of fishing are separate permits, and Kelly possesses a stack of permits with access to many of these fisheries. In the trade, this kind of multi-permitted fisherman is rare, and it’s known as a “Portfolio” fisherman, allowing Kelly to switch gears for other fisheries when the weather is uncooperative, when the swordfish aren’t showing up at peak season, or when the squid are showing. It’s an advantage that keeps him safe from many of the hardships that his fellow fishermen face, and perhaps also explains his tenacious independence, self-reliant spirit, and seemingly zen-like attitude in the face of adversity.
Kelly would send me a 50-100 pounds of fish in boxes filled with zip lock bags from his outfits daily catch, every week, for a couple of months stretch. This was in the Spring of 2022, and Kelly and his sons were sending us a wide range of fun stuff that really opened my eyes to what I was missing from the local fishing scene. In mixed boxes there would be intensely red Sheepshead fish, a super flaky white meat fish that we now use regularly in a terrine. Pacific Mackerel of impeccable quality. Rockfish, of course. Sculpin, to my surprise. Skates - the SoCal stock, with rounder heads and vibrant spotting. Jackfish, also know as the King fish, or by its Japanese farmed name of Hamachi. White seabass - incredibly raptor looking silverfish that can get up to 100# in size. A little bit of barracuda. And once, for my family’s personal consumption, he sent a Pacific Black Bass. This was the closest modern equivalent to when dayboat fishermen brought in their catch, and coastal restaurants just dealt with the diversity. This leant towards creativity; it was real; it was fun.
When the weather turned, and the fishing seasons turned from small fish to swordfish, Kelly stopped the deliveries, never to go back to it. In the end, he’s a pragmatic guy, and this kind of sparky activity with the airplanes, and the mystical restaurants in somewhat far off cities, in the end, was just too much work for the benefit. But here, you see, he was dealing with the idealist, a real Lopez vs. Hemingway relationship, and so it wasn’t going to end without a long drawn out battle.
I flew down to San Diego, and pressed for more. Kelly agreed to help me with his contacts, establishing some connections, and so I figured out ways to continue to get product from SD docs to my restaurant. Mostly, this involved radical day trips where I would send Igloo coolers air cargo from San Francisco, retrieve them in San Diego, send them back filled with fish product to San Francisco, and then retrieve them this time back in SF, and finally make my way to the restaurant for service. Does all that back and forth air traffic seem “sustainable” out there to any of the readers? Answer: No. It can’t. It isn’t. But, you better believe that our stuff was traceable - the very essence of. Like no one was doing - or is doing. It is wonderful, like the food that we make. Wonderful.
About a year later, I ran into Kelly on the docks at Tuna Harbor in San Diego - I was returning one of his coolers that he had sent north my way, full of fish. He thanked me for bringing it back, and after some small talk,and promised to get started working together again, we parted ways. As I was leaving, and I’ll never forget this, he told me straight up “it’s noble what you are doing”. And “God Bless you”.
I brushed it all off in a somewhat embarrassed fashion, as this kind of praise was very new and unexpected to me, being treated like some savior in a hooded raincoat. I didn’t consider what I was trying to do with fish resourcing noble or even worthy of blessful praise, certainly not in the “nobility” or “holy” sense of the word. But maybe, just maybe, my crusade could be admitted to be “knightly”. That would make more sense. And perhaps not the knightly escapades of a perfect knight like Lancelot, but more akin to some sort of a jaded, ill-tempered, flawed, and ultimately human, dark knight. A guy who does mostly “bad” or normal guy things, but also has this side of him, a net positive in the end, that is an overwhelming saving grace. Yes! Peter, the dark knight of the seafood world. I liked that.
“Tis but a flesh wound”
What Kelly recognized in me more than 2 years ago, is, I think, what the Michelin Guide has legitimized a year later in a way that only their global authority on the matter of food can. Ever since then, I have been beating myself up about it, wondering if I could live up to such a challenge, because there are so many variables that make this “Green” world impossible to achieve. That is, I think, where these character profiles I have incorporated in this strange article come into play when I am considering all of the angles on the subject.
For those of us out there like Rick James, it’s ok to be motivated by our lust and instinct, just leave Eddie Murphy’s white couch alone, and try to make your instincts work for the world too. For those who feel that idealistic and heroic certitude that someone like Ernest Hemingway and his writings can provoke, know that a solitary end by shotgun in an empty field in Idaho is not the solution to humanity’s greatest challenge either; we need to live, and strive to be better no matter what the consequences. And what Gerry Lopez has achieved with his surfing and yoga is enviable, but this brand of peace does not alter the direction of our human world, it just stands to the side to watch it burn - peacefully watching it burn; participate in the dialogue, and be an actor. For world betterment in environmentalism, we need all of these “actors" to perform, at least minimally, self-interestedly, and genuinely.
Kelly Fukushima told me that what I am doing as a chef and person is “noble”. Whether he really meant that or not, I don’t know. My interpretation is that he meant that what I am doing is “better” than the rest of the actors in seafood out there. If that is true, then it’s indeed where my mission in all of this started - to build a “better” restaurant. A Michelin Green star is a nod to that effort of “better” in sustainability, but it’s also a mechanism that will keep me questioning whether my efforts are enough - this year, next year, and the many years to come.
And that is, after all, how progress may be made. Right? Better is not the best, until your efforts in betterment make you the best. But there is always better.
Peter J Hemsley