Monterey Fish Market’s delivery truck rolled up Pacific Avenue. The driver quickly parked, speedily delivering our fish order in his plastic tote through the back side of the kitchen. I inspected the contents. Rockfish filets? Check. Halibut, whole spec? Check. Black cod, head off and gutted? Check. Bag of black and gray slime with what looked like an alien’s fetus inside? Check. Invoice signed, and the driver quickly on his way, toting his tote? Check.
The cooks and evening chef team started to arrive shortly thereafter. I carefully opened up the mysterious bag, revealing two large and floppy creatures. Covered in a slick mucus that, to me, seems partly their own gooey secretion and partly that of the general soup that constitutes the highly productive and life-filled part of our world that is known as the ocean floor. This thing looked ancient — like a vestige of the era when dinosaurs roamed Earth and the ocean was filled with creatures very different from the regular gambit of finfish. Complete with a spiny tail and two leg-like bottom propeller feet? Clever eyes that reminded me of a crocodile’s mischievous gander and a pointed snout that clearly served as both navigational steering and a defensive jouster.
As the resident fish expert at Quince restaurant at that time, nearly a decade ago now, I had been tasked some weeks before to find some new product for us to feature on the tasting menu. This was the efforts of a team propelling itself out of some of the generic traps of a 2 Michelin starred pedigree, aspiring to the avant garde creative explorations of a 3 Michelin starred operation. Or, so I thought. I was proved wrong later that complacency is sometimes a winning model. But I will get back to that. For the moment, we will focus on the fish. The skate. And what a fish it is.
I had been reading up on the species available in the Northern hemisphere of the Pacific Ocean, particularly around the California coast, anything from Baja, California, to as far North as Alaska. From a diversity perspective, Quince was lacking on the fish front. In fact, everyone on the fine dining set was at the time (and still is). Market demand for exotic, weird, outside of the box? These items do not sell well the majority of the time and so the distributors don’t request them from fishermen, and so the fishermen don’t fish them. But curiously, East Coast skate wings would periodically hit the price lists, making the paradox of avoiding the local market of fish all the stranger. Or maybe was it that locals were just simply ignorant of what comes from local waters and therefore don’t demand it? I needed to find out more.
I asked our sales rep to request some samples of Pacific Longnose Skate, if they could get their hands on it. The skate is actually a close relative of the shark family, skipping over a few specific modifications. In some ways, a skate looks like a shark that was squished like a pancake, fanning out its body toward the middle extremities. All while stomping out its teeth from the jaw, rendering it essentially harmless to humans; it has leather-like skin similar to a shark’s skin too, without the scales common to most fin fish. And its eyes have that menacing reptile-like allure common to the passing gaze of a shark. The skate is, however, a bottom dweller that uses its fins (or wings) to glide along the ocean floor, much like a manta ray, and so in this way, it functions much more like a common flatfish. With its suction-like mouth on the bottom side of its anatomy, it feeds off of fish and other bottom dwelling species like a roving oceanic Dyson vacuum. Similar to the halibut, petrale sole, and other Pacific Ocean flatfish, the skate has the advantage of being “flat”, so it can hide from predators in its abode right on the ocean floor, covered as it can be, in sand and debris.
From a gastronomic point of view, we really only consider the wings of the skate fit for consumption, which shockingly consists of a mere third of its body weight. From that point, once properly butchered, removing the skin and painstakingly fileted the flesh from the multitude of feathery, fingerbone cartilage of the wing structure, our total yield is probably closer to ⅛ of the total weight. Obviously, this is not a great yielding fish, and so most chefs and fish purveyors shy away from the skate from an economic and labor perspective. But, contrary to mainstream thought, I find the low yield of the fish part of its alluring charm and I love the woven aspect of the muscular structure of the wing. Skate wing, properly seared in a pan, finished with brown butter and aromatics and put alongside any seasonal vegetable accompaniment, is a culinary treasure — one that we have right here in the Bay Area.
At any rate, I butchered those two samples provided by our fishmonger some 10 years ago, to the delight of some on the culinary team at the restaurant. But the restaurant leadership was not convinced of the effort involved in producing excellence from this local delight. I distinctly remember the Chef ignoring the sample of fish I passed to his attention as not worthy of his time. I don’t know, maybe I caught him in a mood. He was a moody guy and for whatever reason he had an a priori assumption against this local fish as not worthy of his menu. Though disappointed with this kind of response, which I have witnessed many times since, I was developing a sense that something was direly wrong with the way that our local fish were not being put forward as the best of what we could offer to our patrons. The lessons would serve me well in determining my own methods for resourcing products to hit the menus.
At my restaurant, we currently receive whole spec skates directly from the ports in hundreds of pounds. We butcher the fish, clean up the wings for service, and freeze much to carry over for days to come (we have determined that skate freezes exceptionally well and processing this in house gives us a better sense of shelf life, maintaining that the fish is always at peak freshness). The waste on this fish still remains a conundrum for me personally. We have tried in the past to put it in our garum fish sauce batches, but for me it always has a bitter flavor in comparison to the “cleaner” fin fish guts and bones that we dedicate primarily to our low-waste sauce.
Skates often have a giant liver, pale and creamy in appearance, but I must admit that I have not yet dared to eat it. I know that other adventurous chefs, like fish connoisseur Chef Josh Niland in Australia, would definitely have the cured liver marinated on a skewer, grilled for the delight of his happily waiting adventurous Australian guests, confident in the assumption that whatever this guy puts on their plate will be amazing. I can say that personally, I am not there yet from a “weirdness” perspective. I’m not quite ready to get funky with the fish offal, but I am growing all the time and can only hope that one day, I will be brave enough as a chef to test my limits there and proudly showcase the results.
For the moment, I am content in the fact that we have managed to find sustainable partnerships with fishermen who can provide abundant supply of this great Pacific fish for the weekly needs of my restaurant. In this vein, the idea is to showcase skate on our menu in perpetuity, which is an exception in San Francisco, if not California and the West Coast as a whole. We are working to popularize this fish, educating our guests and clientele about its merits, and we are hoping that our efforts will cause other like-minded chefs and restaurants to catch on to the merits of this abundant and local delicacy — being as delicious as it is, this has not yet been that difficult of a challenge.
Peter J Hemsley