5 QUESTIONS | Michael Cimarusti at Cape Seafood and Provisions

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Nowadays, many of us have grown accustomed to large supermarket chains being our one-stop shops for seafood and fish. But you’re not likely to get all your questions answered about sustainability and traceability at these grocery stores. At chef Michael Cimarusti’s newly opened Cape Seafood and Provisions in West Hollywood, the team offers up recipes and fields questions about the fish, the prepared foods and the gourmet pantry items for sale, down to the coveted bottles of Italian garum and the Japanese yuzu koshō.

For Cimarusti, opening Cape Seafood and Provisions was a lifelong dream and a natural extension of his other restaurants in town — the two Michelin-starred Providence and his seafood joint, Connie and Ted’s. He works wild and local species onto both menus along with lesser-known fish. At Cape Seafood, Cimarusti only sells species that are categorized as “best choice” or “good alternative,” as per the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Guide, so there’s no need to whip out the app on your smart phone in the store. “Ultimately, that small purchase, it changes the market,” Cimarusti told Evan Kleiman in an interview for this week’s show. “And if more and more people go out and make those good decisions, as opposed to making that decision solely based on price, then it will resonate and keep America’s fisheries healthier, keep American fishermen on the water and move the needle in a positive direction where we’ll have sustainable fisheries for years to come.”

Fishmonger Ehder Dominguez fillets a tile fish as culinary director Brandon Gray prepares a smoked salmon salad. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

KCRW “Good Food” host Evan Kleiman: How long have you been wanting to open a seafood shop?

Michael Cimarusti, chef-owner of Providence, Connie and Ted’s and Cape Seafood and Provisions: Since I was 12 years old. Honestly, it’s been a while. I always thought it was just a perfect, natural extension to what I’ve been doing at Providence and at Connie and Ted’s.

EK:  Describe the synergy that happens now that you’re able to have this retail point at Cape Seafood and Provisions where people can just come in to shop — maybe people who can’t go to Providence or Connie and Ted’s as often as they’d like.

MC: I think the opportunity it offers them is that they can walk into the retail shop and purchase fish that is exactly the same level from the exact same sources that we use at both Providence and Connie and Ted’s. I’’ll give you an example … we have a vendor up in Washington state who we buy wild-caught salmon from. This salmon happens to be from the Columbia River. It’s dipnet-caught by Native Americans where they set up platforms over the Columbia River and they dipnet these fish right out of the water as they’re swimming by. It’s a very sustainable method of harvest. So we buy it in bulk, we have it delivered to Providence and we get great pricing on it. And we’re able to transfer that fish over to Cape Seafood and Connie and Ted’s so it will be on the menu tonight in all three places. At Cape Seafood it will be there, in the case, to be purchased fresh. We’ll also smoke it so it will be available in many different forms. And that fish, I think we’re selling it for $24 a pound. And so for wild-caught, sustainable beautiful salmon from the Pacific Northwest, that’s very affordable.

EK: Since I read the Associated Press Seafood from Slaves series, I’ve been paying extra attention to the supply chain of the seafood I buy. When I come to your shop, it’s a relief not to take myself through the mental phone tree of thinking about what has and hasn’t been sourced responsibly, which can take its toll. 

MC: It’s true, the fish that you see in the case is ready to go. You might not want to have the skin on it so you might have that removed, but other than that, it’s ready to go. When you touch on shrimp, there are still American wild shrimp harvesters out there waving the flag saying, ‘Please buy our product.’ And we’ve found a couple of sources where we’re able to buy their product and have them in the case at Cape Seafood and we’re able to have them on the menu at Connie and Ted’s. These are fresh shrimp, they’ve never been frozen, they’re not processed in any way, that’s a rarity now. And yes, they come with a slightly higher price tag than fish that were farm-raised in Vietnam or Indonesia. But you don’t have to ask yourself any of the questions, like where did this come from, because they were caught by American fishermen within quota. They’re from a sustainable fishery and it will be that way for years to come. It’s up to us to support those people. And as you said, ‘I don’t have to buy 3 pounds of this. I only need 4 or 6 ounces and at home maybe I’ll put it on a pasta or a risotto and augment the meal with grains.’ Ultimately, that small purchase changes the market. If more and more people make those good decisions, as opposed to solely making decisions based on price, then it will resonate and keep America’s fisheries healthier and keep American fishermen on the water, and really hopefully move the needle in a positive direction to where we have positive fisheries for years to come.

Vish Shah shows off a black sea bass and a red vermillion snapper. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

EK:  Tell us about your involvement in the community supported agriculture program Dock to Dish.

MC: Dock to Dish is this program started in Montauk, Long Island by a guy named Sean Barrett. It’s now been extended to the West Coast. We were a founding member. There are a few other restaurant members now, including n/naka. There are a couple other restaurants that have become members since. Basically, the concept is that it makes use of the small boat fishermen and their harvest coming out of Santa Barbara. It is a supply-based, rather than a demand-based service, which means that whatever the fishermen catch is what we get. And that turns out to be a great thing … I think what’s special about it is that it delivers truly special flavors of Southern California or the flavors of California as harvested from the Pacific Ocean. We’ve been getting species that we’ve never used before: things like long-spined thornyheads, chuckleheads and vermillion rock cod. And the truly great California white sea bass, the truly great wild yellowtail. And all these fish are handled with care.

Brandon Gray says the best method for tenderizing octopus is to let it simmer for two hours. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

EK:  Is there anything that you won’t carry because it isn’t in line with your set of ethics concerning fish?

MC: There are a lot of things we don’t carry because of that.  I honestly don’t feel like it limits how dynamic the selection of seafood we have on display is at all. First of all, all of the shellfish that we sell — in-shell oysters or clams or mussels or scallops — many of those things are farm-raised and to the benefit of the environment … There’s just no sustainable source for bluefin tuna. Period. End of statement. So we don’t carry it. We are partners with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and proud to be partners with them and that means that we only sell fish that are on the yellow or green list. We don’t sell anything that’s on the red list, and that also means we have to verify with our vendors the point of harvest and the fishing method.

To make Cape Seafood’s seaweed salad, José Garcia first blanches the kelp in boiling water before transferring it to an ice bath. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)