Surfing, Palette (and not the fucking Tea House in Ghirardelli Square), Josh Niland, and the Dry-Ager (for Fish?)
This entry of the blog contemplates a couple of different subject matters, all somewhat relatable, but not for obvious reasons. Just bear with me here, as the conclusion is something of a breakthrough for seafood focused restaurants.
Ever since I established San Francisco as my home and turned to the Pacific Ocean as a muse for my work, a fascination for surfing and surf culture has grown in me like an unscratchable itch. Being on or near the water informs and reinforces what I do as a chef, the respect and reverence that I hold for the ocean’s bounty that we are privileged to work with, and the unspoken understanding that humankind is bound to the ocean by history and sentiment. Read The Blue Mind, by Wallace J. Nichols if you think this is some poetic bullshit to butter up the reader before getting into the technical stuff. Connection to water is real. Think about your morning shower.
For Christmas last year, my wife gave me a book about the history of surfing, which I immediately began to devour. In those trying days between Christmas and the New Year, some of the busiest in the year for restaurants, I strangely found some clarity in thinking inspired perhaps by overexhaustion, some poor guest reviews of my food, and the promise of renewal that a new calendar year always brings. Surfing, the ocean, travel, seafood, and building a better restaurant, were the thoughts floating in the soup of my cerebral cortex, unwittingly carving out some new inspiration.
Sitting there in my office, I cleared my search history on my browser and ran a blank search for “Palette restaurant”. Just to see where my restaurant stacked up in the world. The first item that came up was not a surprise. Palette Tea House, a popular dim sum restaurant near Ghirardelli Square in SF’s North Beach waterfront, popped up on the top. We have been fighting the confusion over the two Palettes ever since we both opened our doors in the same month of 2019. I have subsequently taken a lot of calls over the years asking for dim sum — always a lesson in humility to respond to these callers who ignorantly clicked on this other “Palette”, the fine-dining one, in their careless search for steamed dumplings. These are honest mistakes, yet aggravating for me as a hard-working chef and restaurant owner.
The second highest on the search list for “Palette” was my own Palette restaurant. Again not a surprise. But third on the list, this one coming out of Brisbane, Australia (the Gold Coast, which is famous in the surf world), a new Palette restaurant had begun in the last year. Disturbingly, this one possessed similar marks in cuisine as a seaboard restaurant with an artistic flare drawn from its partner, the HOTA Gallery of Contemporary Art. Some of the ironies here were just too painful to take in stride and I knew at that moment that my Palette, the art-forward restaurant with “Cal Coastal” cuisine, was destined for a tweak in its focus — and a change in name.
At around that time, I had been charmed by the brilliant work of a young Australian chef (yet more irony here) by the name of Josh Niland. His book, The Whole Fish, has changed the way I work as a chef who lives and operates near the ocean. Josh challenges us to use the whole fish. EVERYTHING. By creativity, preservation, science, and by practice. “Nothing of the fish should be wasted,” is his motto. We have subscribed wholeheartedly to Josh’s program and it has changed the way I cook, as well as the way my team sees the resources of the restaurant.
Beyond salt-cured preservation, fish charcuterie, sauce making, and prioritizing alternate cuts of the fish for our menu, one application for preservation of proteins, dry-aging (normally associated with beef and steakhouse fame) has become popular in some circles of fish-focused chefs. Josh Niland doesn’t make much mention of dry-aging in his book (he has two), but he does post on Instagram regularly, showcasing his experiments with it, and touting this technique as the pinnacle of preservation. In my own research, I have found that chefs, primarily on the West Coast of the United States, and in Australia, are utilizing dry-aging for fish, pioneering this method of preservation and flavor enhancing technique. No doubt, in the years to come, we will likely see chefs all over the world incorporate a dry-ager in their fish programs, because it so wonderfully renders a highly perishable product into something of ever greater value.
So what is a dry-ager, and how do we use it for fish? Well, a dry-ager is simply a temperature and humidity controlled chamber where meat and fish can be suspended, as a means to age and concentrate their flavor. At a relatively cool temperature of 0.8 degrees Celsius, or between 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relative humidity of 85%, conditions are optimal for aerobic bacteria present in the flesh to crack down enzymes in the protein, breaking large molecules into smaller ones, and unlocking more complex flavors out of otherwise bland blocks of protein. Bitter, savory, and umami are some of the notes one will derive from a piece of flesh that was neutral and relatively flavorless to start.
With the catalyst of salt blocks added to the dry-aging process, fish that is stored in a dry-ager can lose up to 35% of its weight by evaporation, also concentrating the flesh and its flavor. One might assume that a denser flesh equals a chewier texture, but conversely, the flesh is actually more tender than before due to the breakdown of the enzymes. The result is a denser, more flavorful profile, coming from a product that has a shelf life that is 10 times as long as the fresh product. As the fish dries, the exterior can become hardened, resembling something that looks like a jerky. This hardened exterior is trimmed off in the preparation of the fish, resulting in some loss of the product, but generally these losses are greatly outweighed by the net benefits that dry-aging brings to the spectrum of preservation.
At my Palette (or whatever we are going to call it in the future), we initially tested out the dry-aging process by purchasing one dry-ager and experimenting with different kinds of fish. I had a hunch that if we were successful with large specs of fish, particularly the bluefin and swordfish, that we could run a program similar to steakhouses — that is, constantly bringing in large whole fish, using some fresh fish for raw preparations, but generally storing the large bone-in loins in the dry-ager, and feeding off the older stocks in a very efficient inventory system.
The hypotheses proved correct. We now boast three full size dry-agers, two of which are stored in the front of the restaurant. On display as a part of the ambiance and moodfeel of the dining experience. After all, us chefs are fascinated by the potential of this method of preservation (controlled decay, really), and love sharing the story of discovery as we experiment with the dry-ager.
So much for Christmas, internet searches, surfing, Australia, and the Whole Fish cookbook. The point is that all this resulted in a breakthrough in my personal cooking, which now employs dry-aging as an added layer of complexity to my treatment of seafood. Yay! Confetti and buzz horns!
I hope you liked my story.