It’s now official: I have a new job as a seasonal boat chef on a super-sexy 80-foot yacht.
As I look ahead to this assignment, I am aware of my strengths: I know how to make food taste good. But I am even more aware of my weaknesses.
My friend and upstairs neighbor, the Uber Chef, is always telling me that I sell myself short when it comes to my cooking. This is not so strange. As a writer, I have years of experience and schooling. But unlike the Uber Chef, I do not have a CIA degree. I haven’t worked for the world’s best chefs. I haven’t slaved and sweated over a flattop for years to earn my stripes. There are bound to be weaknesses in one so new to the profession.
I just got back from a month in Sweden. At the beginning of my trip I traveled to the World Food Travel Summit in Gothenburg. On the six-hour-long train ride from Stockholm, I finished reading Fäviken, the cookbook/manifesto by Sweden’s most talked about chef. Reading the section on butchering fish, my feelings of inadequacy were reinforced by Magnus’s Nilsson’s warning to use a light hand because fish meat is so fragile and easily smushed.
Of my weaknesses, this is the one I’m most self-conscious about: I don’t know how to butcher an animal and I don’t know how to gut and fillet a fish. I’ve done it, several times – but I know I did it poorly.
I am sure we will catch fish on the new boat. So before I start in December I will need to know how to gut and prepare them. About a week before I left for Sweden, I asked the Uber Chef how I could get more practice with fish. He suggested buying some.
While I believe what I said in my last post, that the complex machinery of causality is something we often ourselves put in place – sometimes accidents happen. Worlds collide. There’s a moment when you have a chance and you either take it or you stay in your seat.
On the night of the opening reception for the World Food Travel Summit, as I ascended the staircase into the gilded trading hall, I saw a familiar face in the crowd. It was Chef Johan Malm of Gabriels. For the evening’s events he had traded in his apron for a suitcoat. He looked so debonaire that I almost didn’t recognize him.
“Do you remember me?” I asked him.
“Of course,” he said.
A year and a half ago, when I was traveling through Gothenburg on an assignment for Saveur.com, I ate at Gabriels, in Feskekörka (the Fish Church). I racked my brain to recall Chef’s name, but the memory that came to me was of shrimp buttered in horseradish.
“Are you going to the lobster auction tomorrow morning?” I asked.
He nodded. “If you would like to go, I can bring you.”
I confided with him about my new job and my fish-filleting predicament. If anyone could show me how to filet properly, surely, it would be him?
He agreed to help.
On Tuesday morning I woke early and walked through the empty, pre-dawn streets of Gothenburg. I arrived at the Fish Church where it seemed the only waking people in the city were hard at work. Johan met me a few minutes later.
“Do you go to the fish auction every week?” I asked.
“No,” he answered.
Today was the much anticipated opening day for lobster season.
“Just for lobster day?” I asked.
He smiled. “Nope.”
In fact, Johan had only been to the auction a handful of times because he buys all his fish from Jonas Wickstrand, a vendor at Öckerö Fisk inside the Fish Church. He said that Jonas had been selling fish for fifteen years and he joked that they were talking about making him an official employee.
At the auction Johan, Jonas and Johan’s sous chef bought hamburgers and a round of coffee from the kiosk outside. The woman working the grill knew their names.
“It’s Jonas who’s going to show you how to filet fish,” Johan said by of introduction.
“Thank you,” I said in Swedish, unsure how Jonas felt about this new assignment.
We watched the auction unfold, beginning with the shrimp and then moving to the lobster. The local television station was there to capture the auctioning off of the first catch: five lobsters weighing a total of 2.4 kilos.
Much like Sweden’s potato “premier” this past spring, the price for the first catch of the season is less an indication of market price than a symbol of the product’s value and role in the nation’s cuisine.
“Who pays 28,000 SEK for less than 3 kilos?” I asked Johan.
“It’s less than last year,” he replied.
Later that afternoon I showed up at the Fish Church, ready for my lesson. Two women I met at the summit accompanied me. I assumed I’d be watching, not slicing, but Jonas instructed me to wash my hands. While I rolled back my sleeves and sliced into fish flesh, my new friends watched, eating lobster on paper plates and taking photos. Regular patrons stopped and stared – probably hoping I wouldn’t be the one butchering their fish.
When I finished, I was beaming from ear to ear. I had successfully (though not perfectly) filleted both a flat and a round fish. I had been given the lesson I was looking for – but I had also been given more than that. I had been given a peek into another world, a world where the gifts of the sea are caught, weighed, traded and prepared for consumption.
When I told the Uber Chef about my day, he was impressed. Another friend, surprised that they let me behind the counter, asked how I arranged it.
Actually, I don’t really know why Johan went out of his way to take me to the lobster auction that morning or why Jonas let me hack away at his fish. I do know that usually, though not always, you have to ask a question to get an answer. Sometimes the answer will be no, but sometimes you’ll get all that you asked for and more.