Understanding the fish in “fish fry”
An interview with Chef James Roberts, owner of Toutant and Dobutsu
Chef James Roberts
Photo by kc kratt
The nuances of the modern fish industry are so complex they can be challenging to navigate for both consumers and chefs. We spoke with chef James Roberts, whose Southern-style restaurant, Toutant, is named after his grandfather's Louisiana fishing camp. Roberts is also the owner of Dobutsu, a seafood-centric restaurant with a Japanese flare that opened in 2018. We asked Chef Roberts to help us understand the variations in handling and quality of both of Buffalo’s favorite fish fry species, haddock and cod.
Spree: How do haddock and cod vary and what do consumers need to know?
Roberts: The gold standard—and what a restaurant may claim they are serving, but probably aren’t—is a beautiful skin-on fillet of line-caught day boat haddock, pulled from the ocean right off the New England Coast. There are of course, a number of quality/price points in even this one species. Day boat haddock are definitely handled well, filleted with precision, and packed and delivered in a timely twenty-four to forty-eight hour period from harvest. It’s a sublime, pure white fish experience unlike any other. The sweet delicate flesh adapts to most preparations handsomely, and is very durable for breading, frying, broiling, pan-frying, you name it. This haddock is not just passable, but a real honest-to-goodness piece of quality seafood.
Further down the line of quality is a mass-caught haddock, probably caught with a trawl or seine nets, in bulk, packed in a brine of seawater and crushed ice to maintain near-frozen levels of storage inside the hull of large, multi-day commercial fishing ships. After the three-to-five days of travel, the large boat docks, unloads, and sells its wares to fishmongers. Those fishmongers, in turn, go on to fillet and pack these fish as "fresh," knowing they will be used by consumers in a day or two at most. Some of this catch is also processed into frozen fillets. This is a huge business, where massive hauls are preserved and then sold cheaply to big box packers and shipped to areas where perishable fishes would not last or do well. This, the big industrially-frozen fish from the massive multi-day haul, is in fact, most likely what most Buffalo-area fish fry venues with haddock on their menus are using.
What about cod or other species?
Cod is really the preferred fry fish, probably because of its bounty. It definitely has a less expensive starting point than haddock and is more widely available. The pricing and quality structure are similar to what I described with the haddock—the day boat and line-caught fish is amazing, truly worthy of fine dining. But as you move down the industrial supply chain, you can get to the point where the cod is priced in a way that allows for a margin to be made on the $9.99 fish fry bought by a customer at the corner bar.
Hake and pollock are also among the fish commonly fried on the East Coast and in New England, but at much lower volumes and price point, as the quality of these fish is not as high and easily discernible when fried. Haddock and cod are thought to be interchangeable, even to the eye (and palate) of a trained fry connoisseur.
From the consumer side, there is nothing wrong with any of the fish processed using the methods Roberts has described. But “truth in menu” and proper labeling are important aspects of operating a restaurant. Consumers should understand what they are buying, and should feel comfortable asking questions about the fish they are eating, particularly when paying an upcharge or higher-than-average price for fish sold using the terms “line-caught” or “day boat.” Look for clear labeling. And, if sustainability is of interest to you, be sure to check out seafoodwatch.org to better understand the nuances of the fishing industry and the labeling that matters most.
Interested in more? Read Christa Seychew's take on the North American fish fry and it's history here.