Fresh seafood is the beating heart of Chef Michael Cimarusti’s culinary universe. At his Michelin-starred Providence, named “Best LA Restaurant” by food critic Jonathan Gold for the last three years, Cimarusti turns the ocean’s bounty into delicate, edible art. That same super premium seafood is also on offer at his chowder and oyster joint, Connie & Ted’s. “We take fish seriously and want our customers to do the same,” he says.
That’s a challenge in Los Angeles, a rare coastal city far removed from major fishing grounds where both chefs and home cooks rely on fish shipped in from other regions. “People are always asking where they can buy great fresh fish,” says Cimarusti. “There are so many issues — traceability, the sustainability of various species. Concerned cooks want to buy fish with integrity. They want to feel good about what they eat and have it taste good. It’s difficult to know what to buy here.”
Cimarusti addressed that challenge head-on by opening his own fish market, Cape Seafood and Provisions, where he takes the guesswork out of shopping for fish. “All of our fish is wild caught, sustainable, and we can tell people who caught it and where it was caught,” he explains. “You have to be steadfast and stick to your guns with vendors. No compromises. People expect that from us.”
Bringing quality, sustainability
The secret to doing that for an affordable price is volume. Cimarusti serves the same quality fish at both of his restaurants and his fish market, which not only lowers his costs but also gives him access to more of the tip-top quality portion of a catch he needs for Providence’s specialized menu. L.A. home cooks shopping at Cape Provisions have access to that same product, he says, including Morningstar’s seasonal Maine scallops and the wild, line-caught striped bass previously only available to the city’s chefs. Plus, Cimarusti’s fishmongers cook in his restaurants, lending serious food cred to the serving tips they share with shoppers. “It’s what separates us from other seafood markets,” he says.
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“We’ll be priced competitively,” he says. “But good fish is not cheap, and cheap fish is not good. Farm-raised fish is cheap. The methods used to bring that fish to market are questionable. People have to come to grips with the tremendous environmental costs behind cheap fish. And the taste? There is no comparison between farm and wild.”
Cimarusti is part of a movement among environmentally progressive chefs who are betting that a market-supported approach will rebuild threatened fishing grounds. Buying wild, sustainable, traceable fish, he says, supports the small-boat American fishermen dedicated to using managed fishing to bring back wild fish stocks and restore fish habitats. The higher price honors that investment and assures the economic viability of these small businesses.
In Providence’s hushed dining room, Cimarusti rarely discusses fish politics. The new market is his soapbox. Standing behind the fish counter, he explains to consumers how they can play an active role in restoring our ocean ecosystem. His message is simple: If you want to protect wild fish, you should eat wild fish.
Cape Seafoods is a double bottom-line business for Cimarusti, supporting both his restaurants and his values. The best part, he says, is the opportunity to share the stories of the fish he sells. “Consumers want answers,” he says. “It behooves us to supply them.”
Chef Michael Cimarusti, left, and Donato Poto, partners in Cape Seafood and Provisions, on opening day, March 23, 2016. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media