From Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today and shipping is on us.
Mike Lata cooks seafood better than anyone else in the seaside foodie haven of Charleston, because he has the seafood nobody else can get. His restaurant, The Ordinary, an airy space in an old bank building downtown, serves a brightly colored ceviche of vermilion snapper brought to the dock that morning or the day before. Picturesque plates of unusual species like amberjack, triggerfish and rudderfish dot tables. The cream of the crop, local oysters rich with the ocean’s brine, emerge from the kitchen topless, baring their meaty white flesh like exotic dancers.
Lata approaches running a restaurant as a slightly less severe version of war. The 44-year-old from Massachusetts has a marine’s build and a general’s savvy, which is why an entire generation of Charleston chefs call him mentor. He’s built them up the hard way both here and at his other joint, FIG, expecting 14- and 16-hour days of piss-and-vinegar slogging, plus the desire not just to outwork, but to outsmart the competition. That’s the way he did it, skipping class in college to hear Julia Childs speak, forcing himself to eat a different piece of fish every day when he worked at a seafood joint and hated fish, outworking everyone to graduate from line cook to chef de cuisine at one of Atlanta’s top French restaurants, then parlaying that experience to doing exactly what he wanted to do: catching the wave early on of building a restaurant buttressed against the best, freshest ingredients around.
But Lata’s a family man now, and overseeing in-house operations suits him well. “If you’re a chef and you have kids, you better have somebody else in your organization [helping out],” he says. “Because you can’t give 100 percent. This town, we’ve kicked out a lot of cooks.”
In one facet of his business, however, Lata remains a frontline brawler. You have to be a tough son of a bitch to get your hands on the supply of fresh, local seafood in the town where, in 2009, headlines blared “Commercial Fishing Runs Aground.” (The Post and Courier blamed “a perfect storm of wave after wave of tighter federal fishing restrictions, on top of escalating costs and competition from cheaper imported seafood.”) While other chefs settle for lump crab from Indonesia and salmon farmed in Nova Scotia, Lata’s become a pro at hooking Charleston’s dwindling small-scale purveyors.
“It’s not enough, unfortunately, to be competitive. It’s not enough to work hard. You have to beat everybody to the punch, you have to be asking the right questions,” he says. So he’s built his own vertically integrated seafood empire. He plies his web of contacts to ensure he’s in touch with each new purveyor in the limited scene. He communicates over the phone at all hours of the day — early reports at 2 a.m., calling back at 7 a.m. to lock in orders. (“All these young guys wanna text. They get no stories about what’s happening. ‘Do you have any fish?’ Answer: ‘No.’ I’ll call. And they say, ‘We got 10 pounds of Spanish mackerel that just came in, and 50 pounds of sheepshead.”) In his usual fashion, he is deadly persistent. “I make sure there’s nothing coming up that we’re not getting,” he says. “Soft-shelled crabs happen once a season. I call them every single day, twice a day, so that when it comes time, they’ll be damned to sell crabs to anyone before me.”
More than anything, he depends heavily on the loyalty and expertise of his fishermen. They report in on satellite phones from their boats to tell him what they’re catching and how much he can expect. They tailor their methods from gutting to storage to his needs as a chef. They’ve built their entire businesses around working with him and, subsequently, other chefs. And at a time when small fishermen have been all but snuffed out in America, these partnerships have quite literally kept them afloat.
“We have the main line to Charleston seafood,” Lata says. “That can’t be re-created.”
How he keeps that line open tells more about the chef than his food does.
“I can sleep through the night on the boat, but I can’t in the house,” says Mark Marhefka. The big man’s face is thick with creases and almond with the sun. When he sees that the prow cap of his boat the Amy Marie has been torn wide open by rubbing the dock, his “Aw, shit,” is the unsurprised groan of an old hand.
Marhefka is the sole survivor of a ruined industry. He’s run the Amy Marie since 1988 as an independent commercial snapper-grouper fisherman; the snapper and grouper here are now overfished and forbidden, red snapper since 2009, deepwater grouper since the 1990s.
At a time when small fisherman have been all but snuffed out in America, their partnerships with Lata have kept them afloat.
Today he is the only active independent commercial fisherman in the area, selling his catch exclusively to chefs and families in South Carolina. His fish are caught in a sustainable manner, on vertical hook and line gear. Four big rods at the back of the boat, with two hooks each, can reel smaller fish up electrically from 220 feet down in 20 seconds; bigger fish need to be hauled up manually. Unlike trawling and long-lining, the technique produces minimal bycatch and doesn’t wipe out whole swathes of same-aged fish. And more than those methods, it’s a lot of slow, continuous work.
At one o’clock on a sunny afternoon at Shem Creek, Marhefka’s hold is open for offloading. Inside are about 10 large containers’ worth of fish: 60-pound greater amberjacks, which he slings onto the deck by the thin wrist of backbone just before their tails; one-pound vermilion snappers, unblinking irises bright orange; a lone yellowedge grouper, which he might give to Mike Lata — a special treat, if no one in his local seafood initiative needs it.
“If I wasn’t able to do this I wouldn’t be in the business,” he says, nodding first at his catch, then at Lata. Marhefka’s response to the closure of the snapper and grouper seasons, ending the viability of his business, was to start a new one. Abundant Seafood, which he runs with his wife, catches the fish that chefs and fishermen scoffed at ten years ago — “trash fish.”
“We used to call these fish ‘shack,'” he says. “We’d fillet them on the boat and sell them at the backdoors of restaurants and fried seafood shacks very cheap. That would be our beer and cigarette money when we got back from offshore.”
Lata’s realization that trash fish were disregarded for financial, not culinary, reasons played a vital role in Marhefka’s business. “I said, ‘Why don’t you just catch everything, bring it all to me, and we’ll start cooking it,'” Lata says. “I was thinking we’d find something really different.”
Together, Lata and Marhefka have turned several trash-fish species into prized specimens bought regularly by the area’s chefs. Take the rudderfish, a trash fish; Marhefka used to sell it on the dock for $1 a pound. “I told Mark, I will charge my customers the same price as I charge them for grouper,” Lata says. “Because the same guys are going out to catch them in same boat with the same integrity. I’ll create the market for this fish.” Together, Lata and Marhefka discovered its Pacific species was called Hamachi, prized for its raw flesh. Lata’s customers liked eating it. Other Charleston chefs saw that success and started buying up Marhefka’s rudderfish, too. “Next thing you know, it’s all around town,” Lata says. Today restaurants in Atlanta tout Carolina rudderfish on their menus. “He doesn’t charge as much for it as I told him to, but it’s enough to make it worth his time,” Lata says. Marhefka sells banded rudderfish today for $4.50 a pound.
“If I wasn’t able to do this I wouldn’t be in the business,” he says, nodding first at his catch, then at Lata.
While he offloads, Marhefka mentions a species called butterfish in passing. Lata’s on its scent like a fish-sniffing bloodhound. Is it restricted? What does it taste like?
“They say the flavor is amazing,” Marhefka says. But it lives deep. The two men stand silently for a moment, considering how to plumb the depths for their next swimming goldmine. “I dunno,” Marhefka says finally. “It’s something to go and think about.”
The hold is unloaded, and the fish are off in the truck. Marhefka’s headed home. He’s got one more thought on his mind.
“We’re just trying to have a balanced ocean,” he says. “Harvest a little bit of everything. Years ago, we were called snapper-grouper fishermen. Then we were called commercial fishermen. Now we’re just called fishermen. We’ll fish for anything. We’re fishers of the sea.”
Lindsey Tarvin, whose mother-in-law Cindy owns Tarvin Seafood, has a multicolored shrimp tattooed onto her forearm. Its antennae curl off into cursive that spells out “Breeze,” her daughter’s name. “When I was pregnant, I shrimped with my husband the entire season, almost the entirety of my pregnancy,” she says. Breeze was born 17 days after shrimp season closed, on February 3. In May, when the season opened back up, Lindsey and Breeze were back too. “She’s loved the water ever since the first day I brought her out here,” she says. “She’s so calm, so quiet. She just takes it all in.”
This time of year, the warm deck of a shrimp boat is the perfect spot for a nap. The Carolina sun dapples through nets that dangle like man-made Spanish moss. All the dangerous detritus of fishing — grabbing robes, finger-crushing metal traps — feels more like a makeshift pillow or nook for escaping the sun. At the dock, the rising tide rolls the boat, the Miss Paula, like a rocking chair. She’s not going anywhere. It’s the off-season again, from late January until early May, when the state sends a letter out to shrimpers telling them otherwise.
The Tarvins are brand new to shrimping. They bought their boat in 2011, and their son took over as captain in 2013. Compared to fish stocks, Charleston’s shrimp population is healthy; the Tarvins’ biggest hurdle is imported shrimp, jumbos of which sell for $5 a pound, versus their price of $10 to $12 a pound for local shrimp.
Doesn’t matter to Lata, whom the Tarvins approached on Mark Marhefka’s advice. “They wanted to deliver fresh shrimp off their boat to me. Nobody else had done that,” Lata says.
The Tarvins have given Lata a future of healthy, well-sorted shrimp; Lata’s given the Tarvins a future of shrimping.
The key to dealing with new purveyors can be boiled down to common courtesy, Lata says. “Young chefs always think that by having high standards they have to treat their purveyors like they’re not good enough — that they should be privileged to share their business. That’s so not the case. What you need to do is have a real conversation about what they need. The relationship is one that should be mutually beneficial.”
Restaurants make up 85 percent of the Tarvins’ business, and The Ordinary is a major customer. The Tarvins have given Lata a future of healthy, well-sorted shrimp; Lata’s given the Tarvins a future of shrimping. “I think my daughter would be the first one to take it up,” Lindsey says on the deck of her husband’s boat, beaming.
Last year, Frank Roberts bred and raised 2.1 million oysters at his company, Lady’s Island Oyster; the year before that, 2.6 million. This year he’s planning for 5 million, shepherded by seven employees using seven boats on the liquid pasture of 12 square miles of state-leased tidal estuary. The state recently closed the door on oyster seed from out of state, and as Roberts is the only in-state breeder, he’s cornered the market. Oyster farming is proved to be extremely healthy for the environment; each of Roberts’s 5 million oysters this year will filter 50 gallons of seawater a day.
In short: at Lady’s Island in Beaufort, South Carolina, on the waterfront of a teeming ecosystem Roberts has packed full of farmed oysters and wild ones, the outlook — and the view — is damn good.
Roberts was born of oystering stock on the banks of the Chesapeake. He seems certain he’s found more fertile waters. South Carolina oysters, though the same breed as oysters in New England, Virginia and the Gulf Coast, grow up to four times faster thanks to the a longer growing season and warmer water. By manipulating genetics, he’s managed to breed sexless oysters that eat instead of breeding. His oysters are ready to eat in 10 to 12 months.
Last year Lata bought 40,000 oysters from Roberts. The bivalve’s merroir — like wine’s terroir, but aquatic — makes it a near-deity to Lata’s cult of pure seafood flavor. Since he’s after a distinct flavor, he’s in luck: Roberts’s oysters are extremely salty, taking on the brine of the Lady’s Island estuary, essentially undiluted seawater.
But that’s not the half of it. Roberts is the only man in the state of South Carolina breeding his own oysters — which, to Lata’s clear delight, gives access to quality control literally before conception.
“Mother nature is too inconsistent,” says Roberts, who’s an ex-Marine Corps scout sniper, and looks like one. “The only way to be consistent is grow your own oysters.” That means pairing horny male and female oysters — from both South Carolina and Louisiana gene lines, for the best characteristics of both — then blending their sperm and eggs at the prime ratio. This produces 90 million babies, which Roberts fosters in a 250-gallon tank. For a month or so, Roberts feeds the microscopic organisms intensely, keeping them in a nursery of tanks and PVC pipes he made himself. In the wild, adolescent oysters have a survival rate of 0.5 percent. Under Roberts’s care, he hopes 6 percent — around 4 million oysters — will survive. Once they’re of age, he’ll move them into the estuary: right out front on the bank so he can watch over them, and then out into the wild of the Coosaw River, in bags of a few hundred oysters each. He’ll be back for them around a year after he watched their parents get it on.
Roberts is the only man in the state of South Carolina breeding his own oysters — which, to Lata’s clear delight, gives access to quality control literally before conception.
“You could always give Frank feedback, and he was appreciative of it,” Lata yells over the Evinrude 60 outboard as we skim up the Coosaw, which snakes through a huge expanse of sawgrass and saltwater like a tired boa. By tweaking the breeding and growing processes, Lata and Roberts have increased the oyster’s meat-to-shell ratio, ensured it will grow individually and not in clusters and protected it from damaging predators like the boring sponge. Both men look proudly on their kingdom as we motor along; it’s good to be a god.
Out where the bay opens up, Roberts navigates his scow over shallow water that will be a mud bank at low tide. The bottom, just visible through the tea-colored water, is thick with wild oysters. He hooks a buoy and hauls it over the side, then opens up one of the four attached bags. Hundreds of oysters clatter onto the boat’s shucking table.
While he sorts through them, he explains the next step in his plan: weeding out the Louisiana oyster gene from his stock. It’s a complicated problem based on finding sexless South Carolina oysters that can still have sex; terms like “tetraploids” and “triploids” get thrown around. Basically, in four to five years he should have an almost entirely pure, South Carolina gene line of super-oysters. They will be the most perfect oysters to have ever been grown here, and the most delicious to have ever been shucked.
Roberts cracks an oyster as close to perfect as any he’s been able to create so far and hands it to Lata, who slurps it down. “It tastes exactly like the water we’re floating in,” Lata says. Roberts has one. “Nice brine, sweet middle, clean finish. That’s a good oyster,” he says.
On the way back to the dock, Roberts has one hand on the wheel, hat brim pulled down tight, t-shirt sweaty, baseball sunglasses throwing helixes of color into the air. He looks like the wealthiest man in the world, Lata says. I see it, too. Roberts, Marhefka and Tarvin are just one step closer than Lata to the purest produce in the Lowcountry. Lata yearns for it, palpably. For a second, it looks like the chef might throw off his apron, slip on a pair of galoshes, and wade right into the Atlantic with them.
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A version of this story appears in Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 286 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Subscribe Now: $39