How to butcher a whole enormous tuna fish flown over from Japan?!? Today was simply amazing. One of those experiences that I live for in the kitchen: fascinating, exciting, primeval, and humbling.
I hope this story doesn't come across as blood thirsty or unappreciative of life, because I often struggle with my emotions when it comes to the butchering process of animals. It's so much easier to pick up a piece of protein that is already cleaned, filleted, and wrapped in celophane.
But, if you've followed this blog from Paris then you will remember my tumultuous feelings about skinning baby boar and wild hare and my guilt over plucking and gutting pheasant, grouse, and wild pigeon day in and out at Guy Savoy. What I've learned through all these experiences is: respect. How can you cook something properly if you don't even know what it is that you're cooking?
Now, I'm working with fish and only fish but the opportunity to break it down doesn't come everyday. We have excellent prep chefs who skillfully do a lot of that work early in the morning before anyone arrives. Considering the fact that the restaurant receives up to 800 pounds of fresh fish on any given day, it would be impossible not to employ master fish mongers.
But today we received a whole 130 pound farm raised ecologically sound bluefin Tuna from Japan, Kindai, during the afternoon so everyone could participate in the experience. I'm 5'5" and I weigh around 115 lbs so this tuna was my size give or take a few pounds. That should put things in perspective. Kindai is by far the most prized tuna in the world for it's sensous silky texture and flavor and sadly the most overfished – bordering on the endangered list.
In fact, it's so overfished today that helicopters often patrol waters where bluefin are protected to stop poachers from throwing their nets out. As the demand for sushi rises higher throughout the world so does the popularity of this particular tuna. Doesn't everyone love a slice of fatty torro dunked in shoyu?
Before you go thinking that there must be hundreds of Tuna farms, let me just say it has taken 30 years for the Japanese fish farmer, Hidemi Kumai, head of the fisheries laboratory at Kinki University, to successfully raise Kindai. Who would have thought that a fish that can reach 1,800 pounds in the wild could be so delicate and sensitive?
They need plenty of water to swim, they are sensitive to noises (even car horns), and their necks break easily if they make turns too sharp. Sometimes they turn cannibalistic and eat each other or they simply refuse to spawn. They're fussy fish. Due to the difficult and time consuming process of raising farmed Kindai, only 3 are sent to the United States every week.
One comes to New York and is divided among five of the top restaurants here and the other two get shipped to California. Today, when the whole kindai arrived at the restaurant everyone stopped what they were doing and gathered around in the kitchen to watch the professional tuna butcher break down the human-sized silver shimmering fish.
Actually, we all ran to the lockers for our cameras first and then clamored around the counter elbowing each other to get better shots and a piece of the action. And it wasn't just the cooks who put down their work to watch the butcher take apart this mammoth kindai – it was the servers, the management, the owners – every one gathered around to watch this momentous occasion.
The professional butcher armed with a white plastic apron, faded tattoos, and a thick irish brogue brought out a wooden mallet and chisel and broke off the tip of the tail first with a whack that would have landed Marie Antoinette's head on the plate in one fell swoop.
Then with a foot long knife resembling more of a machete than any of our rinky dink chef's cutlery, he slashed his way through the fish reserving different parts for the various restaurants that would receive them. This picture of above was special for me – LOL!!!
Per Se takes the toro, Gramercy Tavern takes the collar and the spinal cord (I've been told they make bone marrow from the spinal cord. It's not printed on their menu, but you can order it if you know about it.), and Le Berardin takes the meaty tasting melt-in-your-mouth top fillet.
I can't exactly say after watching the butchering process that I could repeat it. I think it takes some one who doubles as Indiana Jones to fully get into the swing of things. But I will say, that I will never look at bluefin tuna in quite the same way.
And I know when I slice into the kindai at work I will spend a little more time and a lot more care not to waste a single piece and to make the dish as memorable for the client as it was for me in the preparation process. That's what it's all about. And it is indeed a very special fish.