M.J. Gimbar wakes up early with the fishermen, but ends the night as late as chefs. Keeping five restaurants and one market stocked with fresh seafood requires Gimbar's careful orchestration of rotating daily menus, tracking obscure species around the world, and even monitoring the weather.
Like a skit fresh out of Portlandia, Gimbar actually does know the story behind every fish served up at BlackSalt, Pearl Dive, The Republic, and other group restaurants. He even uses technology so guests too can learn more about the food they eat, through a simple scan of a smartphone while shopping in the BlackSalt Fish Market.
Gimbar's behind-the-scenes role in the restaurant business means facing an endless stream of problems, from exotic requests to frozen Canadian waters. As he puts it, this unpredictable job is "not like selling VCR's" from a factory. Yet he stopped for a break this month to tell Eater about his job organizing fish from boat to plate during winter, the seafood he never eats, and more:
How does a typical day look for you—as fishmonger for the five Black Group restaurants including one fish market?
In town, or out of town? Either way I'm waking up around 4 or 4:30 am. I'm on the phone all day [phone sounds, just on cue]. It's nonstop. This is the BlackSalt Market calling me for halibut for tomorrow. Okay, so I get up at 4:30 am and start calling purveyors to check what's coming in that day for the Market, checking for unavailable items that I called in the night before. And this goes on for hours. If I'm here in D.C., I'm setting up the BlackSalt Market at the same time I'm on the phone.
Whatever items were unavailable, I'm trying to call other people to find it, or a substitute. This is all happening in the first few hours of the day, and more involved if there are big parties going on. And I have to wait a few hours to call the West Coast, and [remember fishermen's work schedules], on the East Coast, in Holland, wherever. I feel like I spend the first part of the day just fixing problems [phone rings again]. You'd be surprised, there's always an issue.
What kind of issues?
Something I ordered won't be available. Today, the oysters and mussels. Right now there's a huge problem with the Prince Edward Islands, the largest supplier of East Coast mussels. The company has been shut down for almost ten days due to the fact that the water is frozen, with like six feet of ice. That's a major issue. Do you know how many restaurants carry mussels, or have menus based solely on mussels?
No, so how do you manage if no one has the mussels you need?
You have to scramble. I found some mussels today [Monday] that are grown wildly in Rhode Island but I can't get them until Wednesday, I found mussels on the West Coast in Penn Cove [Washington] but they are double the price. Last week, I called ahead to stockpile mussels, as many as possible on Tuesday and Wednesday or we wouldn't have enough to get through the week. I need to foresee these issues.
This week, I'm on the phone with my guys in Maryland monitoring rockfish, because the season was extended by two weeks there. So the fish are coming around, but the weather sucks, so I'm checking daily forecasts. Then I'm trying to figure out the price of rockfish for tomorrow, so I can tell my chefs what to put on the menu. I have one chef that wants rockfish this week, but I'm telling him to hold off until the price drops. You can buy on Tuesday and pay $6 or on Wednesday and pay $4.50.
Sounds like a lot of problems to juggle for many restaurants with different priorities, not to mention daily menus and the fresh market.
Yes, we carry about 25 different varieties of fish at the market alone. That means I have to find 25 different varieties even in the middle of winter. I know spring is starting, but still.
So when I get these problems sorted, then I help set up the market here in D.C. If I'm out of town, I'm monitoring trends, reading articles, trying to research as much as possible about the hot fish right now, visiting sites, and I read a lot. They pay me to learn, which is great. At the restaurant we do a lot of education and training with our servers and wait staff, so with every purchase, I'm updating our system of information about that new oyster. And letting the chefs know. Then I sit in my office to try to put together a blog post for the week if I'm home [in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the mountains, where his wife is finishing her doctorate]. But I'm working the restaurant floor if I'm here in D.C.
Why such a love for fish? How did you come into this work?
I started running the BlackSalt market for them as manager. I came from New York, and proposed to [the owners] that I could bring down costs, and keep up with an oyster lists, menu coursing and other research for the chefs. And I would give really detailed, organized material to all the waitstaff, plus manage any special events, like an oyster cooking class at Blackjack on March 27th or the annual Pearl Dive crawfish boil in April. So we discussed what this role could mean, defined the responsibilities together and it all worked out.
And before this job, how did you learn?
When I was a student at the University of North Carolina High Point, I met a guy from Maryland who hooked me up with a job working for a crabber on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for two summers. Then when I graduated with my philosophy degree, I decided to go to graduate school at the New School in New York, without a job or place to stay, and just kind-of winged it. And I ended up getting a job at a Wild Edibles fish market, where they taught me everything from how to cut fish, and open oysters, to running the market.
I went from working at the market during grad school to running the market still in grad school. Then the owner asked me sell fish for their wholesale business, supplying really nice stuff to high-end restaurants in New York.
Did your philosophy degree help you?
Philosophy really helped me learn how to read people and situations, to solve problems. And seafood brings a lot of problems that you don't get with other farms. I always tell people that, ‘we're not selling VCR's,' ya know? They don't make these fish in a factory, everything doesn't come out the same every time, you have to think through these problems. But I was into existentialism, not the logic [laughs].
Tell us about your work on sustainability and transparency? What projects are you working on now?
The QR, quick read code program launched a year or two ago. I was trying to use the technology to get people closer to the products. At our higher-end market, we tend to get customers that are informed and do care about their food, but sometimes they get misinformation. For example, some people refuse to eat any farmed seafood thinking its all bad. But there are good and bad farms. There is such a thing as a sustainably-farmed fish.
But people did want to know about what they eat, so we tried to bring this information closer to the customer. The QR codes seemed best because most people die without their phone these days. It went well at first, but kind of died out with the codes aren't being used as much as we hoped.
So we decided to use one sourcing link and put all the codes on our Black Restaurant website product page to make it easier, rather than to find every fish label., because the menu is constantly changing, from New York to Maryland rockfish in the summer, and so on.
So this year the codes will focus more on bringing people to the farms. Some show links with videos and our staff at the farm speaking with farmers about his products.
What else is new?
There are some other initiatives I can't talk about yet. But there is a program exclusively at BlackSalt, where people can call in requests. Like, I want to try Holland turbot fish, a really high priced European flat fish, I never had it before. So the restaurant asks me how long it will take, and I'll say I can have it for you in a week, so the customer can come in, and the chef will prepare this dish you never had before.
Where do you draw the line, if I say I want...
No shark, no whale.
Not even if it's a small, not-endangered minke whale?
I refuse. And no sharks. I think I was bumped by one as a kid, boogie boarding at the Outer Banks in North Carolina where I'm from. Something jostled me off my board and I kind of ran on water back to the shore, thinking that's what happened.
North Carolina, I guess it's possible?
Yes, there are a lot of sharks off the coast of North Carolina! [Laughs]. No sharks, no whale. Don't mess with me, and I won't mess with you.