The Daily Catch
A journey from sea to kitchen in Hawaii.
The maxim “farm to table” is largely practiced from the mainland to Hawaii with restaurants declaring, “Yes, we use fresh local ingredients!” But here in the islands, “ocean to plate” is another popular adage that reflects the use of local fish pulled right from our ocean waters usually hours before it makes it into the daily specials. Here on the Big Island, this often means fish that is caught off the Kona Coast or South Point and delivered super fresh to respected purveyors like Kona Fish Company, and then distributed to the deft hands of island chefs to create culinary magic for seafood lovers. For curious epicureans who like to know how their catch of the day ended up on their dinner plate, we take you on a journey from sea to kitchen.
The early fisherman gets the fish.
Nobody has to tell Wesley Murakami about ocean swells, the hours of high and low tide, nor the best place to field a catch. After 45 years as a fisherman, it’s all basic instinct.
This morning, like most mornings, the sun is still down and the coffee is hot with typical conditions of a light swell and moderate trade winds prevail. That means Murakami will follow his standard plot. “We like to go as far south as Milolii and sometimes down to South Point,” he says as he points down the coast. “We do that 75 percent of the time,” he adds. The haul he consistently brings in illustrates his navigational strategy. Blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi, albacore and swordfish all but leap from his deck after any given run. For the record, it might be fair to say that if Murakami follows his gut, he doesn’t have to go looking for the fish—the fish find him.
Volume is highest from April through October when Murakami often spends 24 hours at sea. But now, during short winter days, he’ll usually get away with fishing from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. To be expected, yawning comes with the territory; so if you’re along for the ride, drink another cup of coffee. “Like everyone else, we’d rather be done earlier,” he sighs. “But this is fishing. You never know when the fish will bite!”
The wholesaler picks up where the fisherman leaves off—and yes, the day starts at a similar ungodly hour.
Rude awakenings at 4 a.m. are routine for Kerry Umamoto, president of Kona Fish Company. He has to be at the office, located just south of the Kona Airport, by 5 a.m. to sort local catches from night trolling Big Island boats—even if the fishermen come up empty handed, which is sometimes the case. But there’s no time for panic, nor any need. “We, as a company, can’t depend on local fish every single day, so we also buy from the Honolulu Fish Auction daily,” says Umamoto, as he simultaneously fields calls on a cell phone and a desk phone, all while keeping an eye on his fish cutters on the other side of the glass.
Umamoto’s office is small, but this morning, like every morning, it hops, buzzes, expands and contracts…synchronously. It almost seems as if a continual state of controlled chaos is necessary to properly service chefs at the major resorts on the island’s west side who rely on Kona Fish Company. Two phones suddenly ring at once and the computer “bings” like a marimba player stuck on one note. Umamoto doesn’t flinch. “We’re in constant communication with the chefs regarding catches [fish species].”
All fresh fish that arrive at Umamoto’s facility are put into an ice brine to stabilize the temperature at 32 degrees. He watches the fish cutters carefully, if not effortlessly, clean and fillet each catch. Then, one by one, back into the brine bath they go.
The chef takes it to the next level.
Each day around mid-afternoon, Executive Chef Charles Charbonneau of the Kamuela Provision Company (KPC) at the Hilton Waikoloa Village goes over the delivery from Kona Fish Company, recites the daily specials, and then it’s time for the prep cooks and sous chefs to get to work. The collective striking of knives on cutting boards creates the kind of symphony that’s music to a chef’s ears. Just the way Chef Charbonneau likes it.
“Kona Fish Company knows what we expect and they deliver,” says Charbonneau. He especially likes the fact that as the economy seesaws and the purse strings tighten, it’s still a cost-effective relationship. “Kona Fish Company deals with local fishermen, so they can control freight cost by buying from Kona fishermen.” That keeps Charbonneau’s costs in check. Translation? The estimated 150 fresh fish dinners he plates each night doesn’t shrink in size because the market plunged and the budget tightened.
Tonight’s KPC specials are standard for mid-winter when the usual suspects of mahi-mahi, tuna and ono (wahoo) frolic abundantly in Kona waters. Chef Charbonneau prefers simple preparations that enhance their natural flavor. “For mahi,” he says, “grilled, always. Tuna, I pan sear or serve as sashimi. And ono, especially if it’s really fresh, is done poke or ceviche style.” He gets his pans out and gets to work.
Where Chef Charbonneau’s artistry ends, your enjoyment begins. A glass of nice wine, a table with a killer sunset view on KPC’s lanai and an ocean to plate, grilled mahi-mahi with Kamuela veggies is one of the best ways to relish all of nature’s gifts in one setting.
Talk Story with Kerry Umamoto, President of Kona Fish Company
Why is fishing best near the Kona Coast?
There’s no shelf. Water depth deepens straight off the coastline.
What’s been one of the largest catches to come into Kona Fish Company?
A 52-lb. ono that took 15 minutes to reel in. The 395-lb. tuna is another story altogether.
How do you “tune” a tuna?
Look first at color and texture. If it’s sashimi, it should be translucent and deep red. For tuna steaks, think wintertime for best catches and flavor. Tuna are just hanging out then, not spawning.
How do you maximize the flavor of fresh fish?
Don’t eat it right away. Nearly all fish taste best after ice brine “bath;” 24 hours for smaller fish, 48 for large species. Texture and flavor, both are greatly enhanced.