The first taste of spring, at least this spring, is not found in a meadow just coming into bloom, or at dawn on a misty pond with the new season as fresh as the promise of the coming day.
It is in a city neighborhood where a chef-restaurateur is starting the season as she ended the last one, preparing seafood fresh out of local waters.
Chef Phyllis Arffa owns Blaze East Side located on Providence’s Hope Street Restaurant Row. The neighborhood is fast becoming an upscale, retail row as well. Her patrons, like those of the specialty shops and the other eclectic eateries on the street, care about where their food comes from, as well as how it is prepared.
All winter long Arffa was pleasing her customers with native cod she gets from another local entrepreneurial business, Brown Family Seafood. Since the first of the year, Blaze’s diners have been treated to Narragansett Bay cod that was caught by Capt. Christopher Brown just hours before from the still-icy waters.
According to Chef Arffa, cod is relatively plentiful year round, but this time of year has the offshore waters more or less to itself. When summer warms the ocean later this year, mahi mahi and tuna will migrate north and join the school.
But for now the catch of the day is cod, along with monkfish and scup. Arffa buys from Brown Family Seafood almost exclusively. Brown supplies her with whole fish and she expertly filets them, turning the entire cod into fish and chips, New England cod chowder or thick, cut cod loins, which accentuates its flaky texture and which she serves with flavorful and unusual side dishes.
Brown Family Seafood could be called the second generation of the practice known as “boat to table.” Formerly with another company begun by fishermen and founded to shorten the time between boat and table, Chris Brown struck out on his own, delivering orders directly to restaurants and retailers with the help of some family members.
The idea is for the seafood to pass through the fewest number of hands between being caught and being delivered to the restaurant. Actually, the process is a bit more involved than that. Today’s food-safety regulations that were an outgrowth of the industry’s best practices, added steps, personnel and delays between bay and restaurant. All seafood sold commercially must be registered with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management.
It was not economically feasible for a fisherman to handle such administration until technology caught up and made it possible to complete the job while still out at sea. A fish that was pulled out of the water in the afternoon can be on our plate at a local restaurant by dinner time. In fact, Brown Family Seafood has landed fish off Rhode Island and had it in a restaurant in Las Vegas within 24 hours.