Love thy fishmonger, like Stokehouse loves Clamms

Left to right: George Kaparos, Frank Van Haandel, Con Andronis. Photography: Carly Ravenhall

Strong relationships between chef and restaurateur and producer are more and more important in growing cities. To keep small businesses alive, maintain diversity of produce, and ensure the best and most interesting ingredients are available, those bonds must be nurtured. John Susman talks to fishmongers who have held long and fruitful friendships with restaurants about how all parties benefit.

Seafood distribution is a tough, unforgiving business. While we’re led to believe that every top chef is cycling to their local fish market each morning, beret akimbo, with a wicker basket, an open mind and a pocket full of cash, the reality is quite the opposite.

Being a fishmonger requires the ability to conjure up seafood with consistency and continuity despite weather, seasons and demand; deliver on call (sometimes two or three times a day); and extend credit on a protein that’s mostly traded for “cash on delivery”.

The risk to return on being a fishmonger is questionable at the best of times. A bad debt of just $10,000 requires in excess of $200,000 in gross sales, merely to cover the loss.

Fishmongers’ livelihoods rest in the hands of restaurateurs, which so often these days are unstable.

“Restaurants are being marketed like fashion,” an excitable PR agent to a number of the country’s finest and flashiest restaurants told me at the pre-opening of one such new temple of high fashion masquerading as a restaurant in Sydney. “Restaurateurs are the new couturiers,” she said, as a platoon of celebrity panhandlers, reality TV stars and bloggers trooped through the door for the free slush and mush that is de rigueur of the new restaurant marketing campaign.

Throughout the history of fine dining, once the media spotlight has dimmed and the rent-a-crowd has moved on, it’s the poor old suppliers that are left wondering why this fashion caper doesn’t pay.

Being a restaurateur who can stand the test of time is hard, and maintaining loyalty of both patron and media can be defining, so it’s no wonder so many fishmongers nervously watch the fine-dining market for the next wave of fashion victims.

Yet for some, longstanding relationships between restaurateur and fishmonger are thriving based on trust, support and an innate symbiosis.

One such relationship was recently celebrated at the 30th anniversary of iconic St Kilda restaurant Stokehouse.

Owners Frank and Sharon Van Haandel have collaborated with Con Andronis and George Kaparos of Melbourne fishmonger Clamms since the venue launched in 1989. Over the 30 years, head chefs Andrew Blake, Michael Lambie, Maurice Esposito and Ollie Hansford have all relied on Andronis and Kaparos to guide them on how to represent the best seasonal, regional seafood.

This relationship has delivered for all parties, but especially for the diners, who come back again and again for the sublime seafood served day in day out.

Jules Crocker, owner and chief fish wrangler of Sydney seafood distributor Joto Fresh Fish, says customer loyalty “really is a matter of trust.”

In Sydney, the menus of Peter Gilmour at Quay and Bennelong, and Paul Carmichael at Momofuku Seiobo are driven by the seafood Crocker and his team provides.

“It is in our interest to ensure that our customers are successful. My job is to know their operation, their cuisine, their menu and their costs. If they’re successful with our seafood, we’re successful,” says Crocker.

Angie Del Medico of Adelaide distributors International Oyster and Seafood has a similar view. “We really work hard on making sure our customers can make money out of the fish we sell them. If they don’t, we’re out of business,” he says.

When asked who his best customers are, Del Medico is pragmatic. “We have a core group of buyers who appreciate how they need us to help them navigate through the fresh supply business, and how to make the most of fresh supply. Typically these customers understand that by working with us closely, we can assist them in making money out of seafood,” he says. “An example is ringing a chef from the market floor and getting him to commit to a bin of fish [often 30 kilos of whole fish] based on my understanding of their needs and ensuring them that they are getting the best gear at the best price.”

In regard to the issues of loyalty within the seafood buying community, Clamms’ Andronis says that in his experience the chefs who buy exclusively based on price will often struggle when times get tough. “The chef who randomly rings me asking for a spot price on a particular seafood, often something they read on a menu the night before, is inevitably the same bloke who is demanding second daily deliveries,” he says. “Typically, they don’t have the knowledge, skill or flexibility to use seafood which is going to make them money, while still being tasty and unique.”

It is important to consider that while the butcher may handle only four or five animals, the fishmonger is expected to deal with hundreds of different animals, all with varied seasons, supply, price and history; and mostly still from the wild.

The message is clear – if you want the best seafood, consistently, you must have a strong, close, honest and genuine relationship with your fishmonger. As times get tough, don’t sever these relationships to find something you think might be better value – strengthen those original bonds and your menu will be rewarded.

Do as the Van Haandels do: love your fishmonger and feel love in return, even if it is cold and slimy.

This article was first published in foodservice's August 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.