Richard Foss

Sea to table

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Kai Gourmet brings fish from New Zealand to local restaurants and homes within 36 hours

Kai Gourmet’s Roger Cox and Juan Guatemala.

If you are like most Americans, you probably can’t name 10 kinds of edible fish. (Even though your mother served them to you as a kid, fish sticks don’t count.) When you do consider buying finny creatures it’s as a commodity, something you shop for on the basis of price rather than where it came from or how it was caught.

Roger Cox of Kai Gourmet in El Segundo wants you to think about your fish, to consider where it was caught, who caught it, and how they treated it after it came out of the water. The affable New Zealander has been in the export business since the age of 16 when he drove a forklift loading fruit aboard aircraft, and he rose through that country’s export industry. In 2000, he emigrated from Christchurch to open the U.S. office of a freight forwarding company, and three years ago he joined Kai Gourmet, which then sold seafood almost exclusively from New Zealand. Now they import gourmet products from around the globe for chefs. They recently started also selling to consumers via their website. When asked why someone might buy fish online, he answered, it’s better than anything in the stores because it has passed through fewer hands.

“The primary thing we offer is freshness, the time from boat to plate. There are fishermen in New Zealand who are out from 2 a.m. until daybreak, and their catch is at a processor by 9 a.m. It goes to the airport and ships out at night, and we have it the next morning. As soon as we get it we cut and package it, and it goes to the buyer. It can be on the grill within 36 hours of being caught, which is pretty phenomenal. There’s no way in heck that local grocers will get close to that – theirs has frequently been out of the water for a week or longer.”

The same airline cargo hold that is carrying your suitcase is carrying his fish.

“Most people have no idea that there’s so much perishable stuff in transit around the globe. It’s right under their feet when they’re flying, because there’s perishable cargo in every plane around the world. It’s in polystyrene bins with ice and gel packs.”

Though 99 percent of the shipments arrive as scheduled, there are delays for all the usual reasons: weather, power outages, mechanical breakdowns, and some things that even the smartest businessperson can’t plan for.

Juan Guatemala prepares freshly caught tuna for sale.

“This is a headache-prone industry. I’ll give you an example of what we go through. The day before yesterday Delta Airlines rolled out new scheduling software, and it crashed immediately. They moved no cargo for 48 hours. We had Dover sole in their holds and the delay meant it was no good to us, so we had to have new stuff sent out. I don’t know what they did with it, that’s their problem. We managed to get some sole from another importer who had used a different airline so we were able to fill some orders, but we had to apologize to some customers. They were mostly pretty good about it. There are always things that we have to juggle and figure out.”

The combination warehouse and fish processing plant on Grand Avenue is a purposeful beehive of activity every morning as workers pull a bewildering variety of seafood from polystyrene boxes to be portioned, packaged, and loaded onto trucks headed for restaurants. (The polystyrene is recycled, which started as a commitment to the environment but is now actually profitable.) The restaurants are all over greater Los Angeles and include South Bay heavyweights The Strand House, Fishing with Dynamite, Rock ‘n Fish, Arthur J, Manhattan House, Bottega Romana, and Barans 2239. The list also includes Two Guns Espresso and Kitchen in El Segundo, which buys New Zealand smoked salmon for its bagels.

Kai Gourmet has been courting chefs for some time but only recently started selling to the public. They’re putting recipes on the website for how to handle some of the unusual items, though Roger admitted that so far only four have been posted. He noted that one of their major challenges is convincing people to put unfamiliar things with strange names on their menus.

“We’re here to educate people. It’s hard, because even though a chef might know what a delicious fish gurnard is, Americans don’t order it because they’ve never heard of it. They come in wanting tuna, seabass, rockfish, the things that they know. One experience might change their minds, but they have to be curious enough to try that. I wish Americans would try blue cod – it’s not the same kind of cod you find here at all. It’s a thick filet from a fish that eats shellfish, and the sweet meat flakes beautifully. It just glistens on the plate.”

Blue cod and gurnard are wild caught, but Kai does offer some farm-raised seafood. The generally easygoing seafood executive becomes very serious when he discusses the subject.

“I think farming is extremely important and also misunderstood. Yes, there are some shocking fish farms in the world, but if fish is farmed correctly, it can be perfect. That means no hormones, no antibiotics, no colorings, fresh water, not overpopulated. The future of fishing is in farms, because we’re decimating the ocean. New Zealand does the best job in the world, but we only have jurisdiction over a small part of the sea. There are nations like China that send their boats out to all of those South Pacific islands and just pull out as much as they can with no thought of leaving breeding stock. That means we are going to run out of some fish, and that’s already happening. It is like the situation on the American East Coast, where stocks of crabs were decimated 100 years ago and still haven’t recovered. There are so many pirates out there, and farmed fish are protected.

“In my opinion the best farmed fish are Tasmanian ocean trout. I hate to give the Australians a plug, but it is by far my favorite fish. It’s a cross between a rainbow trout and a steelhead salmon, and they live where those beautiful clean rivers come into a bay in the ocean. They’re called the wagyu of the sea, which is good marketing and also happens to be true. You don’t get the big lines of fat that you see in a salmon, it’s much more evenly distributed.”

Frozen fish have a generally more dismal reputation than fresh, but Roger says that when properly handled they can be a fine product.

“Some fish freeze better than others, and technique matters. I had some amazing Patagonian toothfish, also called Chilean sea bass, that we import from the Ross Sea in Australia. The factory boats go out for six to eight weeks right at the edge of Antarctica, and the catch is blast-frozen on board. The water is so cold that the fish develop a lot of fat so it freezes perfectly, staying firm, fresh, and delicious. Not every boat does that, and we only buy from those who do. We know the boat names, captain names, and can reference exactly what part of the ocean it was caught in. I took some home the other night and ate it as sashimi.”

After an interview in which he was enthusing over the flavor of seafood, Roger seemed off guard when asked how many times a week he has fish for dinner.

“In a typical week I only eat fish two days or so… I do like my pork and Mexican food. I miss fish and chips the way we make them in New Zealand. We use rockfish and blue cod, which eat lobsters, and that fish is amazing. We bread it and don’t batter it, so there it’s much less heavy. It’s a nice, light, crumbed fish and chips… I don’t know where to get any just like it here.”

Roger’s quest for Kiwi-style fish and chips may be ongoing, but he knows where to go for the materials. He certainly hopes you’ll try your favorite recipe with a new fish to see if the meals you already love can be made even better.

Kai Gourmet is located at 1310 E. Grand Ave., El Segundo.

Kai Gourmet’s website is ES


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