The Fish ButcherPosted: May 30, 2012
Justo Thomas is a symphony conductor.
His music: seldom heard. His stage: a sterile ten by five foot white-tiled room. The temperature: as cold as the fluorescent lighting above.
“Nobody comes down here. All this space is mine. Nobody comes in here,” says Thomas.
Here is the basement of Le Bernardin, arguably the best seafood restaurant in New York and most likely the country. Thomas, its fish butcher chef, has been “performing” at this three Michelin-star restaurant for seven years.
In the tucked away area, there’s a continual rhythm of sharp clings followed by loud thumps and wistful rings. But Thomas’s instruments do not include strings, percussion, or woodwinds. His are a half-dozen German-made steel knives.
“You see here? You put the knife at ninety degrees,” instructs Thomas, as he slices the pale-pinkish flesh of a 50-lbs. halibut from its white underbelly. “Separate the meat from the skin. You see? This is the bone. Have to make sure no bone. It has to be nice and clean…perfect.”
His hands, hidden under yellow kitchen gloves, have orchestrated these moves thousands of times over.
“Fridays, I do a thousand pounds… regular days, six or seven hundred. We use like twelve or thirteen kinds of different fish, but the thing is we have the same fish everyday,” says Thomas, now standing over one of many skate wings he must fillet into equal portions. “I know each fish in here. I know the body.”
The list of species that arrive fresh into this maestro’s domain includes salmon, black and red snappers, halibut, turbot, white tuna, hiramasa, monkfish, codfish, fluke, skate, and the fish he dreads dealing with the most.
“Black sea bass. Hate that one,” says Thomas without thinking. “When I come in, I check the ordering sheet. The first thing I look for is black sea bass. When I see how much is coming, I say ‘oh no.’”