Danny Levesque has always liked cooking and fishing, so it’s not surprising that he ended up as theat Atlantic Fish Co., a polished, casual restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.
A native of Cambridge, Mass., Levesque embraced his French heritage at an early age by helping his mother cook dinner, which was the focal point of his family’s day.
When he was old enough to enter the workforce, he started cooking his way through restaurants in Boston and Cambridge. He landed at Back Bay Restaurant Group, cooking at restaurants such as Bouchée, Abe & Louie’s, and Coach Grill, before taking the top toque position at Atlantic Fish more than four years ago.
When Emeryville, Calif.-based Tavistock Restaurants bought Back Bay in 2011, they retained Levesque.
The chef, who says seafood has always been his focus, discussed with Nation’s Restaurant News challenges chefs face when working with the highly perishable product.
How did seafood become your culinary focus?
A lot of people order seafood in restaurants because they don’t like to cook it at home. But as I started to work in different restaurants when I was younger, I noticed that not too many people knew how to work with seafood. So every restaurant that I’ve gone to, I’ve made their seafood program better.
What was some low-hanging fruit when it came to improving restaurants’ seafood programs?
No. 1 was the purveyors they used. A number of vendors would send in re-freshed fish [frozen fish that is thawed before being sold, lowering its quality and shelf life].
Then most of it is just keeping things iced down, ordering just enough for the day, rotating your product properly, and knowing what product is better and why. A lot of restaurants don’t do that.
It’s hard to understand seafood quality because there’s no USDA grading it. You don’t know what’s prime and what’s choice. You have to know visually what you’re doing. The chef needs an education to be able to tell what the best quality swordfish is by touching, by tasting, by cutting it and seeing how much fat is on the knife.
The bloodline of the fish is a key indicator of quality as well. If you can take it out and smear it on paper and it’s still red, that’s a nice fresh fish. If it’s turning brown or already is brown, that fish has a few too many days on it.
What is the best way for a chef to learn about seafood quality?
If you have quality purveyors, they’ll show you everything you need to know. You can also inform yourself on the internet and from cookbooks. But I’ve probably learned the most from our seafood vendors through the years. And, of course, taste.
What are your guests excited about these days?
Most people are enthralled by wild seafood because it’s like the last frontier that we haven’t screwed up yet.
They have also started to go away from heavier sauces, especially in the summer, when it’s about spring rolls and ginger and cucumber salads and different grains. All the local seafood — local crab, local cod — people really appreciate that.
A lot of Middle Eastern flavors are hot, too. If I do a wild Moroccan king salmon with a yogurt sauce, people like that. It has a nice zip to it, and customers feel good about themselves after they eat.
How about shellfish?
People are enthused by the different oysters on the menu. There’s something romantic about an oyster that you don’t get from a clam. We tell the story of Casanova eating 100 oysters a day to keep his libido up. Local oysters from Wellfleet or off of Martha’s Vineyard — those are big for us.
So is local crab, because most crab comes form Indonesia. They like the local Jonah and peekytoe crabs that are always soft and moist.
Most of the meat in them is in the legs and it takes a lot of work to take them apart, so we buy the meat from vendors who use compressors to blow it out of the shell. Then we make little spring rolls or salads out of it.
In the summertime, lobster’s the king of shellfish, so we have a lobster feast for two people. It’s a two-pound lobster, a pound of local steamers [clams], a pound of mussels, steamed potatoes, corn on the cob, and a couple cups of clam chowder. It’s $85 for two people.
We also do fryer clams, which are derived from steamer clams. We do an evaporated milk batter, which is a little thicker and coats the clam nicely. Then we do a corn flour mix and fry them off in a blended oil, and serve them in a rolled-down paper bag with lemon and tartar sauce.
We just try to show off the fresh seafood that’s there, and people really appreciated it.