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Deep sea dining

Education, fish are fresh on the minds of local seafood markets

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The display case at Clean Catch Fish Market.
  • The display case at Clean Catch Fish Market.

For many people, there are two ways to cook fish -- throw it on the grill or fry it on the stove. It's probably cod, tuna or salmon and it was likely purchased at a local grocery store. But not only are there plenty of fish in the sea, there's also other ways to prepare it -- just ask Forrest Gump's pal, Bubba, about shrimp.

Comparing fresh and frozen seafood is like comparing sashimi to canned tuna. The difference is nearly indescribable in both taste and texture. It's that quality of flavor that motivates at least two local seafood markets to provide the highest quality of fish they can.

For a landlocked city like Charlotte, a great product also requires education, so Catch On Seafood Market and Clean Catch Fish Market are both working to make a difference locally not only in the fish Charlotte has access to, but in what a customer can do with it once they buy it. And yes, you have to pay for quality — the fish in both markets was probably swimming the day before you see it on ice in the store.

For Catch On, it's as much about eating as it is about sustainability. Owner Sean Schussler is quick to offer tales of how fish populations are dwindling and new species are being sought out to not only provide different food options, but to help with population control, citing the lionfish as an example.

At Clean Catch, owner Bill Ryan employs chefs who not only prepare a variety of side dishes and soups, but help educate customers on where the fish is from, a variety of ways to cook it and offer suggestions on how to create a fantastic meal.

It's two different models, with one common goal — delivering the freshest fish to Charlotte customers and educating them on why quality is so important, and delicious.

To spark local interest in the simplest ways, Catch On and Clean Catch have both introduced taco kits and, recently, take-and-bake options that are a quick way to give people with limited time an easy dinner option, while teaching customers about preparation and flavor.

Catch On Seafood Market owner Sean Schussler.
  • Catch On Seafood Market owner Sean Schussler.

Catch On Seafood Market

Cozied up in a nook behind the Peculiar Rabbit, Catch On Seafood Market opened in November of 2014 after selling at the Plaza Midwood Farmer's Market during the summer with great success. Owner Sean Schussler not only has a passion for marketing, but for fishing. He's quick to pull up a video of shrimp boats sailing out of Charleston, or talk about the sustainability of fisheries and invasive fish species around the country. It's that passion that goes into his product — one that he hopes to help Charlotte-area residents become better at cooking and interested in eating.

"We try to do a lot of awareness," Schussler says, not hesitating to voice disdain for the farm-raised, trash-eating fish. "A lot of people don't know where their fish comes from. We've never had tilapia in this case and we will never have tilapia in this case."

The business started simply enough. Schussler emailed 52 of his friends and co-workers letting them know he was headed to the coast and would be bringing back fish. He asked if anyone was interested in buying some, and all 52 responded affirmatively. He then started selling at the Farmer's Market before eyeing his location on Commonwealth Avenue. It was originally planned as a saki bar, so the sinks and structure were enough to get it started.

At first, Schussler was driving to the coast, a lot, but then he got some retirees involved with transporting before he talked with wholesalers and suppliers around the world. At a conference in Boston, he met suppliers from Alaska who are able to overnight salmon to him. There are people able to ship a wide range of fish from all over the world at this point, making his biggest problem figuring out how much to get and how much will sell.

"When we first opened, I was bringing in 20 pounds of salmon on a weekend," Schussler says. "Now, we bring in about 200 pounds of salmon and we run out. We don't keep fish in here any longer than 36, maybe 48 hours."

His goal is to become a one-stop shop for fresh fish and a variety of local products. For example, they sell pasta from Pasta Provisions alongside items from Savory Spice Shop. Schussler wants people to be able to buy their fish and be able to purchase sides to go with it, as well.

He's aware that Charlotte residents are constantly on-the-go, which is why he's selling taco kits on Tuesdays and offers take-and-bake meals, as well. The taco kits, which sell for $16, come with mahi mahi, homemade ginger slaw, salsa from Three Amigos, tortillas from Las Lupitas, an avocado and a lime.

"When we opened, Tuesday was kinda slow and we wanted to get people in," Schussler says. "My kids love taco Tuesdays at home and thought it was a great idea to do it here. We sold 80 kits yesterday. We give everyone the ingredients to get it done."

His latest venture is take-and-bake kits which features a piece of fish and two sides, such as roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts. "For, say, $12 or $15, you'll have a dinner with a nice piece of fresh fish," he says.

It's all an effort to get people in Charlotte not only used to the flavors of fresh fish, but to take away any intimidation they might feel about cooking it.

Schussler, says he's not afraid to try new things and see what people are interested in, although salmon remains his biggest seller. He loves to get lionfish in from time to time and explain the problems the invasive fish causes with natural fish populations. "If Long John Silver's would use lionfish instead of tilapia, that'd be huge," he says, following with stories about the hard-to-find wreckfish. "When we bring in lionfish, people like that they're helping with invasive species."

Another way Catch On is educating the public is through monthly seafood dinners, held on the last Thursday of the month. The first, in February, featured oysters three different ways and halibut cooked with parchment paper as part of the five course meal.

"When people come in, they wish they knew how to cook red snapper or halibut, or want to know how to do something other than searing scallops," Schussler says. "We're going to start working with a local chef to do some Seafood 101 classes on how to cook it, too."

It's probably no surprise that salmon is the best seller at Catch On, but Schussler says he has noticed customers getting more adventurous. They'll sell a whole snapper or sea bass from time to time and patrons don't fear pompano or hogfish as much anymore. He drives to the coast often to check in with his providers and see how the fishing seasons are shaping up.

Schussler utilizes social media to get the word out — the market doesn't have a website. He'll also send out an email to notify people of what's fresh and you can bet he has regulars who are there when the doors open to get a first look. He's also looking into opening other locations in town, starting with NoDa.

"The newsletter can talk about Taco Tuesdays or the seafood dinner or offer a recipe," Schussler says. "On Thursdays, we do WTF — What's that fish? If you guess it right, I'll give you 10 percent off your purchase. Sometimes it's an opah or something people haven't seen before. I've also put a photo of John Fishman of Phish and Jamie Lee Curtis for A Fish Called Wanda. I want people to have a reason to open the email and to try delicious seafood. We want to keep it simple, but blow you away with taste."

Clean Catch Fish Market owner Bill Ryan.
  • Clean Catch Fish Market owner Bill Ryan.

Clean Catch Fish Market

Located in Myers Park's Tranquil Court on Selwyn Avenue, Clean Catch Fish Market has been serving up fresh seafood to the Charlotte area for more than five years. While the clean smell might be the first surprise when you walk in, the entire shopping process is different than what you might expect, as well.

"We want to be a fish market that has chefs who can speak to people on a daily basis about where the fish is from, how the fish was caught," owner Bill Ryan says. "I think people want to know that story. Once you have established that kind of comfort level, you can teach them what to do with that fish and show them that it's not that complicated to cook. I think a lot of people have such a misconception of fresh fish. People are so used to supermarket fish or the old fish market with their parents that there's a bad smell or it's older fish."

The chefs who work behind the counter at Clean Catch talk to the customer from greeting to good-bye, offering potential cooking options, sauce possibilties or serving suggestions. Ryan says they used to have a cashier, but people were asking questions all the way through the process.

"We get a lot of feedback where people are scared about cooking fish," Ryan says. "When you come in, you start to work with one chef — you're with that one chef from the time that you come in until the time that you check out. It's not cheap — it's an expensive piece of fish — so they have to be comfortable that they're going to cook it right. We try to make it simple. We could do it quicker and not spend as much time — but we spend time with the first-time customer or the person that's been coming for six years."

Ryan says the toughest part is finding those chefs who are comfortable talking to the customers while still finding time to create new recipes to suggest and offer. He says a lot of people come in already knowing what they want to purchase, but talking to the chefs opens the door for new experiences.

The market doesn't put any labels on the case — they'd rather have you ask what a fish is and start a conversation about it. It's the same reason they have whole fish in the case, though they are often too large to buy whole. Ryan wants people to see, for example, what a grouper or snapper looks like before they buy it. He also enjoys the ocassional surprise.

"We got a whole monkfish," he says with a laugh. "They're ugly. We put it in the case and people were wondering what it was. We try to make it fun and interesting. We try to have something new every day. Today, we have colossal stone crab claws. We have Nantucket Bay scallops that are sushi-grade — they're sweet and briny and you can eat them like candy."

Clean Catch has also been offering a variety of introductory foods to help get people confident in preparing fish. They have been selling taco kits since it opened. The fish used varies, and the kit comes with pico de gallo, tortillas, fresh slaw and a lime. They also make crab cakes, salmon burgers, soups and bisques and started take-and-bake meals last month.

For the take-and-bake, Clean Catch offers a menu of options where people can choose their fish, a side and a sauce. Of course, the chefs can also make recommendations for pairings.

"The take-and-bake started because people kept asking us for sides," Ryan says. "We have three great chefs here, so people wanted us to make sides. It's so easy. I tried one a few weeks ago — I hesitated because I love to cook — and it gave me 35 minutes to do other things. I didn't have to chop anything. I could just pop it in the oven and walk away."

Every piece of fish is cut to order. For example, Ryan says they will cut a portion from the tail and front of a salmon filet so that the customer gets a center-cut piece. The other portions will then be used for the salmon burgers.

"People want the convenience factor, but they still want fresh," Ryan says. "We've noticed on Saturdays and Sundays, people are more adventurous and will try something new or cook it themselves."

Ryan, who is originally from Boston, was a banker until around 2009 when he decided to find his next career path and do something he was passionate about — food and retail. Being from Boston, he saw a lack of high-end fish in the area and wanted to help educate the area on the flavor and simplicity of eating and cooking seafood.

"At the very beginning, the case was empty most of the time," he says. "Now, we're at a point where our top purveyors are getting us the best quality fish from the dock in less than 24 hours. Our next expansion is doing more prepared foods. We have very talented chefs so not using their talent more would be a sin."

Ryan sends out an email every day to let people know what's come in, where it was caught and what the chefs are coming up with. He spends about an hour-and-a-half each day gathering recipes to share, as well, tailoring it to the weather if, say, it's a beautiful day to grill out.

While they've experimented with seafood chili — and won two awards for it — and also offer tuna burgers, Ryan is adament that he never considered opening a restaurant. "We don't want to get off track of what we do best — fresh seafood," he says. "It's the retail environment that I love. It's an opportunity for all of the chefs to be in the front of house and talk about fish and cooking. It's knowing that at the end of the day, people are home cooking an awesome piece of fish that I know is going to be delicious."

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