As NY1 continues its new series "How New York City Works," reporter Roger Clark takes a look inside the New Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point to see just how that fish you eat gets to your table.
New Yorkers usually get to see fish before it is cooked at stores like Agata and Valentina Market, priced per pound, ready to be wrapped and taken home for a meal. But how does it get there? A big chunk of the fish that winds up at stores and restaurants makes its way through the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx.
We showed up just before midnight. That's when things get rolling here, as trucks were waiting to back into the loading dock and drop off seafood from just about everywhere. This is the beginning of the day for the hundreds of workers inside, which is truly a world of its own. There's already plenty of activity, with forklifts racing around the giant building, dropping boxes and crates off at various wholesalers who call the market home.
"Within a six-, seven-, eight-hour window, tons and tons and tons of fresh fish and seafood comes into this building, gets inventoried, sold and redistributed. So that in it and of itself is pretty amazing in my view," says John Guttilla, shellfish manager of Blue Ribbon Fish Co.
The Fulton Fish Market has been around since 1822. For most of that time, it was located mainly outdoors near the South Street Seaport. The operation moved inside into an $86 million city-built facility with refrigeration in Hunts Point in 2005. It now houses more than 30 seafood wholesalers that make up the New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative, handling about one-third of the city's seafood demand.
"New Yorkers are spoiled. They have the best seafood in the world by far, the largest variety," says David Samuels, president of Blue Ribbon Fish Co. "There's no market like this anywhere except in Japan."
The seafood comes from all over. And I mean all over.
"On this table, Nova Scotia, Montauk, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Gulf of Mexico, I think these Branzini are from Yugoslavia," Samuels says. "I mean, this is just within 10 feet."
During these hours when most of us are sleeping, there are buyers picking out the fish they need for restaurants and stores across the city.
Robert Nuñez buys for the Batali and Bastianich Hospitality group, a partnership of celebrity chefs with 10 restaurants here in town, plus the popular Eataly Market. He started with the company as a dishwasher 14 years ago, but now, it's all about the fish for him. You might say he puts his heart and sole into his job.
"You have to read and see the fish, smell it and put all of your five senses in it," he says.
Nuñez is pretty choosy, and he wants to know everything about the fish. It doesn't take long for him to know that a particular fish is just not going to cut it.
"The color of the fish is a natural shiny color. This looks all dark, damp," he says. "I'm probably going to try and find a fresher fish."
That's easier said than done on some nights. When the weather is bad at sea, the fishing boats can't go out, and that means there are less fish to choose from.
While Robert continued his work, we hooked up with Danny Feig, who buys for stores like Agata and Valentina and Chelsea's F. Rozzo and Sons, a "purveyor" that sells to dozens of other stores, restaurants and hotels. Feig has been in the business for nearly four decades, and he can school just about anyone on the subject of fish.
Clark: I'm getting the idea you can pretty much identify pretty much every fish in this place.
Feig: Oh, absolutely. I've been doing it 37 years. I invented some of the fish that are down here.
Anyone who can invent a fish may get some carte blanche when it comes to making his way around the market and getting the quality of seafood that he needs to deliver.
"These guys hold stuff for me because they know I buy a lot of product," Feig says. "Like just now, this Japanese company, they had 50 pounds of jumbo sea bass. It's a very hot item, so he held it for me until I got here, and if I didn't want it, then he would offer it out to someone else."
You may not want to mess with Feig, who's a barracuda when it comes to making sure the wholesalers are doing right by him.
Clark: Is it a matter of trust on your part to know that they've been giving you the good stuff, the best stuff?
Feig: No, it's a matter of that if they don't give me the good stuff, I'll return it in three hours from now and they'll miss their sales.
Even Feig can't control Mother Nature, though, and he runs into the same troubles as Nuñez.
Yes, the bargaining process is in full effect here, so prices don't necessarily remain steady.
"Prices will change and could change during the course of a market, what we call one market, which would be one day's business. That can occur," Guttilla says.
There are a few things you have to get used to if you want to be part of all of this. You already know about the hours. Then, of course, there's the temperature. It gets a little chilly in here, around 40 degrees. Finally, there's the smell. It smells like fish, though the folks that work here may dispute that.
"I don't smell it, no," Guttilla says. "I might smell it when I get home and I go to change my clothes. Then, 'Ewww, what's that?'"
Odors aside, Guttilla says that the lifestyle of a fishmonger - that's what they call people who sell fish - is an acquired taste.
"It gets a little more challenging as I get older, to be honest with you, because come the weekends, you kind of do a flip-flop in as much as your sleeping and your eating," he says. "But yeah, I mean, it's second nature to me. I don't think twice about it."
Nuñez is in the same boat. He loves what he does, and here's a surprise: at one time, he didn't have any love for seafood.
"Before coming to America, I didn't like fish. I didn't even like the smell of fish," he said. "Now, I love it, I cook it, I can't live without it."
This part of Nuñez's day is just about done at around 4 a.m., when trucks are being loaded to take the fish from the market to wherever it may be headed. In this case, it's destined for the restaurants that Nuñez is given the responsibility to purchase for.
"They go to the city, make deliveries, make every stop delivering all of the seafood right before lunch so that cooks have enough time to prepare and get it ready for the customers," he says.
They prepare it at eateries like Esca in Hell's Kitchen, where we visited Chef Dave Pasternack in his kitchen.
"So we're going to grill a little fish," Pasternack says. "That is a Boston Mackerel. Great local fish. Very healthy for you."
Pasternack says that considering what they are cooking up at Esca, the Fulton Fish Market comes in very handy.
"Being that we do Italian-style seafood, it's basically fresh fish cooked simply," he says. "We don't cover the fish up, so we need the top quality."
That's how fish gets to your table, and that's how New York City works.