How to Cook Fish (Really!): A Chat with Oceana's Ben Pollinger
Alaskan Coho salmon burgers and roasted monkfish steaks are mainstays of power lunches at Oceana, the upscale, marble-bedecked New York seafood shrine adjacent to iconic Rockefeller Center. Since 2006, executive chef Ben Pollinger has lured in diners with his refined cooking. He’s held on to a coveted Michelin star, successfully transitioned Oceana into new, mammoth-sized digs, and now the ambitious New Jersey native has just released the informative School of Fish (Gallery Books) with Stephanie Lyness. Through more than 100 recipes, ranging from a baked dorade filet emblazoned with potato scales and paired with Swiss chard, to roasted lobster with basil-garlic butter accompanied by olive oil crushed potatoes, Pollinger squashes the myth for kitchen newbies and skilled home cooks alike that preparing seafood always makes for mystifying, grueling work.
I needed another challenge. Three years ago, when I first started thinking about writing it, I had been at Oceana five years. It was time to do something else that kept me an engaged and well-rounded chef.
One of the first conversations I had with my publisher and editor was about what kind of book this would be. We were going to take one of two routes: either a coffee table book with restaurant recipes—kind of like Oceana’s greatest hits — or a consumer-oriented book that would teach people how to cook fish with recipes they would actually use. Off the bat I preferred that route. I felt better being able to reach more readers and share what I have learned in a professional kitchen.
I think it's because they are not exposed to it growing up. Maybe they learn a little from reading books or watching TV, but if they don’t take a class, the learning just stops. I can't tell you how many times I've been out with people eating ceviche or tartare and they say they can't imagine how to make it. It's the easiest thing. Also, some people lack an inherent understanding of flavor and ingredient combinations, so they don't know where to begin.
Coming up in a professional kitchen, there’s a division of labor, of course. I liked every station, but I just had a natural affinity for working with fish.
Hardly. I grew up in the seventies, and everything my mom cooked she learned from recipes off the back of boxes and Campbell's soup cans. There wasn't much seafood served at home, with the exception of fish sticks, which I really hated. I refused to eat them and my father would say, "Fine, you'll just sit there, then." But at 9 p.m. I'd end up going to bed and the fish sticks were still on the plate.
One of those recipes my mother got off the Campbell’s soup can was for tuna casserole. Her version was real basic: a box of elbow macaroni and cans of tuna and Cream of Mushroom soup. It was baked with potato chips on top. One time, I was asked to cook at a charity event and make a dish I loved growing up. My sous chef suggested the tuna casserole. I thought he was crazy, but I did it and made it my own with poached tuna and homemade potato chips. People tasted it and said it was the best they ever had, that it reminded them of what their mother always made when they were kids.
The sea robin. It's an ugly little fish with a head that looks part duck and part dog. It has these fins that it uses to walk on the sea floor and when you catch it, it almost makes a grunting noise. On Jersey Shore vacations, we'd throw it back in the water when we caught it. Then I went to Europe. I worked at Le Louis XV, in Monaco, and we made a soupe de poisson with a tiny fish I recognized as the sea robin. In France, where it's appreciated — I saw it for seven dollars a pound at a Paris fish market — it's called a gurnard. Years later, I was renting a house and the guys I was with kept throwing back sea robins because they weren't fluke. Every time they threw them back I would harass them and say, 'There goes dinner.' They asked if they kept them would it shut me up and I said yes. So, I proceeded to make a bouillabaisse. They said it was the best thing they ever had and that if I became the chef of my own place I should put sea robin on the menu.
Cooking at home is so different from a professional kitchen. It requires different planning and different resources, so I really had to change my thought process. Think about cleaning up. In a restaurant you have a whole crew working on a dish. At home you don’t have runners; you have a traditional four-burner stove, so you’ve got to keep the kitchen tight and try to minimize pots and pans.
Invariably it doesn't matter what you do, because if you are going to saute a piece of fish you're going to get splattered. One trick is getting the oven hot. Put the fish in a decent pan with vegetable oil and then place it right in the open oven, closing the door quickly. It will get browned, but at some point you’ll have to clean the oven.
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer who covers the intersection of food, drink, travel and design. She launched her career by opening boxes of Jamie Oliver books as a Food Network intern.