When you pay as much attention to what you are eating, and when you eat as prolifically as I do, the same names often seem to crop up as benchmarks of quality.
When it comes to fish and seafood in NZ, Rachel Taulelei and her company Yellow Brick Road came up frequently in discussions about fish suppliers to the country's finest restaurants.
Now, when someone seems to dominate discussion in a particular field, it is generally for one of two reasons - they are either the biggest, or the best. Given that our fishing industry is dominated by huge companies, it could only really mean the latter.
Her customer list reads like a roll call of some of our best restaurants and cafés - Logan Brown, The Matterhorn, The Larder, The French Café, Nikau, Martin Bosley's, Cable Bay Winery, Ambeli etc, etc. She also co-founded the Wellington City Market, and was a finalist in the 2010 Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Awards. Phew, yeah, I know. Platitudes and puffery?!
What I was really interested in was finding out what made the company so successful, as well as so well-regarded. I mean, usually if you are held in high regard, you don't sell any albums (the Velvet Underground), or, if you are successful, everybody hates you and thinks you are a sellout (U2). But, primarily, I was interested in what made the fish she sells so good.
So, I managed to drag Rachel away from her hectic schedule (she is up to her ears as chair of the advisory board for Wellington on a Plate - about which, more, much more, very soon) to ask her a few questions about the business of selling the best seafood in this country. About running a company whose commitment to responsible, sustainable fishing is unequivocal, about the very concept of sustainability, and about what she herself likes to eat.
When you talk to people who really care about the quality of produce, they will, almost without exception, have a "fresh is best" philosophy. As soon as fish is caught and killed, it is declining in quality. Ergo, the quicker it makes it from boat to table, the better. In the case of shellfish - oysters, tuatua, clams - they are, of course, delivered live. YBR's line-caught fish can make it to the dining table within 10 hours of coming off the fishing boat. It is prepared and filleted (or simply gutted and cleaned) by the same people who catch it, and then it is a logistical process of couriering it to the people who will cook it.
This is a more expensive process than what the bigger fisheries do, and it also means YBR are effectively competing with the export market for the absolute top seafood. What her customers are seeking is a relationship with a supplier committed to providing the best product, with the best service, gathered in a responsible way, not necessarily at the lowest price, which is only really possible if price-point is not your be-all and end-all.
One of the things I keep coming back to is that we really need to have less volume of better quality produce. We probably don't need to eat that whacking great 400 gram steak. In fact, it would be better for us to have a much smaller serving of protein, and eat a whole lot more fruit and vegetables. Rachel agrees with this, and makes the point that another thing we need to do is eat a wider variety of seafood, rather than just fall back on the most familiar - maybe try porae, or trevally, or gurnard in place of snapper or terakihi. As she points out - is, say, $3 a head for a piece of gurnard really that expensive? Oily fish are also worth thinking about - as the YBR website insists, sardines shouldn't be considered solely as "by-catch or bait".
The two varieties of fish that Rachel herself is largely avoiding are orange roughy and tuna - they have both been heavily fished and could probably use a break to help them regenerate. This is one of the remarkable things about seafood: it is a clean protein that doesn't have some of the problems associated with farming on land - it doesn't need feeding, or rearing. It doesn't have methane emissions - there is no "fart tax" required in the ocean. And it is able to regenerate IF - and it is a big if - it is fished responsibly. In times gone by, fishermen would never have done anything to harm the ecosystem that provided them with their living - this was before driftnet fishing and bottom trawling made it possible to plunder the ocean's bounty on an unprecedented scale.
It means supporting those who are using responsible, ethical fishing methods, and paying what it costs, in much the same way as people nowadays are more likely to accept paying a little more for free-range chicken or pork.
Chatting with Rachel is both interesting and inspiring. She is passionate about what she does. When I pose a bit of a curly question - "who of your customers do you think does the best job of cooking your fish?" - she gives me an answer so well-conceived, so perfectly weighted, I wonder if she has a future in politics.
"All of them. Anyone who buys from me has made a commitment to a level of quality, caught in a particular way, that means they care about what they do, and that is reflected in the food they serve." See what I mean - she's good. Total pro.
Asked for her personal fish favourites, she gives an answer that will be popular with those who really adore seafood - "raw fish and seafood, extremely fresh. That way you can really taste the quality and flavour."
Certainly, some of the best fish I have eaten has come via Yellow Brick Road: at the Matterhorn, The Larder and Logan Brown, Nikau Café, and also at my birthday last year - we got a whole snapper, added herbs and lemon, wrapped it in tinfoil and cooked it whole on the barbecue, and it was sensational. And the reason the fish tastes so good? Simply because it is so good, so fresh, and handled with such care, with an ethos of caring all the way from the top down. Bravo, Rachel - your commitment to excellence is an inspiration.
STOP PRESS!: News just through that Rachel has had recognition from the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award, as an emerging leader, for leading change with regard to sustainability in the New Zealand fishing industry. See what I mean - total winner...
Have you eaten Yellow Brick Road's fish - if so, where? Pretty impressive, huh? Would you ever base where you go out to eat on where they get their seafood from?! What was the best fish you've ever eaten, and what is your favourite fish or seafood?
During Wellington on a Plate, Yellow Brick Road will be operating an oyster bar, called, ingeniously, the Oyster Saloon, on Cuba Street.
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