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A fish story

Pat Patera

Chefs in cozy-warm casino kitchens in northern Nevada gnash their teeth when storms churn the north Pacific or bury Donner Summit in snow.

Wild weather, after all, scares off the fish fleets.

“Weather is the top problem in catching wild fish,” says John Goforth, a buyer at American Fish, a major seafood supplier to area chefs. “Boats can’t get out and work in storm conditions.”

Once the fish are caught, getting them from kelp bed to kitchen is the second hurdle.

In northern Nevada, says Goforth, “The casino market is a big buyer of food products, so most of the fish goes there.” Twice a week the Los Angeles-based company’s trucks bring 40,000 pounds of fish from San Francisco into the Reno area, and the amount rises on holidays.

In Reno, the 27 American Fish workers live in the worst possible world when a major snowstorm hits on a holiday weekend. It sends them scrambling.

Goforth recalls this past New Year’s Eve when mountain roads were solid ice and Raley’s had fresh Dungeness crab on its weekend sale flyer.

The trucks full of fish that were due at 5 a.m. Friday didn’t clear the pass until 6 p.m. that evening. All the sales people dispersed in private cars and company trucks to make deliveries to panicked chefs.

Miyuki Wong, account executive, is accustomed to chefs calling in a panic. Any Saturday, a sudden change in convention planning could trigger a cry for 50 pounds of salmon.

“When you get to know the chefs, they will call you directly and bypass purchasing,” says Wong. “We try to be loyal to them and they’re loyal to us. So even if they pay 10 cents more to get the product from American Fish, they don’t price hop to a competitor.”

Customer care, she says, goes beyond offering the lowest price. After five years working with local chefs, she can second-guess their needs.

“All my chefs aren’t the best organized people,” says Wong. “They rely on me to let them know they must order specialty oysters by this certain day or they won’t get them in time.”

And if a chef is off duty when she calls with a reminder, she simply goes ahead and makes up the usual order.

Even better is to stay a step ahead.

Wong calls around to alert chefs to the first catch of the season, such as the start of halibut or lobster tail season.

“We’re always trying to keep it new,” she says. “They get tired of the old stuff. That’s part of our job, to keep it new.”

Another key is tight relationships with suppliers, says Thomas Criger, general manager.

While regular customers know what they need each week, the true test comes in a crisis such as a chef’s sudden demand for a turbot from Chili.

That’s when Goforth turns sleuth and works his network. “It’s knowing who to call,” he says.

Other species not always available because quotas restrict the catch include tuna, swordfish, red snapper, petrale sole, dover sole and mahi mahi, dubbed “the fish so nice they named it twice.”

The top challenge in the fish business, says Criger, is securing the product.

“Because it’s perishable it has to be quick. This is a now business,” he says. On the other hand, the ease of transport worldwide makes life easier for fish purveyors.

And the fun, says Wong, is in eating the fish. She is also co-owner of Francis’ Asian Bistro in Reno.

Goforth also has a fishy background. At age 14, he went to sea working the commercial fishing boats out of San Diego. Later, he owned a seafood restaurant in Mammoth.

Growth in the region has lured competition from California, as fish companies come trolling for customers in the high desert. But, says Criger, American Fish considers itself and the other locally based wholesaler, Nevada Seafood, friendly competitors.

More than wild weather can delay shipments to distributors.

Inspections due to the USA Patriot Act, says Criger, can delay frozen product shipped from Europe for months.

In one instance, the FDA took two months to inspect a shipment of snow crabs. And Maine live lobsters have been stuck on a plane at Denver not stopped by heaped snow, but by Homeland Security.