Sous-chef José Meza has a lot on his plate, or rather, a lot to serve up on plates. Not only is he sous-chef at Olive Marketplace & Café, T. Maccarone’s and the newly opened café at Basel Cellars, he is also an expert in seafood. Fish, shellfish, crustaceans, you name it; he knows how to prepare it deliciously. He makes it a priority to source an incredible variety of sustainable and fresh seafood. At Olive there is always a display case brimming with a variety of seafood — anything from glistening mahi-mahi to sharp-edged oysters. More importantly, José is always willing to share his story and seafood expertise.
LIFESTYLES: How did you start working in kitchens, with seafood especially?
JOSÉ: I went from the bottom. I was a dishwasher, line cook, bus boy. I have learned how work with fish throughout my 11 years of cooking and by teaching myself. Also, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from other talented chefs that I have worked for and with. I’m learning as I go. There is always something to learn about fish. There are infinite and exciting things that I have never come across. It’s a learning process every day.
LIFESTYLES: What kinds of seafood do you order?
JOSÉ: Ahi tuna, blue marlin. I also get the Alaskan fish like salmon, and halibut and wild fish from the Gulf of Mexico. I get 20 different types of oysters. I also get mussels, clams, trout, red snapper, squid. I want to know what the community wants and then they come back to me; I sell them fish and tell them ways to prepare it. It’s just a matter of introducing a new fish to the community. There’s hundreds of fish out there. Let me know what fish you want. I’ll bring it in.
LIFESTYLES: What’s your favorite fish?
JOSÉ: I love salmon. You can’t go wrong with salmon.
LIFSTYLES: Where does your seafood come from?
JOSÉ: I get it through a company called Pacific Seafood. We try to get wild fish. So we stay away from frozen and farm-raised fish. If I have local fish going on, that’s my priority right there. Our concept is to keep the money in the community as much as we can. So, basically, all my fish, I get it on Tuesdays and Fridays, twice a week, and I get it within 10 to 12 hours out of the water. So it’s not fish that’s been sitting in warehouses all week.
LIFESTYLES: How can you tell if seafood is fresh?
JOSÉ: No fish should have a fishy smell. It should have a nice fresh-water, salt-water, smell. You should know when that fish was brought in. I wouldn’t recommend eating fish that is four to five days old. But don’t be afraid of us. Ask us how old your fish is. You should be able to know.
LIFESTYLES: Do you have any tricks of the trade? What is the best way to cook fish?
JOSÉ:I’ve been cooking for a while — because it’s also all in the touch — I can tell without a thermometer if it’s medium-well, done or it’s scorched. It’s these little tricks that chefs have.
[I recommend that you] sear it and then finish it in the oven. When you sear stuff, you’re searing it so the juices stay inside. You don’t cook the same side of any fish more than once. Just do one flip. If you do more than one flip, you’re losing the juice. I always leave my fish medium-rare to medium-well and it self-finishes because even after you take it out of the heat, it’s still cooking. I think that you or anybody that cooks at their house will have the tools, material equipment, to get away with a nice meal. It’s not hard — it really isn’t.