Chefs Hit the Fulton Fish Market, Pop Uni and Bacon-Buttered Crab Meat Until 5 a.m.

© Jordana Rothman
By Jordana Rothman Posted October 09, 2014

Krystof Zizka is just pulling up to Maison Premiere, his Williamsburg, Brooklyn oyster bar, when I arrive there after midnight one sticky July night.

Food writer Jordana Rothman goes behind-the-scenes on an overnight trip to New York's historic Fulton Fish Market. 

Krystof Zizka is just pulling up to Maison Premiere, his Williamsburg, Brooklyn oyster bar, when I arrive there after midnight one sticky July night. He’s just returned from a trip to a part of LaGuardia Airport few travelers ever see: a vast and cheerless expanse of cargo hangars where, twice a week, Zizka picks up oysters flown directly from West Coast farms. Maison Premiere sells about 11,000 oysters a week; enough to trim a mile of Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s pulsing main drag, in empty shells. I consider this while I sip café au lait at the marble bar, waiting for Zizka to finish unpacking his haul in the downstairs kitchen. By 12:45, he’s ready to roll.

Tonight I’m joining Zizka for a weekly tradition he shares with the team behind Bún-Ker Vietnamese, another cultish New York City restaurant. Every Thursday after midnight, Zizka—along with a mix-and-match crew that tonight includes Maison cook Flavio Rosas, and Bún-Ker’s Shea Hsu and Adam Pak—all caravan to the New Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point in the Bronx. They buy seafood for their restaurants, then return to Bún-Ker at dawn to uncork wines, crack beers and devour shellfish and big platters of sashimi carefully cut from the market spoils. Hsu and Pak call these late-night feasts “quality control.” This is the kind of invitation you don’t refuse.

After all, the New Fulton Fish Market is one of those insomniac marvels New Yorkers know about but rarely get a chance to experience. It has been located in the Bronx since 2005, but the market’s spiritual home is lower Manhattan, where the original facility thrived for nearly 200 years. Many of the vendors say they miss the chaos and imperfect romance of the old place. But the new digs provide modern temperature control, more space—400,000 square feet of it—and better regulatory protection from the mafia corruption that tormented market workers for much of the 20th century. The New Fulton Fish Market is the largest of its kind outside Tsukiji in Tokyo, and its scale—combined with a remote location and insular, relationship-based culture—makes it somewhat impenetrable without an inside connection. Luckily, we’re about to pick ours up.

Just before 1 a.m., we cross the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge into Ridgewood, Queens. If Bún-Ker seems an unlikely fit among the neighborhood’s warehouses and fluorescent-lit scrap yards, it’s because it was never supposed to exist here. The team intended to use this space as home base for a boutique fish vendor business. Their plans fell through after Hurricane Sandy, but the relationships they’d forged at the Fulton Fish Market remained. They opened a restaurant instead, and keep its walk-ins stocked with Fulton seafood.

We arrive at Bún-Ker to find the guys sipping Susucaru rosé and playing cards in the dining room, with a chest of poker chips open on a side table. The talk ranges from hydrocolloids and Korean tacos to McDonald’s and Guy Fieri, who spray-painted his own face on a dining room wall when he filmed at the restaurant last November.

At 1:45 we pile into a few cars. Hsu’s truck smells like fish and Febreze, but we talk through it—about how Hsu ended up in New York after his uncle, a Chinese paratrooper, brought his family over in the 1980s; about how Zizka’s father arrived in the city during the Summer of Sam, having fled communist Czechoslovakia. By the time we pull into the market at 2:15, we’re all used to the smell.

From the parking lot, the market looks desolate and imposing. It feels a bit like a prison complex, which is fitting since it sits just across the East River from Rikers Island. But inside, the place is alive with industrial thrum: all creaking scales, shovels thunking through piles of ice and forklifts zooming down the center aisle—it’s easy to get hit, I’m told. Eyes akimbo. I notice that it’s mostly men in here, in baseball caps and coveralls with flushed cheeks. The concrete floor is wet, and it’s cold in that way that frosts your bones after a while, and you struggle to remember a time when you weren’t a cold person.

We head straight for Blue Ribbon Fish Co., a third-generation vendor that supplies some of New York’s most respected seafood restaurants—I see ruby tuna plucked from Carolina waters; great meaty swordfish patterned with concentric rings, and firm, silver-skinned bass. Hsu greets Blue Ribbon’s David Samuels and hands him a brown paper bag filled with fried soft-shell crabs, summer rolls and a tuna banh mi from Bún-Ker. Samuels laughs and shows me a photo of the bottle of Barr Hill honey vodka Zizka had given him earlier this summer. “These guys know how to grease my palms,” he says.

Maison Premiere’s chef Lisa Giffen usually joins these market trips, but she’s caught up in the kitchen tonight, so she’s sent Zizka with a shopping list and a stern warning not to go off-road. It’s easy to see how that can happen here. Zizka points out a stack of HiddenFjord salmon from the Faroe Islands. “Stick your face in it, it smells like cucumber,” he says, before spotting a crate of blood clams. Samuels’ cousin Warren Kremin shucks one of the hairy creatures and points out the puddle of bright-red hemoglobin that gives the clam its name. Zizka slurps it. “Ooh, that’s funky.” Samuels pulls Zizka aside to talk about taking something special home for Anthony Bourdain, who has plans to dine at Maison Premiere the following week. “Maybe baby octopus? Seppia? Wild turbot?”

While Hsu and Zizka put in their orders, I chat with Samuels and Kremin. We talk about the way fish vendors have to adjust with restaurant trends. “One guy put miso on black cod and it killed a hell of a lot of black cod,” Samuels says, referring to Nobu Matsuhisa’s iconic, oft-replicated dish. Kremin shaves bits of tuna from giant fillets for me to taste. “Out of all the proteins, fish is the most emotional,” he says. “Every fish we sell has its own personality; when a chef unpacks an order they engage with it so much more than they would with a box of steaks.”

By 3:30 a.m., we’ve settled up with Blue Ribbon and are ready to swing by a few other market stalls. Hsu introduces me to Leo Lineu from Emerald Seafood, who built his business selling tidy fillets rather than whole fish. Jerry Phillips of Montauk Seafood cracks open a barrel of live North Carolina blue crabs for us—weird, frisky creatures. We stop at Crown Fish Co. to say hello to Rick Julich, known for quality shrimp from waters near and far. Hsu grabs a box of gorgeous red spot prawns from Spain, and we head out.

Back at Bún-Ker, Pak comes alive. As everyone unloads, he puts Grimes on the speaker and throws butter, bacon, jalapeño, red onion and cracked pepper in a pan, while a tray of king crab legs steam in the oven. Hsu peels green tissue paper back from the surface of the tuna he scored from Blue Ribbon, and begins to slice the fish for sashimi.

Just after 5 a.m., we open a bottle of 2010 L’Eléphant Languedoc and sit down to eat. We tear through the crab legs, dragging sweet chunks of meat through the butter with our fingers. We dip tuna in soy sauce brightened with sparks of mint and lime juice. We talk about the time Pak and Hsu made a $100 banh mi for themselves after returning from the market, using Maryland crab, paddlefish roe and uni. We all instantly crave sea urchin and Pak insists that “we gotta have a nibble.” Out comes a tray of uni so rich that droplets of luscious fat have formed on the surface of the lobes. That’s breakfast.

The sun is up by the time I stumble out of Bún-Ker and hail a taxi. I say goodbye to Hsu and Pak; Zizka heads back to Maison Premiere to unload. At home I leave my boots outside the door and peel off my fishy clothes. (They’ll never not smell like a wharf, I discover after repeated washings.) I’m sleepy and achy and I wonder how Zizka and the Bún-Ker crew can do this marathon each week. Then I think of the vendors who do it every night—12-hour shifts in an icebox, in the barrens of New York City.

Later today at Maison Premiere, Giffen will transform the fish into pristine ceviches and composed plates dressed with knots of seaweed or saffron-scented broth. At Bún-Ker chef Jimmy Tu might work it into fried rice, bundle it with glass noodles in a crunchy spring roll or layer it in a thick banh mi.

There are simpler ways to stock a kitchen, of course. But for these guys, the hard way is the honest way.

Related: 30 Amazing Crab Dishes
America's Best Oyster Bars
20 Sustainable Seafood Recipes

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