Chef Ned Baldwin's approach to fish is pure simplicity—exactly what we want from summer cooking.

By Peter Kaminsky
June 10, 2020
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William Hereford

Orient Point, on Long Island, New York, juts into the ocean like the head of a spear poised for a flight across the wide Atlantic. A few miles offshore, plumes of warmer water whirl off the Gulf Stream, where they mingle with the coastal waters, attracting fish of every description. In autumn, they are joined by convoys of ducks and geese, gaudy monarch butterflies, breaching humpback whales, and leaping porpoises. Scientists have told me it is the largest migration of wildlife on our planet. And where there are fish in great numbers, you are liable to find fishermen, among them chef Ned Baldwin. When he is not behind the stove at Houseman, his widely praised New York City restaurant, it’s a good bet you’ll find him at the helm of his boat, the Hazel Ann (named after his daughter and his wife). I think of it as the seagoing reflection of its skipper: full-size, more steady than speedy, but adequately agile. “When you get down to it,” Baldwin says, “it’s a floating pickup truck: a 1985 Ford F-150 with a bench seat and manual windows.”

Whenever Baldwin is on the water, his eyes sweep the horizon for massed sea birds attacking hapless baitfish, often a sign of bigger fish on the feed. At such times, Baldwin locks in on his target and opens the throttle on his 27-foot boat. As he nears the commotion on the ocean, in one brief and continuous motion, he cuts the engine, grabs his rod as he glides into casting range, and tosses a baited hook into the mayhem. Depending on the tide, the season, and a mix of luck and skill, he might catch striped bass, bluefish, blackfish, sea bass, weakfish, flounder, or porgy—all candidates for the table at his nearby weekend home. A true fishaholic, he thinks nothing of finishing dinner service at the restaurant and driving over 100 miles to where his boat and tackle await, followed the next day by something like this report he texted me last September.

“Left restaurant in time to get out at midnight. Slack tide was at 3 a.m. so caught the last couple hours of the outgoing from the beach. Came home, drank a Manhattan, cooked kielbasa with something and something else that I wish I could remember. It was weird and good. Slept two hours. Up before sunrise and out on the boat chasing birds all morning.”

Baldwin fell into cheffing almost by accident. He was a struggling sculptor and furniture builder in the South Bronx, trying to make it in a world where newcomers stand little chance of breaking into the high-rolling gallery scene. One afternoon while strolling through the Lower East Side, he noticed a menu displayed outside Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton’s celebrated restaurant. After one meal, Baldwin found his calling. A year of persistent requests later, Hamilton took a shot, offering him an entry-level job where his duties included egg scrambling at Sunday brunch. By the end of his four years with her, though, his natural talent and hard work found him running the kitchen as chef de cuisine when Hamilton embarked on a lengthy book tour. He will tell you that the most fundamental lesson he took from that experience was how to simplify cooking so that food requires the least amount of attention once it comes into contact with heat. (It’s the principle that guided us through the writing of our new cookbook, How to Dress an Egg.)

During that same time, he turned more and more to fishing as a sanity-saving counterpoint to the frantic pace of a busy Manhattan restaurant. In the fall, when game fish corral huge formations of bait, he might catch half a dozen species. In the way that the mercurial gods of fishing bedevil fishermen, on the day that we shot this story, the sea was as calm as a lake unruffled by even the memory of a breeze. There were no signs of fish: no diving birds, no scrums of stripers, mouths agape as they chomped their way through a school of hapless menhaden. Undaunted, Baldwin took note of the moving tide and followed it at a slow pace along the seamounts and valleys where experience has taught him there might be fish. Like the pilot of an aircraft flying on instruments, he kept an eye on the sonar screen and advised the rest of us to ready our tackle and bait our hooks with strips of squid. Sure enough, from time to time, we’d pass over a body of fish, and Captain Ned sounded the alert.

William Hereford

“Fish on the drop-off about 20 feet down.”

Hearing those hopeful words, the rest of our party of four roused from our summertime lethargy and grabbed our rods as Baldwin, all 6’2” and 215 pounds of him, leaped onto the narrow railing by the cockpit and steadied himself, taking up a fishing station in the bow. He reminded me of a grade school kid clambering up a jungle gym. Concentrating on what was going on in the sea below us, we hardly spoke as we bounced our bait along the bottom. Tap-tap and then nibble-nibble as a fish showed some interest. The trick, then, is to strike at just the right time and drive the hook home before the fish escapes with a free meal. At each stop that afternoon, we picked up fish. On one pass, we boated a few porgies—not a glamorous game fish like striped bass but a nice size for grilling. Also black sea bass, a plentiful and delicious native of local waters that can be steamed, filleted, and pan-roasted, or grilled whole.

I got the feeling, as we motored home, that Baldwin was dreaming up recipes as he guided the boat to its mooring. With some anglers (me, for instance), my batteries are so drained after a day of sun and fishing that I’m not in the mood for an intense cooking session; just some foaming butter in the pan and a seasoned fillet usually suits me fine. Not Baldwin, though. It’s as if the thought of a cooler full of the freshest fish gets his gastronomic gears in motion.

As we uncorked a few bottles of Pét-Nat to slake our thirst, Baldwin cooked his way through the day’s catch. He glided about the kitchen as smoothly as he handled his boat. Watching him, I thought, “Do we fish to eat, or do we eat to fish?” In Ned Baldwin’s case, the answer, no doubt, is both.

Grilled Bluefish with Charred Cherries and Peppers

Photograph by William Hereford / Prop styling by Olga Grigorenko

Baldwin’s method of grilling fish takes advantage of the cavity. Slipping a spatula into the fish, instead of on either side, makes it easier to flip and does not disturb the crispy grilled fish skin or flaky meat.

Warm Cod Salad with Tarragon Sauce and Boiled Eggs

Photograph by William Hereford / prop styling by Olga Grigorenko

Eggs and cod are a time-honored marriage of textures and tastes. The starting point for this dish was the grand aioli of Provence, which features a robust aioli with crudités and cod. When you serve this, be sure to flake the cod a little so the sauce can flavor as much of the fish as possible.

Crispy-Skinned Bass with Braised Lettuce and Green Goddess Dressing

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Dickey / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

Baldwin’s three-step cooking process delivers evenly cooked fillets with crispy skin every time. First, a pan sear under pressure from a spatula starts the cooking and prevents the fillets from curling up. Butter then helps release the fillets from the skillet and adds flavor. Finally, a skin-side-down finish in the pan crisps up the skin for a shatteringly delicious bite.