After 15 years of restaurant ownership in the District of Columbia area, all the while harboring a particular passion for seafood, chef Robert Wiedmaier decided the best way to get onto the water more often was to buy a boat (or two) and a historic estate along the Chesapeake Bay.
“This is the Patuxent River,” he said on a cool morning in July, steering his 18-foot Parker as he narrated the familiar scene. “We’re right at the mouth, which is nice for fishing, because we can be out in the Chesapeake Bay in eight minutes.”
With Wiedmaier at the helm, his longtime fishing buddy and fellow chef, David Guas, set up a half dozen fishing lines to troll not far from the dock.
Guas, who owns Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, VA, got his start catching fish in a neighborhood lake while growing up in New Orleans. “If you’re a fisherman, you’re a fisherman,” he said, adding, “The nice part about Robert and me is we don’t have to go through all of the beginner stuff.”
The pair has been fishing and hunting together for years, getting out of the DC metro area — where Wiedmaier owns seven restaurants, including his flagship Marcel’s, and Guas is opening his second — “as often as we can.”
They’ve found themselves talking a lot lately, in media interviews and with restaurant customers, about local food, sustainability and, occasionally, about the health of Chesapeake Bay species in their backyard. There’s no shortage of similar talk at restaurants these days.
That’s especially true among chefs in the DC area who are serving an increasingly informed audience and are themselves considered one of the most trusted resources for complex seafood questions. Uneasy about selecting and cooking seafood on their own, Americans today consume about two-thirds of their seafood at restaurants.
But few chefs have time to dive headfirst into the issues surrounding seafood — or the Chesapeake Bay watershed that surrounds their restaurants — let alone go fishing for their own on a semi-regular basis.
Wiedmaier got his first seafood lessons from a cousin who’s a career fisherman in Alaska. He started visiting salmon country himself years ago to become more familiar with the processes that brought the pink fish to his tables on the East Coast.
“Two things I’ll tell you about the whole fishing industry,” he said, remembering the experience; “It’s corrupt. They’ll call a species another species and it’s not.”
Wiedmaier even had a hand in starting a new Alaskan seafood company that delivered some of the first fresh (not frozen) salmon to the East Coast, diverting it from places like Japan that were getting almost all of the prime product.
He and Guas chatted while they fished about the rise and fall of seafood products like “Chilean sea bass,” which used to be on nearly every restaurant menu and was known for being mislabeled.
That makes the job of a busy chef sourcing his menu that much harder, especially if he doesn’t want to pass the deception along to customers, Guas said. Many restaurant staffs rely heavily on their seafood distributors and salesmen to keep them informed, rather than struggling to navigate the nuances of seafood terminology on their own.
New programs have tried to bridge the gap, educating both chefs and consumers on the ever-changing frontier of seafood. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, for example, takes chefs out on the water throughout the summer to show them firsthand what it takes to harvest local species — and why they should pay more for Maryland blue crab.
New companies also are trying to improve the transparency of seafood distribution. Sea to Table recently began working with a handful of DC chefs like Michael Costa with Zaytinya. The company ships wild-caught U.S. seafood from small-scale fisheries directly to chefs, using an Instagram feed and QR codes to advertise by-catch fish from Cape Cod that would make for great menu specials the next day.
But Wiedmaier insists the seafood portions of his menus have benefitted the most from his time on the water.
Though Guas fetched a sack of bloodworms on his way to Rousby Hall — the historic estate Wiedmaier owns in Lusby, MD —Wiedmaier wants to start the morning by catching menhaden.
He chases the silver flecks of a small school of the feeder fish around the contours of his dock, scolding his dog for scaring them away several times.
Eventually, he catches a netful from the shore, leaving the glinting fish to flop on the dock until they’re transferred to the boat’s live well.
“This is the best bait you can get,” Wiedmaier said. “It’s like catching rainwater,” Guas added. “It’s just out there.”
Both chefs know that menhaden aren’t quite as plentiful as they used to be. They know about the controversy surrounding the commercial catching of the fish for feed and Omega-3 oils. And they know the fish has suffered a population decline that could have led to the decline of other key species in the Bay.
But, as they discussed the subject, another species in the water below distracted Wiedmaier.
“See the skate? See him right there?” he said, pointing to a black cloud hovering under the water’s surface, a sting ray-shaped creature that can pose problems for fishermen and the Bay. “Once those skate lock on, goodbye to your line. They just pull you down.”
Guas asked Wiedmaier if he’s ever caught the skate on purpose or cooked them, mentioning the Northern neighbor of skate that is popular on menus.
“I sell a lot of skate from Maine, but the skate down here, it’s just dark meat and it’s super chewy,” Wiedmaier said.
“Put it in the circulator, chef,” Guas said, half joking about cooking the meat low-and-slow in a sous vide machine.
Both chefs got a little more excited about the thought of eating their next catch. A few minutes into their first troll near the shore, one of the lines shook with a hit.
“David, when you bring it in, bring it in high,” Wiedmaier said from the helm.
Guas reeled in a bluefish that measured a little more than a foot, long — enough to go in the livewell.
“Blues taste good, like crabmeat,” Wiedmaier said before detailing how he cooks the fish. “A little lemon juice, garlic, herbs — the simpler the better. I like the pan sear, just lightly cook them.”
“The biggest mistake is everybody overcooks fish.”