Originally published in The Bronx Ink in 2010 when I was a student at Columbia Journalism. Produced with my partner Elettra Fiumi.
It is past midnight as Saul Montiel climbs into the front seat of a minivan parked outside of his restaurant Gusto on Greenwich Avenue in Manhattan. The floor of the van is lined with plastic, and would make for an easy clean up if this were a midnight mafia hit. But Montiel is not a mobster. He is a chef, and the van will soon be filled with the freshest fish available from the New Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point, Bronx.
At the start of the recession in 2008, Montiel began going to the New Fulton Fish market himself, as a way to cut costs at Gusto. What began as an adjustment to a struggling economy turned into one of the best business moves Montiel ever made.
“We should have done it from the beginning so I can save a lot of money and get a better product,” said Montiel about his midnight trips to the fish market. As he began visiting the market himself, Montiel realized that a hands-on approach was the best way to not only run a more efficient business, but also to supply the Gusto menu with fresh fish.
Security is strict at the entrance, and only after an argument over bringing in a camera is Montiel’s van allowed to proceed. The original Fulton Fish Market was established in 1822 in Lower Manhattan. Before the relocation to the South Bronx, stories of corruption at the market were as plentiful as the crates of fish. The move to Hunts Point dragged the market out of the past and into an efficient, more regulated future.
Inside, everything is brand new except for the people working there. High ceilings, florescent lights, and a temperature-controlled environment clash with the fishhook toting grizzled men shoveling ice and moving fish. The men continue to work a profession that has existed for as long as man has had an appetite for the bounties of the sea.
The market is enormous, second only in size to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, and it would be easy to get lost searching for the best fish. Fortunately Montiel has connections, which help him with the process. “I have like three or four people that I like, because they know what I want, they know what I am looking for,” he said. “It makes my job easier.”
One of his contacts at the market is John Guttilla, a vendor for Blue Ribbon Fish Company. Guttilla sports a fedora, a fishhook with his name inscribed on the handle, and a cigar in his front shirt pocket. He knows the Gusto crew well. “When he and his staff come in, these guys they know what they’re doing,” said Guttilla. “Naturally they want to save money where they can, but that is not their focus of attention. They want the best available product, which is why they get out of bed in the middle of the night to come down here.”
After placing an order for oysters from the Blue Ribbon Fish Company, Montiel continues to walk from vendor to vendor, carefully examining the fish of the day. Picking up a fish, he touches the eyeballs and pokes the body. “If it is firm that means that it’s fresh,” he said. “If it is kind of soft, that means it has been out of the sea for a couple of days.” Montiel pokes around until he is convinced he has found the best fish for his kitchen.
A few months back, Montiel began to notice the abundance of high-quality cheap oysters that were available, so he decided to open an oyster bar inside his restaurant. Every Monday he offers $1 oysters that he bought that day at the fish market.
Driving back to Gusto in the middle of the night, the van is full of seafood. Montiel will drop off the fish, sleep until around 11 a.m., and then come back to the kitchen to start preparations for the evening.
“It is not easy to get a good quality fish in a restaurant,” said Montiel. “It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of my sleep, but I believe fish should always be delicious and fresh.”