Charleston chefs turn to Abundant Seafood for sustainable fish. Now, North Charleston residents can, too.
May 18, 2022
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After entering Abundant Seafood’s 4731 Mixson Ave. retail store, owner Mark Marhefka called us to the back, where buckets of fish had just arrived fresh off the Amy Marie, his 37-year-old boat. The nationally recognized purveyor tossed 20 or so vermillion red snappers on a scale, then moved them to a long table that had just been hosed down with water. As he started scaling each snapper one by one, he explained these fish would be on the menu at Chubby Fish later that evening.
Mark and his wife Kerry, who took home the 2020 James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Award, have been in the seafood business for years. After meeting at a 1998 gathering regarding the establishment of more marine protected areas, the Marhefkas opened Abundant Seafood in 2006 with the goal of combining Mark’s experience as a commercial fisherman with Kerry’s knowledge as a fishery biologist.
Nearly 16 years later, that combination has proved to be a winning formula for chefs throughout South Carolina who have their fish delivered or pick it up at Abundant’s Mount Pleasant dock or in North Charleston at their retail store that opened in March 2020.
While the store’s opening was clouded by the onset of the pandemic, it’s becoming a place where locals can pick up the evening’s dinner and experience what it means to fish sustainably in one fell swoop.
‘From the Source’
As climate change continues to alter the scenery for fishermen, understanding how fish gets from the sea to our plates can help comprehend the need for responsible sourcing.
The Marhefkas are Charleston’s go-to source for purchasing sustainable seafood and learning about the process.
The couple stars in the first episode of “From the Source,” a Discovery+ show hosted by Katie Button of celebrated Asheville, N.C., restaurant Cúrate. In the episode, Button goes on a two-day commercial fishing trip with Marhefka and his team.
A typical fishing trip takes Marhefka’s crew 50 to 60 miles offshore, where they catch fish on a vertical hook and line using a rod and reel system. When fish are caught, they’re gutted on the boat and put on ice. Fish that cannot be kept are released alive.
“Every fish has a quota on it which you’re allowed to harvest. Once the quota’s caught, then you’re no longer allowed to harvest those fish,” Marhefka said. “In management, we’ve sort of set things up where we have different bi-annual quotas so we can go and have this all year round.”
It takes a lot of work to service Abundant Seafood’s community supported fishery members, retail patrons and chef partners. Marhefka, 60, took some time away from the boat in 2021, but he’s recently returned to the Amy Marie for weeklong trips offshore.
In order to expand its offering and maintain its sustainable operation, the Marhefkas are also partnering with like-minded fishermen, adding fish popping up in cooler climate areas like Maryland or North Carolina to Abundant Seafood’s daily supply.
“We started going and buying from other snapper grouper boats that are just like me that have come up and fished our waters this summer, and we sort of morphed into working with them because of a lack of product,” Marhefka said. “Having that constant flow of seafood is very, very imperative to have.”
Marhefka is constantly adapting and incorporating less traditional techniques when he’s out on the water. Using a buoy system, for instance, Marhefka can access fish that are 600 to 800 feet below the surface. On his latest trip offshore, he used this technique to pull in golden tilefish, a species that burrows itself backwards in the mud.
Marhefka’s ability to seek out these niche fisheries enables him to keep up with demand while not exceeding the quotas set for different species by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
Chefs sing their praises
The name Abundant Seafood finds its way onto menus throughout the Charleston area, including at Delaney Oyster House, FIG, The Ordinary, Obstinate Daughter, Three Sirens and Chubby Fish, among many others.
In fact, when describing seafood dishes using Marhefka’s fresh catch, most chefs make it a point to mention Abundant Seafood. Deliveries to chefs are part of Marhefka’s daily routine when he’s on dry land.
Around 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 20, Marhefka parked his Abundant Seafood truck outside Chubby Fish in downtown Charleston, where chef and owner James London waited for the delivery.
After opening the back door, Marhefka pulled out a gray bucket filled with ice and fish that were caught on Marhefka’s offshore fishing trip Jan. 11-19.
London said the entire delivery would be used for that evening’s dinner service.
Chubby Fish’s nightly changing menu is completely reliant on the fresh produce and seafood London procures from area farmers and purveyors. Serving sustainably caught fish is part of the restaurant’s ethos; you won’t find fish on the menu that arrived more than one day before a Chubby Fish dinner service — unless it’s smoked, a technique London uses to preserve fish at its peak freshness.
Before opening the 1,250-square-foot restaurant in 2018, London reached out to Marhefka, and the two have worked together ever since.
“I knew how valuable he was and knew that he was taking a new approach to seafood that other companies here weren’t doing,” said London, who was working in New York when he first read about Marhefka’s efforts to protect local fisheries. “Where we are geographically (in Charleston), we kind of intersect between two big fisheries, so we have the mid-Atlantic fishery and we have the South Atlantic fishery. So because of that, we’re able to pull a diversity out of the water here that you don’t really see anywhere else in the country.”
When he places an order, London commits to taking whatever Marhefka brings him on that given day. On Jan. 20, Marhefka’s haul featured triggerfish, black bass, sheepshead, porgy (also known as pink snapper), scallops, vermillion red snapper and those golden tilefish caught using the buoy system.
After receiving each delivery, London first lays out the fish to evaluate what he has and see how it pairs with sauces they’ve been utilizing and the local vegetables they’ve received from area farms. At this point, the chef has already had a meeting with his kitchen crew to go through the menu from the night before.
“So we basically just create the entire menu based off of (the fish) and what’s in the cooler back there and then what we know we have coming from the farms,” London said. “We’re very flexible here because of the way that our menu works. That’s why we have that chalkboard menu so that we can really work like that.”
The chalkboard menu is situated above Chubby Fish’s open kitchen. Hours after Marhefka’s Jan. 20 delivery, London and his chefs were churning out Abundant Seafood-centered dishes like triggerfish tempura with soy beurre blanc, whole black bass, pink snapper ceviche and grilled tilefish, served with squash butter and Savoy cabbage.
To prepare the tilefish, London places it on the grill for seconds before poaching it in a stock made using the fish bones, white wine and a host of other ingredients.
The tender white meat maintains its integrity when you cut through with a fork, and while the flavor is mild, it stands up to the accompanying squash butter sauce that’s laced with flecks of trout roe.
London’s preparation has just enough nuance to pull in guests who didn’t necessarily go to Chubby Fish thinking they would order tilefish, while allowing the fish to shine. Marhefka would surely approve of the technique.
In fact, London and Marhefka have developed a streamlined system that works because they share the same values when it comes to catching and cooking fish.
Fish that are taken out of the water are handled with care and used with a purpose.
“It really pains me to have any part of the fish go in the trash,” London said. “Even the bones, we try to do something with them. So like our oyster sauce here is a smoked tuna bone, and we make a sauce out of that. And that’s what dresses our oysters.”
“You honor that fish because he gave his life to give you life,” added Marhefka. “And that’s important to me.”
Between 10 and 20 types of fish — such as black bass, vermilion red snapper, flounder, grouper, tuna and swordfish — are available at Abundant Seafood’s North Charleston storefront, open noon-6 p.m. daily.
The market offers the chance to order sought-after seafood staples, or curious patrons can dip into the Abundant Seafood fish that pique the interest of London and other area chefs.
“It is a bit of a food desert somewhat, so we’re trying to go and make it more into a market where (when) you come in, you have everything that you want,” Marhefka said. “For the most part, I try to hire people who are involved in food and bev so they can go and sort of help navigate a customer for a dinner, and we can point and say, ‘That’s what you want to go and get off the shelf and have with this.’ ”
Those shelves are stocked with Keegan-Filion Farm meats, Sean Brock’s Jimmy Red cornbread mix, Rio Bertolini’s pasta, Marsh Hen Mill grits, Life Raft Treats and even products from Smithey Ironware, a North Charleston-based cookware company.
When ordering, Marhefka encourages customers to try unfamiliar fish like pomfret, a meaty bycatch of the swordfish fishery that he recently started pulling into the Amy Marie.
Fish like mackerel, triggerfish and monkfish were once undervalued species that have become staples at local restaurants.
Who knows, you might just stumble upon the next big thing.