From Sea to Table

Words by
David Amsden
Images by
Maggie Cowles

The multi-step saga of how a single black cod goes from swimming in the Pacific Ocean to being served at Shibumi, a Michelin-starred restaurant in downtown L.A. specializing in Japanese kappo-style cuisine.


BLACK COD, also known as sablefish, are not actually part of the cod family. They live in deep waters along the continental slope of North America, where they grow to three feet in length and can live up to age 90. They are typically around 20 years old when they meet fishermen.


AT MIDNIGHT three days a week, Scott Breneman, owner of West Caught Fish Company, boards the Circle Hook, a 31-foot fishing boat docked in Newport Beach’s harbor. The boat is named after the fishing hooks used, which catch the corner of a fish’s mouth, allowing for survival and maximizing freshness. Before every outing, 10,000 baited hooks are manually tied to the line.


ALONG WITH A CREWMAN, Breneman heads into the Pacific, toward the Southern Channel Islands, where the Circle Hook is steered around San Nicholas and San Clemente Islands looking for black cod, rockfish, halibut, swordfish, yellowtail, and tuna. Each trip lasts 24 hours and can bring in 2,000 pounds of fish.


WITH THE FISH STORED in saltwater tanks, the Circle Hook returns to Newport Beach at midnight the following day. The catch is unloaded and transported a few miles away to the Dory Fishing Fleet and Market, which has been in operation since 1891. Breneman’s great-grandmother sold fish here in the early 1900s.


SEIICHI YOKOTA, the owner of Yokose Seafood, arrives at the market at six a.m. Originally from Japan, where his family has worked in fish purveying for seven generations, he moved to California in 2011 and sources fish for restaurants like n/naka and Hinoki and the Bird, in addition to Shibumi.


WORKING QUICKLY, Yokota, who trained at Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Fish Market, searches for black cod he deems right for Shibumi; sparkly eyes and red gills are the signs of a strong fish. He kills the fish using a Japanese technique called ikejime—threading a thin metal line through the fish’s spine to disable the central nervous system. Yokota believes this is the secret to Japan’s magnificently flavorful fish.


AFTER BREAKING THE BLACK COD DOWN—removing the scales and guts with a heavy iron knife, cleaning the blood—Yokota wraps each individually and places them on ice in Styrofoam coolers. They are then transported to his warehouse, near the Los Angeles International Airport, before he makes his deliveries in the afternoon.


YOKOTA REACHES SHIBUMI at three p.m., where chef David Schlosser receives the black cod less than 24 hours after it was caught. He believes it’s a misconception, however, that fish are best served immediately. “Think of it like hunting,” he says. “The meat is tastier after it’s had some time to hang and tighten.” To achieve this, Schlosser filets the cod and then places it in a dry aging machine for 14 to 17 days.


IN PREPARATION for cooking, the fish is moved to the fridge, where it rests in a zaru, or bamboo basket, for a few hours. Once ordered, it is steamed for two minutes at high heat.


FINALLY, the black cod arrives in a state worthy of a museum: resting in a pool of katsuo dashi broth, covered in uni and grated wasabi, and meeting diners at a counter cut from a centuries-old piece of cypress as part of their multi-course feast.

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