By the time most of us wake up, Ben McBride has already finished his workout. Maybe that doesn’t sound impressive, but this isn’t a-roll-out-of-bed-and-head-to-the-gym situation. McBride’s warmup involves a three-quarter-ton pickup truck and several hours of Texas highways. His routine centers on shovels and snapper, not sit-ups.
“My shoulders are destroyed — shoveling ice, picking up 150-pound containers of ice or fish, loading everything in and out of the tailgate,” says McBride, the fishmonger behind Austin’s Heritage Seafood. “Everyone laughed at me when I started. ‘You been working out?’ But it’s fishmonger-fit; we don’t need CrossFit.”
A provider of dock-to-kitchen service for restaurants, Heritage Seafood is composed of McBride and his two employees. Each week, McBride drives fours hours to Gulf destinations like Freeport and Houston and sometimes Galveston, too. Once there, he meets Captain Jason and other fishermen he knows on a first name basis at the dock. McBride helps them sort and unload catches that total up to 12,000 pounds, and then he makes the return trip to Austin to deliver orders for his clientele of 25 to 30 restaurants, including local destinations like Intero. McBride will sometimes even unload fish directly into a restaurant's back of house or train staff on how to break down a tuna or branzino. (Who knew tuna spinal fluid was a delicacy?)
If the work sounds gruelling, well, it is. But for McBride, it just fits at this point in his life. Growing up in tiny Stowell, Texas, just miles from the Gulf, his passion for regional seafood practically began at birth. Fish only became more of an obsession throughout McBride’s nearly two-decade culinary career that started with burger-flipping at Posse East, built to a higher level of fish learning at Uchi and included unique experiences leading kitchens in places like Singapore, Istanbul and Miami.
But logistically, McBride finds his current fishmonger lifestyle preferable. He has a young son now, so shifts that start at 2 a.m. function much better than those that end at that time. “I get to be with my kid five nights a week,” he says. “It’s awesome.” And being able to stay in Austin rather than bouncing around annually as a chef has been a relief. Compared to keeping his Turkish kitchen staff safe from tear gas during protests over Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park, what’s a few early mornings?
Heritage Seafood has already built quite the industry reputation over its three years of operation. Where does California’s three-star Michelin spot Manresa go for crawfish? Who else can get gooey duck seemingly out of nowhere? But McBride still has bigger plans. He wants to go beyond dock-to-kitchen. He envisions adding seafood concierge service soon. McBride has been talking with a group of fishermen interested in bringing ikejime — a Japanese method of slaughter involving spiking the fish through the brain for a more humane kill and better preservation — to the Gulf. The practice could potentially double the freshness time of fish for restaurateurs, and McBride wants Heritage to be an exclusive partner (possibly even to the point of integrating the fishermen into the business to ensure fair wages).
As for those who’d be on the other end of such fish, McBride’s big near-future wish is for Heritage to have its own permanent facility in Austin, a place beyond the truck bed to do fish processing, scaling, gutting and maybe even filets and portion cuts.
“It’s currently like a concierge service — I can handle your entire seafood order for the restaurant, whether it’s incredible scallops, live Santa Barbara sea urchin or the best damned snapper from Freeport. The direction I’d like to go is focused on quality, not quantity,” he says. “So I would like a space. And the chef in me is like, ‘If you’re going to be there during the day, you might as well cook lunch. And if you’re there cutting fish and someone comes in who wants to buy fish, sure.’ In my mind, it’s a small retail counter where local fish nuts who aren’t in the industry can come in and get some really cool stuff. And I think it’s going to happen.”
by Nathan Mattise // photography by Jenna Northcutt