Chef, Fisherman, Activist

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Kenny Belov was frustrated with the state of seafood. The owner of Sausalito’s Fish, he found that he was being lied to about the source, quality, and even breed of the products he was getting from commercial fishermen. So he did what any man on a mission would do — he bought a boat, took to the water, and became one of the most highly sought providers of wild-caught and farm-raised fish in the Bay Area. With early support from a number of San Francisco restaurants, Belov and his company TwoXSea are redefining quality seafood in the Bay Area, and hopefully, beyond. Here, he talks about his goals, his hopes for the future, and some of his favorite kinds of fish for the eating.

Nopalize: How did TwoXSea start?

Kenny Belov: It happened very organically and definitely not on purpose. I was a restaurant owner, and I started to get super fed up with the fish that was getting delivered. From day one we had a standard for seafood that no one else had set. Sustainability, sourceability, truth in advertising — that all hadn’t been done. It wasn’t just a statement on the bottom of the menu, it was what we did.

What was the problem?

The questions we asked, about sustainability, where the fish was sourced, what it even was… were answered with complete lies. We still see that: chefs ask these questions of their wholesaler, and the wholesaler, knowing what chef’s need to hear to make the sale, lie. That’s where we found ourselves. So we started to dig deeper into the stories that we were being told and kept finding inaccuracies.

That’s certainly at odds with your initial mission as a restaurant.

Yes. How are we supposed to be the most sustainable seafood restaurant in the country if we can’t even be sure that what we’re being sold is what we think it is? We bought a boat and became commercial fisherman. We wanted to get to the bottom of what it took to go from the source to our stoves.

How did you go from exploring the industry to sourcing seafood for restaurants all over the Bay Area?

We started working with our local fleet and found ourselves with this really nice variety of seafood from Fort Bragg down to Monterey, and a really great network of chefs. We figured, why not give it a try? Let’s start delivering fish. Back then it was just myself, my partner, and a van. This was not about making money. It was purely a labor of love to get these amazing products to our friends.

TwoXSea also provides restaurants with farm-raised trout from McFarland Springs Trout Farm. How did that come about?

While all of this was going on, we got really fed up with aquaculture. The one thing all aquaculture has in common is that fish all have to eat, and fish farmers are providing the feed. But they’re all being fed something you or I would never want to eat ourselves, fish meal comprised of chicken byproducts. So we had the idea to develop a vegetarian food, and started calling aquaculture companies from A to Z. We got down to the M’s, and Dave McFarland picked up the phone and said, “That sounds fascinating. Why don’t you come up to the farm?”

But this was still new. David was nervous about feeding his fish an experimental diet and insisted that we buy one fleet of fish. It was a huge risk for us. But it started to work, and started to work pretty darn well.

How has that business grown?

We hit our target with the food formula by the end of 2009 — we were completely vegetarian based. We’ve made it this nutrient rich miracle; besides tasting good, it’s actually something you should put in your body. Now, we’re barely sustaining the Bay Area, we’re constantly sold out. And we’re expanding. We’re working with a farm in Oregon, and just got a blind call from a farmer in Minnesota.

From restaurant-owners, to fishermen, to farmers!

That wasn’t the goal when we started this, to be trout farmers! But we need to fix the way we farm fish. Aquaculture is not going away, so we need to figure out how to do it intelligently.

Tell us more about the fleet of fishermen you work with in the Bay Area to supply wild fish.

We vet every vessel that we work with. We go on the boat, we know what gear they’re using. Every piece of fish we sell is sold by vessel, and categorized and inventoried by vessel. It makes the fishermen accountable for the way they treat their product. If a chef is unhappy with an order, they know exactly who it came from.

We work with amazing fisherman like Steve Fitz, who puts oceans first and bottom lines second. Small Boat Seafood is one of the first companies that made me think, “Wow, there’s more of us out there.” It’s marvelous how hard they work.

Being a restaurant owner, you have a unique advantage of seeing both sides — the supply side, and the chef side. How does that affect how you do business?

It’s so much easier for me to be able to train my staff because I know exactly what chefs are looking for. Whether it’s the way we cut fish, tack fish — we use all reusable kitchen containers — I know what the chef wants to see. I know that a restaurant like Nopa is depending on our choices. Nojo is only using us for their seafood. It’s important for me to accurately communicate with them — that’s what the company is built on. Being another set of ears, eyes, nose, for the chefs.

Recently, Nick from Bar Tartine ordered five pounds of center-cut halibut, which he was planning to use it for a raw presentation. I walked into our walk-in and said, “No, can’t do it.” The quality wasn’t there. If he was going to cook it, absolutely, but that wasn’t that plan. The normal company just puts it in a box and makes sure the invoice gets signed — I’m not afraid to say no.

What are your next big steps as a company?

We want to go outside of the Bay Area, and trying to duplicate this. Portland seems like such a natural fit. They have all of these menus and I’m looking at their menu claims and I’m like, someone is telling you a story. You’re being misled. We want to go to Portland and do TwoxSea Portland, and start working with Oregon fisherman and fish farms.

How challenging will it be to make your model very widespread, on a national level?

Unfortunately, it’s going to have to involve a huge power that most of us don’t support. Here’s an example: what if you took a Fish Filet from McDonalds, and instead of frying it and serving it on a roll with no nutritional value, used vegetarian-fed fish. They could fix huge problems. They would touch more people globally than anyone of us in the Bay Area could do.

I’m not setting out to work with the McDonalds and Wal-Marts of the world. But if I was approached by McDonalds about trying to help, I would see the benefit. They are a part of the problem, so let’s let them invest in fixing the problem. Never close the door. If someone’s willing to open a door for you, go in and entertain the opportunity. If you just turn your nose up at people because of your perception of the company, it’s hard to change things.

How can I make sure that I’m getting the best seafood products here in the Bay Area? Other than going to eat at Nopa every day (I wish!)?

Bi Rite’s quality is spot on. They follow a different set of rules than I do about gear methods — we agree to disagree, and we have healthy discussions about it. But there is nowhere better to buy seafood in San Francisco than Bi-Rite. Now that Local Mission Market is open, that’s a huge source. In the East Bay, you’re not going to beat Tokyo Fish Market, and Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley.

What kinds of fish, and qualities of fish should I look for?

Think about what your favorite piece of fish is. Then try to do as much research as you can on that one fish. YouTube is a great resource — put in “commercial whatever fishing.” Make your own decision about what you see, and decide if what you see is renewable. Turn off the audio, and just watch. Read books, then make up your own mind and decide, should I still be eating that?

The other thing is, if you see something available year-round, that’s probably a problem. There is not a single day of the year that every wholesaler of the year does not have ahi tuna on their price list. That’s a problem for me. We are going to every corner of the world’s oceans to chase one species of fish. They will run out. They cannot compete with the technology we have. Fish can’t hide.

What are your favorite kinds of seafood to eat?
My favorite seafood is California albacore tuna, salmon,and F/V Mr. Morgan sand dabs.

Photography: Sam Goodwin

Category: Eat