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One on One: Mathieu Palombino

Chef de cuisine, BLT Fish

Mathieu Palombino
By Fiona Robinson
July 01, 2005

Behind every great chef is a hard-working chef de cuisine who helps execute the chef's culinary vision and keeps the kitchen running ship-shape. When Chef Laurent Tourondel "returned to the sea" with BLT Fish, or Bistro Laurent Tourondel, in February, he chose Mathieu Palombino as his chef de cuisine.

The Belgian-born Palombino first came to the United States from Europe in 2000. He is no stranger to Tourondel's seafood cookery; he first worked at Cello, Tourondel's acclaimed New York seafood restaurant. Palombino then went to work for David Bouley, where his specialty was fish.

BLT Fish is actually two dining concepts in one. The first floor sports the BLT Fish Shack, which is open for lunch and dinner. This typical New-England-style eatery houses a raw bar and centers its menu on classics like fish and chips, clam chowder, corn on the cob, apple pie and the signature lobster roll.

The Fish Shack has a separate kitchen from the upstairs BLT Fish dining room. It also focuses on fish, but the atmosphere couldn't be more different. The open kitchen/dining room design upstairs allows customers to see everything Tourondel, Palombino and the rest of the kitchen staff prepare.

And when customers are tired of looking at fish, they can look at the stars  literally. A retractable glass ceiling in the dining room allows customers to peer at the constellations while dining on Sea Salt Crusted New Zealand Pink Snapper or Crispy Red Snapper "Cantonese Style."

Seafood has a "big future in gastronomy," says Palombino. "Everyone will be eating more fish than meat in the future," he predicts. I checked in with Palombino in late May to see how BLT Fish is doing.  

Robinson: What has business been like since opening day Feb. 10? 

Palombino: We're doing roughly 150 to 200 covers per night. It's a 75-seat room; we turn [tables] twice on the weekends.

What other restaurants have you helped open?  

I opened BLT Steak, then BLT first floor [Fish Shack], then the second floor dining room. I was chef de cuisine at a busy French restaurant, Cafe Sharbonne.

What is the hardest aspect of opening a restaurant?  

The hardest part is getting a kitchen crew together. The quality of the food, whatever you put up, depends on the cooks behind you. You need to find the right person for the right station in the kitchen. It takes a month and a half for [the kitchen staff] to understand what you're looking for. They all come from different restaurants and have a different idea of what you want. They have to get used to the style and the flavor and the way we want to work.

Is the kitchen staff working well together now? 

Yes, now everyone is on the same page. We like the skin on [the fish] as much as possible. Some chefs here didn't understand that when the menu first started.

What are your duties as chef de cuisine? 

Execution and quality, the way the kitchen works. I put the whole thing together. On a typical day I arrive and salute everybody  say hello. I remind everyone of things that have to be done and give them motivation. Managing a kitchen is managing people. Just like on a sports team, there's always someone pushing you to do the best you can. It's good for the restaurant and good for the cooks.

How do you buy seafood for the restaurant? 

I am sourcing every day; every night I have a report that tells me what the next day is like [for reservations]; and I place my order accordingly. I try to keep as few fish as possible in the fridge. I buy from Louis Rozzo  he buys from Fulton [Fish Market]. I speak with him during the day and tell him what I need. He knows what I am looking for. He is the owner and he buys the fish.

The most important person in the fish business is the buyer. If you have a smart buyer, he's got good connections. He takes a lot of pride in selling fish; this guy is a fish lover.

I worked with him at Cello and BLT Steak. I don't buy everything from him; he specializes in local fish. I go to others for imported fish. I buy imported fish from Sea Star Seafood.

What is your favorite seafood? 

I really love the local skate. To me, it's a great deal. Its not expensive, but it's delicate. When cooked right, it's wonderful. People usually go for bass or red snapper. Skate is cheap, has a white, delicate flesh. It seduces a fish lover. The hanger steak is for meat what skate is for fish. Skate is affordable, but wonderful. Cooked on the bone, it's really juicy. I get it right off the boat; its as fresh as it can get.

Has the restaurant established a signature dish yet? 

The best seller is crispy red snapper "Cantonese style." It's scored, fried in peanut oil and served with plum sauce made of plum wine with soy, ginger and garlic broth. The whole fish is served on the plate with broth and sauteed leeks, carrots, Chinese sausage, scallions and greens  pea leaves, cilantro, and crispy shallots (thin shallots that are fried).

We try to cook as much as possible on the bone. We leave the fish whole and cook it that way, then we fillet it. We grill whole turbot and sea bass; it is very classic and homey. It leaves the flavor in, and the fish isn't touched. From the moment you receive [the fish], it has been scaled, and that's it. The fish is closed, so you don't lose water on it.

Does cooking in an open kitchen change the way you work? 

No, not really. We have to be careful not to yell too loud. There are tables that are close [to the kitchen]. Sometimes we make a lot of noise, and we don't want people jumping. Everyone is very professional. Customers like to see the way we work and the cooks cooking.

We have a lot of foodies here [in NYC]. I look at [customers] while they are eating, and they are giving their opinion on the food. Everyone is a food critique.

It's actually very, very nice. It's keeping us going to make sure the quality is good. If someone isn't happy, it shows right away. [Open kitchens have] become common. A lot of restaurants are showing their kitchen. Chefs are proud to be there, and it's a great thing that we aren't behind closed doors anymore. [Chefs are] proud to be onstage.

All the [cooks] came here to learn and are going 110 percent. Working with Tourondel, I know they aren't passing through. These guys wanted to come here.

Describe the first-floor Fish Shack. 

There are two different kitchens for each dining room. [The Fish Shack is] a New-England style fish shack on the first floor that is selling more local fish, shrimp and lobster. The customer has a choice of rice and potatoes and a sauce to go on the fish  lemon hollandaise, spicy salsa or tartar sauce.

What do you like best about your job? 

I really love when I put up the food and I am doing quality work, with everyone behind me working together and having a feeling of the job well done. We buy a lot of fish  we're learning together. We try a lot of different things, but we don't overwork the fish. They can't be overworked. The star and main part of the food is the fish itself. We really respect the fish.

Whats it like to work for Laurent Tourondel? 

Tourondel is a French cook with a strong culinary basis. He fell in love with American cooking. When you grow up in America, the food traditions are different. In Europe you get stuck in European techniques. Tourondel broke the taboo of a French cook working with American food. When you cook in America you have to understand that.

Tourondel eats a lot in American places. He likes steakhouses, and I learned a lot from that. He's thinking ahead, which is what I like. I'm going forward by working for him.

Editor Fiona Robinson can be e-mailed at frobinson@divcom.com

July 2005 - SeaFood Business

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