When Executive Chef Michael Nelson began at the famed French Quarter restaurant GW Fins 17 years ago, he knew he wanted to take a closer look at the seafood that came through the doors each day. “I wanted to check its quality and know more about it,” he says. Under his guidance, the restaurant began butchering all seafood served in-house, and one lesson Michael never intended on learning along the way was just how much waste the process of butchering fish involves.

“Your average fish is only going to yield between 25 to 40 percent, so that means well over half of everything you’d buy would get discarded,” he says. Michael was aghast at the scraps and knew there had to be a better way.

Growing up in Chicago, Illinois, Michael spent summers in Maine, where his mother served as a personal chef to the Rockefellers. By 16 years old, he’d found his own place in the kitchen working for Master Chef Bob Brusinski and later completed culinary school at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, California.

The young chef went on to work in notable restaurants in Seattle, Washington, and Chicago before following his now-wife to New Orleans in 2005 and starting a long career at GW Fins. Michael had been the chef at a New Orleans-inspired spot before, but when he stepped foot in the Crescent City, he realized he had plenty more to learn about Cajun and Creole cuisine. Where Michael felt right at home, though, was among the snapper, shrimp, flounder, oysters, and yellowfin tuna. “Seafood, to me, was always the most exciting ingredient to work with,” he says.

When GW Fins began butchering its seafood in-house, it proved to be a major undertaking. You see, most restaurants leave the butchering up to fish houses, and there’s no question why: It’s really hard work. “On any given day, we’re receiving 1,000 pounds of fish,” says Michael. “It’s taking anywhere between eight and 12 hours just to cut the fish for a day’s service.” But to Michael, the process was worth it in the name of sustainability, as he explored different ways to utilize the remnants.

Michael first worked to change butchering techniques at the restaurant “to yield new cuts off the fish from parts that traditionally would not get used,” he says. The first resulting item that debuted on the menu is what he calls the chicken wing of the sea. “It’s a cut from underneath the chin that utilizes the little fin that’s on the bottom of the fish,” Michael says.

“[The Tempura Fin Wings have] a handle so you can pick it up by the fin, and there’s just this perfect amount of meat hanging off the end where you can eat them like chicken wings,” glazed in a sticky Korean-inspired sauce and served over a crispy noodle salad. The restaurant can hardly keep up with the demand these days. They’ve also found ways to utilize the “breast” of a fish, frying it until incredibly crispy to serve as an addictive starter.

But rescuing so-called scraps isn’t all Michael has had up his sleeve during his tenure at GW Fins. A few years ago, he introduced dry-aging fish to the restaurant, a technique used in Japan and in sushi-making, to remove moisture from large, primal cuts of bone-in fish such as yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna, bluefin tuna, and swordfish. The result? After a few weeks, the fish is perfumed with a luxurious umami flavor and boasts a denser texture yet a more tender bite.

“The surprising thing,” Michael says, “is there is no added fishy flavor in any way. In many respects, the meat’s flavor actually becomes milder.” These cuts get cooked (the tuna is seared rare) and are served as bone-in chops. Imagine a tomahawk cut with a protruding rib bone like you’d see in a steakhouse.

Other varieties of fish, such as snapper or tripletail, visit the dry-aging cabinet whole but only stick around for a few days until their skin is dried out so that it cooks up especially crispy. In yet another step toward sustainability, Michael just recently began taking odds and ends from fish butchering and working with the dry ager to create andouille and smoked sausage, mortadella, and other cuts traditionally made with pork and beef to form what they call “sea-cuterie,” a charcuterie board made entirely with seafood.

“Getting people to taste [unusual cuts of fish] and see them and get excited about them is a big opportunity for sustainability where we’re eating a lot more of the fish we already have,” Michael says. Whatever this longtime chef thinks of next, our taste buds are in for a treat.

Try some of Michael’s recipes like this one for Fish Heads in Curry Broth or Whole Grilled Fish with Pineapple-Basil Glaze

5 dishes to try







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