On the Job: The New Fulton Fish Market
Sometimes this job is an excellent opportunity to live vicariously. Recently, I spent a couple of nights (or mornings, depending on how you live) at the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx with Joe Catalano, a fish buyer for Eli Zabar and for the B.R. Guest restaurant group (Aqua Grill, Blue Fin, Fiamma, Dos Caminos, etc.).
Catalano's job is to represent those places, and pick out the best fish there is for them in person, rather than letting the purveyor send whatever he wants. For restaurants, this is a fairly recent process and not a widely-filled position, but one that certainly benefits the customer.
Most buyers and sellers I talked to agree that the new facility is infinitely better for the fish than the old one at South Street Seaport, where the product was exposed to the elements -- which in summertime threatened freshness constantly. The new space is enclosed, brightly lit, and just cold enough to see your breath. But still, many of the guys who have worked the market for a long time miss the old digs. A truck driver, puffing on a cigar in the parking lot at 5AM, asked me what I thought of the market, and I said it was pretty cool. "It's not cool," he snapped back. "The old place was cool."
"It was home," Catalano said at one point. The location is one complaint. When the market was downtown, chefs could come by after work to check out the day's catch, but those guys aren't exactly swinging by Hunts Point the way they do the Union Square Farmer's Market. Purveyors, therefore, have lost business. But for the buyers, it seems more nostalgia than anything else. Still, these guys (I encountered exactly one female buyer and zero female sellers) have a good time. The work is pressure-filled and exhausting, but, maybe as a result, the mood is jovial and familiar. Maybe when this writing thing gets old, I'll put on my rain boots and start a second career.
By the way, anyone can go to the market. It's better with a guide like Catalano, but all you have to do is pay $5 to park in the lot, and go crazy. There are supposed to be minimums enforced, but you may be able to work out a deal.