This post comes to us compliments of Beau Vestal. Beau, the chef/owner of New Rivers in Providence, Rhode Island, is a long time Chefs Collaborative member and a recipient of one of this year’s scholarships to our National Summit in Seattle. Thanks Beau for your thoughtful contribution, both here and over the many years you’ve been involved with Chefs Collaborative. 

As a Rhode Islander, and more importantly, a Rhode Islander that makes his living cheffing and owning a restaurant, early June brings one of the most special and important times in our gastronomic and cultural calender: striped bass season.

While the recreational season runs year round in Rhode Island, true fish-o-philes know that the big boys make their way up the Atlantic coast in late spring and early summer, landing right off our shores in droves come June, a pit stop to gorge on our squid, menhaden, and alewives before heading up to Maine and Nova Scotia. The appearance of stripers along our rocky coasts have so much become a symbol of the Rhode Island that, in 2000, our little state officially paid the striper its due and officially made it the state fish.

Fishermen obsess over the morone saxatilis, and its signature 7-8 longitudinal stripes set against shimmering silver skin, in large part to the guile they display in the wild, eluding and frustrating even the most experienced anglers with their aversion to light, love of rocky nooks and crannies, and their almost supernatural sense of vibration, movement, and sound.

Striped bass are also known for their legendary fight, making the relationship between the hunter and the hunted that much more intimate and engaging. I still remember surfcasting for striper off Hazard Rock in Narragansett, at dusk, in mid June, back when I first arrived in Rhode Island, in ‘98. The thrill of the fight and the delicious reward are indelible  in my memory as my single best fishing experience.

In the end, it’s more the fish itself, not the fishing that I so love. The firm, white flesh that seems to taste better with all things summer: corn, tomato, sugar snap peas, zucchini, basil—It’s the versatility of the animal, its ability to fit into any number of cooking applications whether it be lightly charred on the grill, sliced thin for crudo, or pan roasted with crispy skin, or even the trim made into fritters or boudin, the precious cheeks lightly sauteed in brown butter, or the tail sections tossed into a summer chowder. It’s the kitchen workhorse, able to be white tablecloth or clam-shack all at once, and equally as well.

It’s an exciting day at the restaurant when that first of the season striper is on order from one of our local fishermen. The young cooks wait in anticipation for the first big fish they’ve ever seen, let alone worked with. The veterans sharpen and hone their knives, tell tall tales of last year’s biggest fish, and voice plans for this year’s first precious gift.

Waste nothing. It’s about respect. No part unused. This living creature died for our plates. A mentality that also makes good business sense for us. By using the whole fish we can afford to pay the extra cost to the fisherman that fish more responsibly but land fewer fish. It also fosters learning in our kitchen, encouraging our cooks to be clever and creative, to find new ways to use all the parts of the animal and add to our menu. In many ways we see the striper as the ocean equivalent of the pig; so many parts to use with so many different potential applications.

Sure, maybe the same can be said for other fish as well, but none, in this chef’s opinion, reach the delicious heights of the striped bass.

Some Details via Janet L. Coit Director, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management:

  • The early summer commercial season runs (in 2012) from June 6th thru August 31st. Careful record keeping is enforced by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and when quota estimates are reached, the season is closed down. 75% of the estimated yearly quota is filled in this early summer season and the remaining 25% in the ‘second season’ (September 11-December 31)
  • Commercial catch length: 34 inches
  • Commercial catch length for floating traps: 26 inches
  • Commercial catch limits: 5 fish per vessel, per day