Bumping along a dirt road in the bed of a pick-up truck at Passmore Ranch, Michael Passmore told a group of Bon Appétit Management Company chefs and managers that “too many fish farms look like factories, and they suck.” Passmore Ranch, a Bon Appétit Farm to Fork supplier of sustainably-farmed trout, sturgeon, and catfish, couldn’t be farther from the factory-suck model often associated with aquaculture. Located in the rolling Sierra foothills of Sloughhouse, CA, Passmore Ranch raises its freshwater fish in a series of landlocked ponds, or what is known in the aquaculture industry as a ‘closed loop system’.
Earlier that Saturday morning, upwards of 40 sleepy-eyed chefs and managers from various Bon Appétit Northern California accounts had stumbled out of a bus in front of ranch proprietors Michael and Vandy Passmore’s imposing White House, ready to tackle the day’s activities of wading into ponds in pursuit of catfish eggs, touring the ranch’s nearly 90 acres, and preparing a smorgasbord of menu items featuring products from a variety of Bon Appétit Farm to Fork vendors. The day commenced with a talk about safety, prefaced by asking our regional VP to cover his ears while the primary mode of ranch transport – riding in the bed of a pick-up truck – was discussed, and a variety of cold beverages were offered and enjoyed.
Ever the consummate host, Michael Passmore advised the chefs that they were welcome to cook whatever they caught, found, or otherwise captured at the ranch. Soon enough, courageous chefs were clamoring to don oversized waders and accompany Passmore Ranch’s ‘fish whisperer’ down to the pond to stick their entire arms into waterlogged urns to, if they were lucky, find fertilized catfish eggs, and, if they were unlucky, find the whiskered fertilizer himself. I stayed close to the water’s edge with my camera, hoping with every bone in my body that one of our chefs would encounter a mean-looking catfish and display a moment of weakness (or at least fall back into the water). I had to settle for a different, exciting discovery: a whole clutch of catfish eggs that were transferred into an ice chest and carefully transported to the hatchery.
After visiting the hatchery and its hundreds of thousands of catfish spawn, we jumped back into the trucks to start the day’s cooking competition, in which half the chefs were assigned to ‘team beef’ and the other, predictably, to ‘team fish’. Relying on grass-fed beef from Lucky Dog Ranch, sturgeon, trout, and catfish from Passmore Ranch, and other graciously-donated items including California Olive Ranch Olive Oil, Rural Returns heirloom red rice, A Tavola Together focaccia mix, and SF Specialty’s local produce, the chefs had an abundance of quality ingredients at their disposal.
As always, I stayed close to the action to pick up new cooking tips and ideas. Although at first concerned by the sight of two chefs ripping branches from a nearby fir tree, I quickly became enamored of their plan to smoke corn on the cob and sturgeon filets on a bed of harvested branches. Later, when the smoky sturgeon filets were topped with a tart compote of lightly-sweetened boysenberries and shallots, I was completely sold. Inside, other chefs tried their hand at smoking meat in the oven. Inside. When visibility decreased to about five feet and a number of us ran out of the room with teary eyes, I think we all learned a lesson about the proper places to smoke food. These are places that are not inside.
Back outside in the hot, fresh air, I curiously watched a chef mixing together granola, strawberries, balsamic vinegar, and Pt. Reyes blue cheese. I would have eaten the mixture with a spoon, but before I could assert my need to do some quality control, the mixture was strewn atop a thinly-sliced skirt steak. Say what? I say it was delicious. As the smoke cleared in the kitchen, I returned just in time to see a chef adding Red Hook beer and focaccia mix to a batter for what would ultimately be a shatteringly-crisp fried catfish with an herbaceous remoulade. Trout skin was similarly fried and tucked into sushi rolls, while sturgeon was sliced ultra-thin and hit with a little citrus for a sashimi unlike any I’d ever tried.
After we cleaned up after our meal and half-jokingly tried to get one another to fall into the pool (Michael had promised a cash reward to anyone who ‘encouraged’ a friend or coworker to take an unplanned dip), everyone loaded back into the bus for a sleepy and air-conditioned ride home. Many thanks to Michael and Vandy Passmore, and their staff, for hosting a great Chefs’ Exchange trip!