The fish butcher
February 25th, 2011
12:45 PM ET
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Justo Thomas is a symphony conductor.

His music: seldom heard. His stage: a sterile ten by five foot white-tiled room. The temperature: as cold as the fluorescent lighting above.

“Nobody comes down here. All this space is mine. Nobody comes in here,” says Thomas.

Here is the basement of Le Bernardin, arguably the best seafood restaurant in New York and most likely the country. Thomas, its fish butcher chef, has been “performing” at this three Michelin-star restaurant for seven years.

In the tucked away area, there’s a continual rhythm of sharp clings followed by loud thumps and wistful rings. But Thomas’s instruments do not include strings, percussion, or woodwinds. His are a half-dozen German-made steel knives.

“You see here? You put the knife at ninety degrees,” instructs Thomas, as he slices the pale-pinkish flesh of a 50-lbs. halibut from its white underbelly. “Separate the meat from the skin. You see? This is the bone. Have to make sure no bone. It has to be nice and clean…perfect.”

His hands, hidden under yellow kitchen gloves, have orchestrated these moves thousands of times over.

“Fridays, I do a thousand pounds… regular days, six or seven hundred. We use like twelve or thirteen kinds of different fish, but the thing is we have the same fish everyday,” says Thomas, now standing over one of many skate wings he must fillet into equal portions. “I know each fish in here. I know the body.”

The list of species that arrive fresh into this maestro’s domain includes salmon, black and red snappers, halibut, turbot, white tuna, hiramasa, monkfish, codfish, fluke, skate, and the fish he dreads dealing with the most.

“Black sea bass. Hate that one,” says Thomas without thinking. “When I come in, I check the ordering sheet. The first thing I look for is black sea bass. When I see how much is coming, I say ‘oh no.’”

As luck would have it, the sea bass is one of the more popular items on the menu. And the more portions that leave the kitchen during service means more time Thomas spends with his fishy nemesis.

“Each piece of black sea bass is only good enough for two people or sometimes one. If you need a hundred pounds every day, you have to make like 50 fish every day.”

Unlike halibut or tuna, which are bigger and fairly clean of bones, the sea bass poses several challenges for the native Dominican, now US citizen.

“You have to remove the scales. You have to remove the bones, make sure there are no bones, and then portion it. It’s a long process.”

The day we visited, Thomas did not save the black sea bass for the end of his shift (as he usually does). He wanted it done and out of the way before we arrived - something I’m sure was not easy for a man who is very strict to his routine.

Every morning, he first covers his workspace ceiling to floor with plastic wrap - a major time saver when it comes to cleanup at the end of his day. He then checks all the delivered fish for quality and freshness before he begins his symphony of slicing, filleting and portioning of each fish.

“He’s definitely essential,” says Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin’s executive chef - world renowned for his culinary excellence. “You need someone that is very knowledgeable to accept the fish, because sometime in the delivery, you have seafood that is not to our quality standard and so we need an expert.”

And when it comes to being an expert fish butcher, Ripert knows he has the absolute best in the business. “Very often I pass by and stop and watch him. Even the cooks look at him and are very inspired to see how precise and focused he is and how clean and organized he is.”

“One thing I like is to work very clean,” adds Thomas. “You see, the fish have to be in the same order, the same position. Have to be organized.”

With each cut or crop, Thomas’s hands instinctively glide along the countertop as if he was conducting his own musical masterpiece: drop, slice, rotate, crop, lift, set, wipe, wash, grab, drop and slice.

“He’s like a machine,” says Ripert. “But for him, it’s a very relaxing process and he’s a very peaceful man.”

A peaceful man who likes his stage quiet, but for the sounds of the cold steel in his hands.

“I like working in silence. That music is breaking my concentration. I like to think about work when I do it. If I start listening to some music, I make mistakes. One thing I don’t like is complaints. That’s why I do it the best I can.”

And during his time at Le Bernardin, Justo Thomas’s best has left very few complaining.

With additional interviewing by Sarah LeTrent

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Filed under: Eric Ripert • New York • Think • Travel • Video


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soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. EB

    I don't know if I would say he was "surprised" on the Top Chef episode. He seems like a very peaceful man and it almost seemed he hesitated and was being nice and giving some slack ( many seem to jump at the chance to berate the contestants ). Reading the article, seeing this video of him in action; I doubt the top chefs would be getting 0 complaints from guests, let alone the kitchen :). I'm not taking anything away from them, but the way this guy goes about his craft; I def wouldn't relegate him to "replaceable". Fantastic article.

    March 24, 2011 at 2:49 am | Reply
  2. Ant from MD

    Cleaning eight hundred to a thousand pounds of fishing daily and portioning that is alot of hard work. That guy is worth his weight in gold at that place

    March 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  3. Shmeat too

    This fish qualifies as shmeat too, as one of the commenters points out here: NOSHMEAT.COM

    February 27, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  4. Jim

    Strange conflict – No plastic in the picture or the video...

    "Every morning, he first covers his workspace ceiling to floor with plastic wrap – a major time saver when it comes to cleanup at the end of his day."

    February 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
    • Heather Jeane

      I wondered that too. I came to the conclusion that he must have left it off that day for the special occasion, in much the same way as the plastic covers were meant to come off sofas for company. (Old ladies and their plastic covers were a great source of amusement for me)

      February 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply
      • Jeremy Harlan

        Justo wanted it to look clean for us that day. I was hoping to see it wrapped in plastic..adds to the coolness of it.

        February 28, 2011 at 10:43 am | Reply
  5. bill

    sorry jeremy h. now that i took a closer look at the video i did mistake the hiramasa kingfish for a salmon. the skin of a fresh hiramasa has the look of a late run salmon agian sorry about that.

    February 26, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
    • Jeremy H.

      No worries....before I went in there, I had never even heard of a hiramasa. I think Justo had finished the salmon by the time we got there.

      February 26, 2011 at 11:22 am | Reply
  6. BTo

    Justo was featured in an episode of this season's "Top Chef" (on Bravo). The contestants were challenged to bone fish of various types, scale and portion them, and then Justo went to each station to assess the job done. Surprised a little that so many pro chefs did such a rough job, even if they did only have, like, 8 minutes (and TC claimed it takes Justo 10 to do the same job w/ same size/type of fish).

    Neat to see him featured on Eatocracy!

    February 26, 2011 at 9:35 am | Reply
    • A

      I remember seeing him on 'Top Chef: All-Stars' as well. I remember thinking to myself 'What a shame. It seems so typical to have someone like him, and of his talent, to be remanded to a basement where no one will be able to realize his talent and expertise.' I'm glad he was featured so that culinary America can finally know who he is.

      February 28, 2011 at 12:35 am | Reply
  7. bill

    i work in the seafood industry and this person is good ,but i noticed in the video the salmon was not no.1 grade a no. 2 to no.3 closer to a no.3

    February 26, 2011 at 5:22 am | Reply
    • Jeremy H.

      The fish we showed in the video were hiramasa, halibut, skate, and either turbot or fluke (I always get the two of those mixed up).

      February 26, 2011 at 7:23 am | Reply
    • what

      You work in the sea food industry but don't know what salmon looks like?

      February 26, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • dc

      Um...that's not salmon bro.

      Ripert is a freakin' genius, but Justo's a big reason why his genius comes through on the plate.

      April 7, 2011 at 8:02 am | Reply
    • Justin Beiber

      Let me sing a little ditty for ya' and all will be well. Lala fa lala fala!

      April 7, 2011 at 8:08 am | Reply
      • Rebecca Black

        Should I eat the salmon or should I eat the Filet O Fish? Justin, help me I don't know which to choose!

        April 7, 2011 at 8:12 am | Reply
  8. chef cal

    nice story, its good that they showed people that fish doesnt come all clean and ready to serve and that alot of work goes into the preperation prior to it even being cooked.

    February 26, 2011 at 2:31 am | Reply
  9. Justina

    Governments haven't ban seafood to protect the ocean yet?

    February 26, 2011 at 2:03 am | Reply
  10. r

    I do not know why people like sea bass. And I like my fish raw.

    February 25, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
    • what

      Did you post that just to let people know you're an idiot?

      February 26, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Reply
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        Don't be a hater.

        February 28, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Reply
  11. Shane

    I read Anthony Bourdain's chapter on Justo in his latest book ("Medium Raw") but to see the video of the man in action? Wow. Look closely at his hands and cutting strokes. Absolutely no wasted motion.
    Would've loved to see video of him removing the pin bones from salmon.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  12. Jdizzle McHammerpants

    One thing I found working with fish on a commercial level in Alaska was that your hands get cold and numb after a while. Of course, this was on a fishing boat. We didn't wear rubber gloves, but ones made of cloth. Salmon are slimy and rubber gloves are a guaranteed way to ensure a hard time gripping them. Working in the fishing industry rules.

    February 25, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
    • Evil Grin

      Interesting perspective. Does it make you appreciate eating the fish more?

      I have to admit I've not yet ever prepared a whole fish, nor am I precisely sure how. I will have to learn. Maybe I'll start with some anchovies or sardines.

      February 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Reply
      • Jdizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

        I just love to fish (when they're being caught) on any level. Not a fan of eating it, though. Whitefish only, generally. Our biggest buyers were companies out of Japan. Specifically for the roe.

        February 25, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Reply
      • Evil Grin

        Makes sense. The Japanese eat a LOT of fish.

        I'm not a fan of very fishy tasting fish – an opinion many people seem to share. Which is probably why we are rapidly depleting the stock of large, meaty fishes, and not eating enough of the tiny fishy fishes.

        February 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Reply

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