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