Food & Drink

Big Fish

Steve Vilnit keeps the bay afloat with a program for the Department of Natural Resources.

On a late summer’s morning, the Solomons Island dock seems pulled from a postcard. Cotton-candy cumulus clouds float across the cerulean sky. Below them, the public dock stretches to meet the 52-foot fishing charter boat Sawyer, a tiny ship in the Chesapeake’s great, blue bottle. On the deck stands Steve Vilnit, slim and compact with a tight buzz-cut. It’s a picture-perfect tableau, its only incongruity a group of landlubber chefs and restaurant workers lumbering down the dock in their cargo pants, their faces filled with confused wonder. It seems a certainty that one or all of them will miss a step and stumble into the water, but Vilnit extends a smile and a ropey arm and, bracing one foot against the boat’s gunnel, helps pull them safely aboard.

Helping chefs board boats has become a big part of Vilnit’s job. Three years ago, Vilnit started organizing chef trips on the Chesapeake, and since that time he’s taken more than 700 chefs out on the water. You see, he’s trying to save the bay and, strange as it may sound, convincing people to eat its fish is the best way he’s found to do it.

Vilnit graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in marine affairs and a goal of helping the waters he loved, but after college he found himself working for a seafood wholesaler. It was a good job, but it just didn’t feel right. “I went to school to save live fish,” he says, “and I [was] selling dead ones.” So four years ago, he went to work with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). As the DNR’s fisheries marketing director, it’s his job to protect Maryland fisheries and the watermen who work them.

There is a profound symbiosis between Marylanders and the bay. Just look at a map and you’ll see the Chesapeake is its center, but it also forms the foundation of our local culture. The town of Crisfield, the Annapolis City Dock, and the Inner Harbor were built, literally, on oyster shells, the squandered bounty of Maryland’s once-thriving seafood industry. True, rockfish, crabs, and oyster populations are far below what they once were, but seafood remains a $50-million Maryland industry. About 5,500 Maryland watermen still work the bay, while untold more fix their boats, pick their crabs, shuck their oysters, and drive the trucks that deliver their product to market. The bay remains one of the state’s top employers.

For Vilnit, the best way to protect those jobs and those centuries-old traditions is to sell Maryland seafood and convince industry insiders that buying local is important. So, inspired by the farm-to-table movement, he created True Blue, a program that certifies and labels restaurants serving Maryland blue crab.

True Blue makes it easy for consumers to buy local: Just check the website for a list of True Blue-certified restaurants and retailers or go to its map to find the nearest certified Maryland crab. According to Jack Brooks, owner of the 124-year-old J.M. Clayton Company, Maryland’s oldest crab-picking house and a frequent stop on Vilnit’s itinerary, the program is working. “The True Blue program has been just phenomenal for the Maryland seafood industry and watermen,” says Brooks, whose great-great grandfather opened Clayton in 1890. “There’s been an increase in sales, more demand. It’s certainly been a big boost to the local economy. It’s just been a win-win for the watermen and for the processors and restaurants, too.”

“The True Blue Program has been just phenomenal for the Maryland seafood industry . . .”

Buoyed by True Blue’s success, Vilnit launched the Maryland Oyster Pledge, a similar program promoting local, sustainable oyster farming or “aquaculture,” as it’s known in industry parlance. Vilnit even helped launch invasive-species cook-offs to help control snakehead and blue catfish populations. His work promoting the non-native, yet delicious, fish has helped create a commercial market for the pests, which helps control their spread while providing a boost to struggling watermen.

Of course, Vilnit realized these programs weren’t enough on their own. Restaurants operate on razor-thin margins, so convincing chefs and restaurateurs to buy Maryland crab instead of its cheap Chinese and Indonesian rivals is an uphill battle. Vilnit believed that if he could get chefs out on the water, have them meet the people who catch the fish, who harvest the oysters, who pick and pack the crab, then he could win them over—so he began taking chefs out on the bay.

When he launched the program in 2011, it was a small operation. Vilnit would take three or four chefs out for a day a few times a month, but the program has become wildly popular. Now, during the summer months, the bay advocate goes out on trips twice a week with 35 or 40 passengers from the industry. Some of Baltimore’s top local chefs have been converts. Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, John Shields of Gertrude’s, Patrick Morrow of Ryleigh’s Oyster, and Chad Wells of Alewife, for instance, have been so inspired by the trips, they’ve taken their cooks and servers along for the ride.

As she glides from the dock, the Sawyer is packed as full as a fisherman’s net with salespeople from local seafood distributors such as J.J. McDonnell’s along with food bloggers, salespeople, chefs, servers, and even dishwashers. They are eager with anticipation as the Sawyer threads her way between pylons and buoys, past the rows of yachts and pleasure boats and elegant birds that rise from their nests to see her off into the bay beyond. As the restaurants and mansions of Solomons shrink astern, the southern horizon grows, stretching wide as the Sawyer makes her way into the heart of the Chesapeake, bound for Hooper’s Island.

Along the way, chefs line the port side snapping photos as the Sawyer eases down a line of crab pots. The Barbara Jean, a traditional Maryland workboat, trolls the line. The captain is an old man with sun-battered skin as tough and loose as a heap of old sailcloth. He pulls and sorts the pots by hand, tossing the little crabs back in the hopes he’ll meet them again once they’ve matured. His first mate, a seagull as big as a Thanksgiving turkey, sits silently on the roof and stares back at the chefs who are beginning to understand what Maryland seafood means. Here, the bay works for a living.

Twenty-five miles and a world away from the Solomons dock, the Sawyer pulls into Hooper’s harbor. There are no pleasure boats when she ties up at the pier, just an old Mack truck, its box painted with a fading crab and the words, “W.T. Ruark & Co. Fishing Creek MD.” Established in 1948, it’s one of Maryland’s 22 remaining crab-picking houses. Up until now, the trip has been a pleasant diversion from the rigors of the restaurant industry. But when the chefs file into the packing room, all of that changes.

In the picking room, a hush falls over the chefs like acolytes in a cathedral.

The smell in the packing room at W.T. Ruark & Co isn’t quite the scent of the sea. It’s the smell of the Chesapeake herself, her heart and her soul. It’s a cold smell that hits high in the nose, it’s clean and sweet, it moves the blood quicker to your heart. Maryland crabmeat is like none other in the world: Even fresh, the doughy Asian crab can’t compare. Though the blue crab ranges from Nova Scotia to Argentina, Maryland’s crabs have the edge for taste and texture. Unlike their cousins from warmer climes, Chesapeake crabs hibernate, giving them a layer of fat that gives their meat its buttery flavor and golden hue. Most blue crabs live in the Atlantic, but Maryland’s blues are sweetened by the bay’s fresh water. And many of Maryland’s picking houses still steam their crabs and pick them by hand. A steamed crab’s meat is firm and flavorful when compared with the boiled mess you get from other states. In the picking room, a hush falls over the chefs like acolytes in a cathedral. Their silence matches that of the pickers hard at work.

Twenty-five pickers work five to a table. Before them sit mountains of freshly steamed crabs free of seasoning. A good picker can pick about 50 to 60 pounds of lump crabmeat in a day. With just a few quick cuts of their knives they open each crab, cutting out six perfect back-fin lumps and two succulent jumbos, toss the claws into a bucket, and move onto the next. “Everybody here has picked a crab,” Vilnit says, gesturing to the chefs, all mesmerized by the picker’s speed. “None of them has done it in 12 seconds.”

The experience sinks in for the chefs. “You have people tell their stories who have been there for 60 years, who pick these crabs by hand, and they’re rocket [fast],” says Wells. The chef has always preferred the distinct flavors of Maryland seafood, but the trips have brought him something more. “This is going to sound strange, but it helped [give] ingredients personality,” he says. “I don’t often leave my kitchen and say, ‘Oh man, I got killer lettuce,’” he says, “but when you see [the crab pickers], you’ll talk about [it] for days.”

Gjerde agrees. “Going out on the trips confirms that we’re doing the right thing,” he says. “We want to help these guys as much as possible. If we lose these last few crab-picking shacks, we’ve lost a lot. If that thread ever snaps, it’s going to be hard to bring it back.” But none of it matters if it doesn’t taste good. Luckily, the Chesapeake delivers. “There’s zero question in my mind that Maryland blue crab is the best,” Gjerde adds.

After experiencing that slice of the past, the chefs cross the little harbor to tour Hooper’s Island Aquaculture, where Chesapeake tradition and the bay’s future mingle. Johnny Shockley, a third-generation Hooper’s Island waterman, saw the way the bay was headed and, with his son, a fourth-generation islander and a marine biologist, began farming Maryland oysters. The gleaming facility is full of sterile tanks and bubbling machines, many designed and built on site by Shockley to raise oysters with mind-boggling precision. The microscopic seeds are started in tanks with perfect levels of minerals and ideal temperatures, and then planted in the bay to continue to grow, and absorb the flavors of the water. The grown oysters, luscious and ready to shuck, are returned to finish growing in tanks where salinity can be controlled to tolerances measured in parts per thousand. “[After] every trip, I get new orders the next day,” Shockley says with pride.

And in the end, that is why Vilnit is out here. The Maryland watermen who work the bay, like the Chesapeake herself, are struggling for survival. “These guys have a really tough job,” he says. “I’m promoting an industry that’s sustainable, that’s local, that’s bringing jobs back to the state. You may not care if the crabmeat you’re eating is local, but these guys out on the water? They’re the ones who get hurt.”

On the trip back to Solomons, Dave Schauber, the Sawyer’s captain, looks out over the deceptively calm waters. “There used to be 20 picking houses on Hooper’s Island, now there are six,” he says. “The watermen are the ones who are taking it on the chin. All these guys, we’re in the same boat. We’re struggling. You gotta buy Maryland.”