En Garde!

FreshDirect’s co-founder stalks swordfish to its source.

Bursts of orange and amber light over the water signaled sunset. A few feet from us, a deckhand named Wade kneeled in front of the 175-pound swordfish the crew had just winched onto the deck. Wade reached into the man-size fish’s mouth up to his elbow, shifted a bit and tugged hard.

A Hollywood-worthy jet of blood sprayed him across the chest as he casually tossed the still-beating heart at our feet.

“The old guys that used to go swordfishing back in the day, they’d take them hearts, boil ’em in a boiler, slice ’em up and fry ’em in a frying pan. It’s just like liver,” he said matter-of-factly. “Quite the delicacy.” Just another night on the North Atlantic.

Nova Scotia is a two-hour flight from Manhattan, and a world apart. As our small plane began its descent into Halifax, we bobbed in and out of the fog that would reappear throughout the coming week, a phantom reminder of the sea, a constant presence in the fabric of life here. The South Shore of Nova Scotia is a land of winding roads and rocky shorelines peppered with lighthouses and little fishing towns. Dense greenery seemed eager to reclaim the asphalt runway. Marshland lapped at the edges of the tarmac as we landed in a world where man is but a bit player on the sea’s great stage.

I’d come with David McInerney, co-founder of FreshDirect; Jeff Ludwin, FreshDirect’s head meat and seafood merchant; and videographer Chad Heird, in search of swordfish and a story. The objective of this trip was twofold: First, to build business relationships directly with the fishermen and brokers whose catch ends up at FreshDirect’s Long Island City warehouse and ultimately many tri-state kitchen counters. By going to the source, McInerney positions himself at the start of the line. Products like harpoon-caught swordfish are in such limited supply and under such high demand that he wants to be the merchant at the front of the Rolodex.

But they had also come for something more abstract: a chance for an ingredients-obsessed crew to better understand one of the foods they sell to story-hungry customers, all the way back to how it lived and died.

“As retailers, we need to be doing more than just buying, so that’s why we came to Nova Scotia,” McInerney said. “I want to get to know the guys and then understand not just the fish and how they’re caught but the people catching them, how they live, how they think about fishing, and then that’s the story that we pass on to customers. That’s what gets them excited.”

There are a lot of fish in the sea, but McInerney had started buying Nova Scotia swordfish from a Massachusetts broker in July and was instantly hooked.

“I was floored,” McInerney said. “This is by far the best fish I’ve ever had. Period.” And so it was that we found ourselves, just a few weeks later, squinting into the fog.

An apex predator—with only man and killer whales able to take them down—the swordfish is a svelte killing machine. They grow to 10 feet in length, and are some of the fastest fish in the sea. The long bill, or “sword,” one-third the length of its body, is treacherously sharp, akin to a ninja’s katana blade, and used as a slashing tool. Dive-bombing schools of fish at up to 60 miles per hour, they shred their prey. Vicious fighters, they’ve been hunted with harpoons since ancient times and, in the days of wooden boats, were sometimes reported to drive their swords through the planks of the hull, piercing men straight through like kebab skewers.

But their own flesh is also popular on kebab skewers, and even more so as steak. If tuna is the chicken of the sea, swordfish is the filet mignon. FreshDirect sells it for $20 a pound.

By following the chain of suppliers back to the source, McInerney and Ludwin were traveling a well-worn path of the merchant retailer, like those who journeyed the Silk Road millennia ago. We just happened to be doing it in a sleek black rental car with temperature controls no one could figure out how to operate. And as we bumbled with technology inside the vehicle, the layers of modernity were dissolving away in the landscape outside our windows.

FreshDirect, whose 2002 launch made grocery shopping easier than ordering in pad Thai, has expanded delivery beyond the boroughs to greater New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and now Philadelphia, but while their business model is decidedly post-modern, many of their monied customers want to click on foods grown and caught the old-fashioned way. McInerney—a former chef who in his 20s worked in Burgundy, France, under renowned chef Bernard Loiseau at his Michelin three-star restaurant, La Côte d’Or, and later in New York under David Bouley— has made it his mission to scour the world to find eco-friendly producers, give their products a platform and, in so doing, get a leg up on his competition.

At a recent TEDx talk, he described the time he spends on the road this way: “I’m working with some of the most interesting and inspiring food experts—farmers, ranchers and fishermen—people catching and growing the food we eat. Spending real time with them, on their land and on their boats, trying to learn how they do what they do and understand their challenges. There are some amazing farmers out there now that are growing really high-quality food, responsibly, but you don’t know them, and how could you? They’re not food celebrities. They don’t have shows on the Food Network. But they should. These are people that should be inspiring us about food.”

He said that if customers learn where their food comes from, they’ll move away from industrialized operations and toward better alternatives. And when demand supports economy of scale, more farmers, fishermen and ranchers can make a good living.

Over the last couple of years, McInerney has spent more and more time on the road. His passport reads like that of a player in a Carmen Sandiego game: Wales for lamb, Scotland for beef, Ecuador for bananas, Argentina for shrimp, Chile for salmon and, domestically, to California for stone fruit, Arizona for melons, Vermont for beef, Massachusetts for Nantucket Bay scallops, Alaska for wild salmon and Maine for tomatoes, plus upstate New York for pastured pork and Long Island for duck, to name a few.

As for seafood, Ludwin said it makes up 3 percent of company sales, grossing $13 million on about 1.5 million pounds of seafood a year. “Our approach,” he said, “is always to source fresh product directly from fishermen that we have visited and developed trusting relationships with.”

They know their customers don’t just want value, they also want values. “Our objective at FreshDirect,” McInerney said, “is to eventually get to a place where all of our fish is deemed sustainable.”

But sustainable seafood is tricky, including questions not just about overfishing, but also about catch methods and mercury levels. In terms of the first, Atlantic swordfish is a tale of rebound. Back in the late 1990s, its population had been nearly done in by its popularity on the plate. But after conservation and new regulation—including then-President Bill Clinton calling for a ban on the sale and import of swordfish—the North Atlantic population has surged and is now at 5 percent above the target level.

Still, eating swordfish is problematic for another reason: It’s usually caught by longline, where a single boat trails 30 miles of line, carrying upward of 1,000 hooks—inadvertently catching other sea creatures such as sharks and sea turtles, collateral damage known as “bycatch.” The good news is that a few commercial fishermen catch swordfish the very old-fashioned way: using harpoons. This targeted method harvests each creature individually, allowing the ecological ideal: zero bycatch.

Ten percent of the Nova Scotia swordfish catch is by harpoon, and in 2010 that harpoon fleet was the first swordfish fishery to be certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. This quickly lured retailers like Whole Foods and FreshDirect.

But the animals winter in the warm waters off South America and spawn in the Caribbean each spring, so harpoon-swordfishing season here in Nova Scotia is short, often running only a few weeks. A limited supply means a limited amount of vendors, and McInerney and Ludwin want to be at the top of the list. That requires some good old-fashioned face-to-face relationship building.

Brothers Almond and Corey Mood, a rather salty pair of seafood brokers whose dad founded Mood Fisheries in 1970, took over the family business 20 years ago. In addition to buying and selling lobster six months out of the year, they focus on swordfish. Almond Mood, an ever-present toothpick in his mouth, was amused and dismissive that lily-livered New Yorkers were interested in going out on a swordfish boat and riding a full 12 hours just to get to the fishing grounds. But McInerney, who interweaves humor and straightforwardness to form bonds, assured them he was there to get the real story of what they do, and that the only way for him to truly understand their operation was if he himself went out to sea.

Lower Woods Harbour, 8:00 p.m.: We boarded the 54-foot Crustacean Frustration, piloted by Dev Dixon, an affable 34-year-old with a quick smile and an even quicker cadence (the accent spoken in the maritimes of Nova Scotia is a mish-mash of Irish, Scottish and Canadian influences). Living on a steady diet of junk food, energy drinks and cigarettes, the four-man crew’s jovial nature belied the dangers of the job. Six commercial fishermen lost their lives in this area in the last six months, but laughter filled the boat as we steamed at 10 knots into the darkness, headed southwest toward Georges Bank. Our cramped sleeping quarters consisted of bunks stacked three-high, our gear taking up what little floor space remained. By morning, we met blue skies, sunshine and the full majesty of the open ocean.

Having completed their Caribbean spawning in May and June, Atlantic swordfish follow the edge of the continental shelf up the East Coast, putting them nearly 100 miles from the Nova Scotia shore by July. After motoring so far out to meet them—a trip that costs $3,000 in fuel alone—fishing crews typically stay out for 10 days, stockpiling their catch on ice in the hold before heading back to shore.

McInerney chatted with each of the boatmen and was eventually rewarded with openness; what may have initially been perceived as suspicion slowly evolved into connection. From discussing fishing techniques to life in their small towns, they spoke about their role in the industry.

“It’s good to let your customers know that we’re trying to make a living, too, right?” Dixon said. “It actually starts here. When it comes right down to it, it all starts right here.”

But before we could harpoon a swordfish, we had to find one. The crew scaled the ladders and took their seats on the platforms, Dixon operating a set of controls allowing him to steer the boat from high above the deck, and we trolled for hours, scanning the seas for signs of swordfish, each man tasked with watching a particular section of ocean for dorsal fins sticking above water like Roy Scheider in Jaws.

When a voice finally ripped through the calm—“swooorrrrdfisssh!”—the men snapped to attention. Like a spider monkey that had traversed the same tree branches all its life, Dixon descended from the scaffolding with such speed I thought he was going to launch himself into the great blue. He reappeared and shot out the plank, sneaker over sneaker, until he came to the bucket at its end, and jumped into his killing perch. As he took up his 12-foot pike, he shouted an indecipherable command and, using his whole arm, gestured off to the right.

The boat’s throttle opened, and our fair vessel picked up steam. Dixon, clearly now with a visual lock on the fin, continued to shout and guide the driver above with hand movements, moving in for the kill.

The tricky thing about approaching a “finning” sword is the direction at which the boat comes upon its prey. The driver made a wide arc and then realigned our approach, angling so the sun was at our back, essentially blinding the lounging fish from seeing the hulking vessel headed straight for it. Like a sniper relaxing into his shooting posture, Dixon lifted his back hand high up, adjusting himself to see directly down the shaft of his harpoon as one does a high-powered scope.

At the last second, I saw the swordfish, its body bright silver in the sun. Dixon launched his pike down, clean through the fish, and quickly pulled it back up, the long rope tied to its tip now starting to spool out from the aft of the boat as the fish plunged in vain to escape its fate. Dixon turned to the men still sitting high in their skyboxes and shouted like a victorious gladiator. All their work had just been rewarded. They had their first fish on the line, and hard-earned money in the bank.

Suspended about 50 feet below the surface, the speared swordfish soon expired. At the end of the rig is a massive bobber with a radar beacon so the fishermen can continue their hunt and come back for their catch five or six hours later. Once brought aboard, the massive creature was laid on the deck and the crew set to cleaning it. McInerney eagerly watched every step of this process, at times almost getting in the fishermen’s way. He was fascinated by the fish’s sheer size, even lying down on the deck next to it; he’s well over six feet tall but it surpassed him in length.

Combining brute strength and surgical precision, the crew sawed off the fish’s head, then each of the fins. Next they split the fish up its center, threw the guts overboard and packed the cleaned carcass on ice in the ship’s hold.

McInerney is intrigued that they’re never frozen—even though the ship is at sea well over a week. Information like this drives his buying. “In terms of sourcing, I want to figure out how I can get the very best fish. I want the last swordfish caught on the last day of the trip because it’s the freshest. This is what makes us different.”

Days later, back on land, a refrigerated trailer truck pulled in to take the haul of immense fish, many approaching 200 pounds, to market. By morning they would be in Boston, quickly followed by New York. The swordfish arrived whole at FreshDirect, where their butchers would portion it into over a hundred 6- to 12-ounce steaks, to be packed into boxes and delivered to customers’ kitchens all over town.

Meanwhile, McInerney would be on his way to visit grassfed beef ranchers in Virginia and shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico. But first, he had a meeting with Mood.

McInerney may go all over the world visiting exotic places, but at the end of each trip his goal is to come together for a good old-fashioned handshake.

Unlike their first conversation, the men now had common ground, and it was time to do business. Corey Mood said a number of retailers have made the trek up to Nova Scotia to meet him personally, but “none of them went out on the boats like Dave.” That’s cred that can only be earned.

What’s it like to harpoon a swordfish? Let us tell you.

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