FEATURE: Fish out of Water

By on February 2, 2016

How a Hawaiian transplant is bringing his marine mojo to Wyoming.

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Jackson, WY — A windowless white Ford Econoline van pulls up to a restaurant and a man donning sunglasses with shoulder length blonde hair steps out of the driver’s seat. Another man in a chef coat approaches the van and gives the man a handshake and a hug. The two make their way to the back of the van as the driver, with a hint of surfer swagger, eagerly pops open the rear doors to show off his wares to the chef. The two survey the products with wide eyes like those of both a kid on Christmas morning and a drug addict about to score his fix. They giggle as they sample the goods, letting out groans of hedonistic pleasure. As they finalize the deal, they high five and exchange words of appreciation as the product is weighed and handed over. The men shoot the shit for a while longer, the van doors slam shut, and the enigmatic salesman is on his way.

The word “fishmonger” has all but disappeared from the American vernacular. Today such folks make their living solely on the fishing dock markets of coastal cities. This is particularly true in land-locked Wyoming, where most people buy fish at grocery stores or enjoy it at restaurants. That is, until The Captain came to town.

The Captain has decided to bring his passion for fish to life in Jackson, importing the best fish the Pacific has to offer. With his wealth of connections and unparalleled knowledge of fish, the Jackson Hole community now has access to better fish than most coastal cities around the world.

Living up to a Legacy

Jacques Pillons, a.k.a. The Captain, moved to Jackson Hole from Hawaii last July. He will be the first to tell you that his move felt like that of the Clampetts moving to Beverly Hills, and he still feels out of place to an extent. In Hawaii he fished, dove, surfed, and set foot on the island only to rest his head at night. He lived and breathed the ocean. It was all he knew. The Captain got his apropos nickname during his time as a fishing boat captain off the coasts of Hawaii and California.

Pillons, whose father hailed from Belgium and mother from Southern California, where he was born, was destined for a life on the ocean, right out of the womb.

When The Captain was born, Pillons’ father was just getting into competitive spear fishing and ultimately started the Blue Fin Dive Club, a renowned underwater hunting club. Since Pillons’ father was on the cutting edge of diving, and his great grandfather was named Jack, his parents decided to name him after the pioneer of diving and sea exploration: Jacques Cousteau.

While living in Hawaii, Pillons fell in love with a girl named Gracie who was attending the University of Hawaii and just so happened to be from Jackson Hole. The couple got married and Gracie got pregnant, eventually deciding that her hometown was a more suitable place to raise a child than Oahu, Hawaii.

“I had never been away from the ocean a day in my life before coming to Wyoming,” Pillons declared, his sun kissed locks resting on his shoulders. Not only was his move to the mountains a huge culture and climate shock, The Captain had no idea what to do for work. Everything he knew how to do to live and make money was on the ocean.

The Captain’s father-in-law was the true catalyst in getting him to bring his passion for fish to Jackson. It all started Christmas 2014 during Pillons’ first journey to Wyoming. He came to visit his wife’s family for the holidays and decided to put a whole tuna on ice in his checked luggage as a gift.

“I did the whole show of cutting the tuna and giving my family bites of the raw fish,” Pillons said. “Everyone at the Christmas party was amazed and told me I had to bring more fish to Jackson, especially my father in law. I didn’t think anything of these comments until I moved here, just when I thought I had said goodbye to it all.”

(Photo: Sargent Schutt)

The Captain, a.k.a. Jacques Pillons, during his Hawaii tenure.

Gracie’s father never forgot that Christmas. While he shipped his family some fish in the brief months between Christmas and his move to Jackson, Pillons had yet to consider it a potential career until his father-in-law approached him while he was struggling to find work in the mountains.

The Captain toyed with the idea, and bounced it off some of his fishermen buddies as he sought their moral support. At the time he was looking to his friends to help ease the stress of a drastic move from the ocean to the mountains. Pillons’ old fishing buddy Bo “Bo Bo” Howlett, offered some advice that Pillons ended up taking to heart: “Don’t worry, everything will be OK. We’ll just have to bring the ocean to you.”

So The Captain decided to start his own business in Jackson importing fish with the help of Howlett in Hawaii. The name for the business was a no brainer: “Ocean to You.”

Sustainable Scales

Some locals and visitors still scoff at the idea of eating seafood in a land-locked state in the mountains. In fact, many tourists still insist on eating traditional Western fish and game when they come to Wyoming because they think it’s local. Ironically, they often end up with meat on their plate from New Zealand or a commercial fish farmed thousands of miles away.

“I only eat fish fresh out of the ocean,” declared an elderly man from North Carolina’s Outer Banks while dining at the Q Roadhouse recently. “I didn’t fly all the way out to Wyoming to order a snapper,” the man continued with a belly laugh as he gazed around at the smiles of agreement from his family.

The Captain is setting out to change antiquated perceptions like these. For him, this business venture is about much more than making a living. While most traditional purveyors don’t care if you throw the fish out after buying it, as long as they collect a check, Pillons cares about where the fish come from and how they will be used. The relationships Pillons cultivates with local chefs are important to him because he cares deeply about the fish, how they will be prepared, and, ultimately enjoyed.

Buying fish from someone intimately connected to the Hawaiian fishing scene has quite a few benefits, too. “I can tell you exactly where each of these fish were pulled out of the ocean and on which day,” Pillons said. “In fact, I can tell you what rock this octopus was taken from.”

Each fish’s journey is unique, and The Captain appreciates this. Knowing when these fish came out of the water is especially important when buying fish from a boat that has been out on a two-week fishing trip. The Captain can request fish that were caught on the last day of the trip from his fishing buddies, while some swanky seafood restaurant on the shore in Hawaii might be getting fish from two weeks prior. That’s right, more often than not, The Captain’s fish are better and fresher than what Hawaiians are eating.

The greatest challenge for The Captain was figuring out the logistics of getting the fish to Jackson and then breaking them down and selling them legally. The Teton County Health Department was his biggest concern at first, but they quickly saw his passion and bought into his philosophy. In fact, the health department became his biggest supporter in getting Ocean to You up and running in the early stages. Now Pillons is certified to break down fish in industrial kitchens, something he often does with his friend Santiago Kano, executive chef at The Kitchen.

The next challenge was figuring out how to ship the fish. He now sends all his fish via FedEx or United cargo. He started using United Airlines so he could bring fish in seven days a week—which is how often he delivers to restaurants. He lamented the challenge of getting fish here in inclement weather and laughed at trying to keep the fish from freezing, a struggle that was always the opposite on his fishing expeditions around Hawaii.

Still with a fish in his hand, The Captain at Jackson Hole Airport, where he has fish flown in daily on commercial flights.

When asked why he doesn’t have someone in Hawaii or California cut the fish up for him and ship them out broken down into useable parts, The Captain smirked. Part of the process for him is breaking down the fish. The act of cutting fish centers him in a zen-like way. Practically speaking, The Captain insists that you don’t truly know the quality of the meat until you cut into it. This way he knows he’s only giving his best product to local restaurants. Leaving the fish whole also preserves the meat and keeps it fresh while traveling on ice.

He also insists that none of the fish he brings in be frozen, with the exception of salmon, because the health department’s rules are that wild troll-caught salmon has to be caught and frozen for a period of seven days to be eaten raw as sushi.

The Captain only deals in wild, longline-caught fish. He doesn’t believe in farm-raised fish despite new trends in sustainably farmed fish. “I don’t personally agree with it,” he said. “I think it’s all about where you catch your fish. The big thing in Hawaii is to preserve the ocean for our kids and generations to come. Farmed fish isn’t sustainable at all. It’s a joke. They’re taking away the natural food for the wild stuff. It disturbs the circle of life.”

Longline fish are not only the most sustainably caught fish, but they also inherently taste better because the fish die peacefully on the line. Fish that are trapped tend to struggle, tensing up their muscles and affecting the quality of the meat. A stress free animal—fish or mammal— just tastes better when slaughtered quickly and humanely. This isn’t just some holistic belief of farmers preaching animal rights; in fact, there is scientific evidence to back up this theory.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has performed studies that show,  “the energy required for muscle activity in the live animal is obtained from sugars (glycogen) in the muscle. In the healthy and well-rested animal, the glycogen content of the muscle is high. After the animal has been slaughtered, the glycogen in the muscle is converted into lactic acid, and the muscle and carcass becomes firm (rigor mortis). This lactic acid is necessary to produce meat, which is tasteful and tender, of good keeping quality and good color. If the animal is stressed before and during slaughter, the glycogen is used up, and the lactic acid level that develops in the meat after slaughter is reduced. This will have serious adverse effects on meat quality.”

Guaranteed Goodness

The Captain stands behind all of his products. In fact, if you don’t like it, he will bring you a new one during dinner service. Pillons has fielded calls from restaurants that sold out of his fish during a busy night and his standard protocol is to come to the rescue, bringing more when the demand is high. He doesn’t have traditional operating hours—he’s available around the clock to deliver, or to answer questions about his fish. He believes that strongly in what he sells that he wants every part of the entire experience to be perfect, including the dining experience.

The Captain slices into tuna, fresh off a United flight, at King Sushi. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

The Captain slices into tuna at King Sushi. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

His fish are guaranteed to last at least seven days after he delivers them because they’re so fresh. His ahi tuna even improves over this time, maturing and losing its metallic edge—almost the way a steak will improve with age as it rests and the natural enzymes inside the meat break down the muscle tissue and make it more tender and flavorful. This isn’t the case with other types of fish he gets in, however. Most others taste best as fresh as you can get ‘em. Before any of The Captain’s fish go bad if he is unable to sell or eat them within a week, he will smoke, cure, or freeze them so as not to waste them. He won’t sell these products, but instead he saves them for personal use.

Fisherman + Chef  = Love

Unsurprisingly, each valley chef prepares drastically different dishes with Pillons’ fish, from simple crudos to hand rolls to grilled filets with intricate preparations. The Captain has had the opportunity to sample some of these dishes with his fish and is struck by the creativity involved in making them, though when asked what some of his favorites are that he’s tried, he replied, “You know, my favorite way to eat the fish is while I’m cutting it. Maybe with a little soy sauce, or maybe just on its own. I just love tasting the fish itself.”

The Captain loves to go to these restaurants and eat his fish, though. He especially loves King Sushi. “That’s the whole personal part about it,” Pillons said. “I like to have the relationship to talk about these dishes and ask how they’re preparing the fish. I’m not gonna sell you sashimi grade fish if you’re gonna cook it. You don’t need that. I’m not here to stiff anyone.”

Jason King, owner-chef at King Sushi, relies heavily on The Captain to provide him with the best seafood in the valley. “Some of the fish Jacques brings me are so beautiful I don’t want to cut into them,” King said. “I feel like I’m destroying something precious.”

King fondly recalled his first encounter with the unlikely fish slinger: Pillons entered King Sushi on one of his first ‘cold calls’ and could barely look King in the eye. “He was acting shady and didn’t know how to sell me his product; that’s what I grew to love about him: he’s not a salesman. He brought me in his fish and it spoke for itself.”

Today, King says it is more than just a mutual love for quality fish that has cemented his friendship with Pillons. The laid back vibe that Pillons exudes is contagious, King explained, and this helps center King during stressful times—an invaluable remedy for a busy chef. King has embraced Hawaiian culture in other ways as well, using Hawaiian names he’s picked up from Pillons for his sushi rolls. Pillons even provided King with some special ingredients he uses to make authentic Hawaiian poke such as spices, nuts, fruits, and even salt native to Hawaii. King uses these ingredients in his recipes, making the dishes uniquely his, but with the spirit of Hawaii in them.

On a recent wintry day, Chef Matty Melehes of the Q Roadhouse asked for some advice on ways to prepare a Hawaiian pink snapper that he bought from Pillons. The Captain rattled off a cookbook’s worth of ideas for Melehes. Many of the preparations or techniques mentioned the chef wouldn’t have considered doing, like stuffing the fish and steaming it. As he showed Melehes photos of different fish dishes he had prepared for his wife Gracie, it was evident that not only does The Captain know his way around the ocean, he knows his way around the kitchen, too.

Currently, The Kitchen, Snake River Grill, Q Roadhouse, King Sushi, The Mangy Moose, and The Amangani serve The Captain’s fish. He would like to add more accounts, but he’s pretty busy since he has to contact fishermen to find the specific fish he wants to bring in; then ship them here, pick them up, cut them, and deliver them all by himself before 4 p.m., when most restaurants need their product. He doesn’t want to sacrifice face time and important relationships he has with the chefs he already sells to in favor of adding more accounts to his list and losing the relationships that he values so much.

The Captain’s passion for his trade is clear when talking to him, but it becomes much more evident when he actually gets to show off his fish. His eyes light up, and he starts talking a mile a minute about every detail of the fish, often using the Hawaiian name for the fish. “This one’s real cherry, check this out,” he said, using his island vernacular to describe each fish that he cuts bits off of for chefs to sample.

Jacques Pillons displays the fruit of his labor, soon to be devoured by admiring sushi lovers, at King Sushi.

Jacques Pillons displays the fruit of his labor, soon to be devoured by sushi lovers, at King Sushi.

Executive Chef Santiago Kano, who dreams up myriad raw fish dishes for his menu at The Kitchen, was awestruck at the fish The Captain had in the back of his van. “His fish is the best without a doubt,” Kano said. “He brings stuff nobody else can get. Not because they’re rare or endangered, but because they’re hard to fish and he knows some incredible fishermen in Hawaii.”

Kano met The Captain when Pillons was first starting his business last summer. The chef was caught off guard when a long-haired, surfer-looking guy walked into his kitchen holding two massive snappers and unabashedly asked him if he wanted to buy some fish.

“It felt like a drug deal,” Kano remembered of his early encounters with The Captain. “Well, actually, it still kind of feels like a drug deal, going out to his van and being shown fish I haven’t heard of before.”

Now Kano considers The Captain a close friend. He invited his fisherman friend to The Kitchen during their seasonal menu training, where The Captain broke down a tuna in front of the staff and shared his craft with them. Talk to the staff at The Kitchen and each will tell you how The Captain made an impact on their lives with his presentation. Eyes light up as staffers narrate a rendition of this very story–of how Pillons came to be a fishmonger in Jackson.

Kano is continually learning from The Captain, whose name transcends his occupation and goes deeper into that of a sensei or guru. A culinary school graduate whose family owns a deep sea fishing boat off the Baja peninsula in Mexico, Kano is humbled by The Captain’s knowledge. “He’s always showing me how to get a few more bites out of a random part of the fish that I considered to be waste,” Kano said. “He knows I won’t be able to use these in a dish because they are small amounts of fish—he wants me to know personally so I can enjoy it while I’m breaking down the fish,” Kano said. Like a Native American who worships and uses every ounce of the buffalo, The Captain uses the dorsal fins and turns them into artwork; he polishes the bills of marlin to keep as trophies, and he uses the bones of the fish for stocks.

Executive Chef Santiago Kano of The Kitchen prepares Hawaiian Lehi crudo. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

Executive Chef Santiago Kano of The Kitchen prepares Hawaiian Lehi crudo. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

Both The Captain and Kano are keen on the personal relationship they’ve developed. They both thrive off of their connection and although Pillons is no longer fishing, he and Kano enjoy the closest thing to a fisherman-chef dynamic you can get in Wyoming. They both appreciate that there are no sales reps, and there’s not a product list—Kano can ask for whatever he wants. “I don’t have a price list. I’m pretty grassroots,” The Captain said. “I ask the chefs what they want and I find it. I make sure it’s the best out there. That’s part of the fun for me is the hunt.”

Life After the Ocean

When he moved to Jackson, The Captain surprisingly showed little interest in trout fishing. The idea of sport fishing didn’t jibe with the way he was accustomed to catching his food. Fly-fishing is an interesting art, Pillons said, but for him, fishing involves big lures and big fish, so he hasn’t been drawn to fly-fishing since moving to Jackson. When prodded about keeping his fishing interests alive in Jackson, Pillons admitted, “Trout just aren’t the same. They don’t sound good to me. I’m busy with other cool fish, so I don’t want to do anything with trout.”

He has, however, taken up snowboarding to fill the void left from surfing. In Hawaii, Pillons kept his surfboard in the back of his car. Whenever he saw a wave he wanted to ride, he would just pull over. Now, his snowboard sits in the back of his car, and if he’s passing by Snow King, where he has a season pass, he’ll ride the lift up for a quick lap and be on his way. This type of quick, spontaneous snowboarding is the perfect fit with his erratic, busy schedule.

Now that The Captain has been in Jackson for six months, he’s beginning to settle in and look at ways to expand his and Howlett’s business. The Captain wants to sell his fish to individuals, not just chefs; however, he doesn’t want to do so at supermarkets. After all, he thrives on talking fish. “I’ve shipped stuff out before and I didn’t like it because I didn’t know what happened to the fish,” Pillons said. “Did they like it? Did they not? How did they prepare it? It’s a personal level for me. I care about where it goes and how it gets treated.”

After checking out Local Butcher on Deloney Avenue, Pillons said he began dreaming of having a small market-like shop where he could sell his fish. In the meantime, however, his goals are to obtain a facility in Oahu from which Howlett can work bringing fish in from different fishermen.

Ocean to You may be young, but its owners’ ocean roots run deep and their passion palpable. These are men transforming the way Jacksonites think about fish.  On the brink of revolutionizing the seafood game in the Rocky Mountain West, Pillons and Howlett are going back to the basics and bringing some of the best fish in the world to the Tetons. With an approach seeped in love, not avarice, The Captain has a shot at winning the hearts of food lovers wherever he goes. PJH

Big Fish Fighting for Sustainability

(Illustration by Cait Lee. Based off Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Central U.S. Consumer Guide.)

(Illustration by Cait Lee. Based off Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Central U.S. Consumer Guide.)

So is The Captain the only way to get quality, sustainable seafood in Wyoming? Pillons offers certainly the most personal, intimate connection you’ll get to the ocean with arguably the best, handpicked fish, but there are plenty of companies striving to emulate The Captain’s practices on a large, corporate scale.

Seattle Fish Company based out of Denver, Colorado, is a company that cares deeply about where the fish they sell comes from with an emphasis on freshness and sustainability. Derek Figueroa, chief operating officer at Seattle Fish Co., advises skeptical tourists and Wyomingites that now is the time to revel in your seafood options.

Figueroa noted: “Improved logistics make it possible to fly fish from all three coasts in hours, making seafood a healthy, sustainable, delicious and fresh choice.  Further efforts to engage the supply chain such as sustainability, transparency, traceability, and focus on provenance enhance the quality of the product.” He added that while enjoying your seafood on the coasts may create the perception of freshness, a Kumamoto oyster served at Le Bernardin flew over Wyoming to get to New York. “So, be free to enjoy your seafood knowing it is absolutely fresh, whether you are eating it in California, New York, Denver, or Wyoming,” Figueroa explained.

A company like Seattle Fish, that distributes 10 million pounds of seafood a year, can’t keep up with demand using strictly longline fishermen for all their product—plenty of seafood can’t be caught that way, anyway—so is it sustainable? The answer is yes, though purists, like The Captain, would argue that the only true way to sustainably catch fish is via longline. While this is certainly the best way to go about it, there are several other practices deemed sustainable.

Figueroa believes his company has a responsibility to ensure the health of the environment and the health of the seafood that live in that environment. They have gone through extensive measures to lead the charge for sustainable seafood. Seattle Fish joined up with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership to guide their sustainability work as well as to provide accountability for their efforts. They have also funded and participate in fishery improvement projects whenever possible.

Seattle Fish also intensively follows their fisheries and farms, sending employees to meet the fishermen and staff working at these establishments to make sure they’re getting a good product.

“Beyond ensuring the product and process meets our high standards, it’s important to form the connection with the individuals that are responsible for fishing and farming.  Relationships are one of the keys to success in this business and having ‘boots on the ground’ generates trust and connection,” Figueroa said. So while Seattle Fish Co. and The Captain are running sharply different businesses, their hearts are surely in the same place.

“Sustainability efforts fuel our passion for seafood,” Figueroa explained, “allowing us to form a deeper connection to our source and the products we ship.”

Seattle Fish earned Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Chain of Custody certification in 2008, and established a formal business partnership with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program—a program that includes local restaurant partners Q Roadhouse and Il Vilaggio Osteria. Q Roadhouse Executive Chef Matty Melehes spearheaded the partnership. “I wanted to promote sustainable fishing and decisions that affect the future of our oceans, even from land-locked Wyoming,” Melehes said. “Since joining, we have helped fund their conservation efforts, while receiving information on which fish I should and shouldn’t be buying.”

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