From remote sea to Michelin-star plate in 24 hours
In fishing, timing is everything. It’s in the patience of waiting for a bite. It’s in the rush to get the day’s catch delivered as quickly as possible. It’s in ensuring that the fish is still as fresh when it arrives in the kitchen as it was when it left the ocean. And, for a few fishermen in a small corner of the Pacific, it’s working out how you can do all this without compromising on the quality or your values.
New Zealand-based company, Leigh Fisheries – parent company of Lee Fish – has mastered the art of catching, packing and delivering high-quality, fresh fish to America from rural New Zealand.
For a journey that 100 years ago would have meant spending months on the ocean, Lee Fish has got it down to 24 hours.
Sustainability, respect, loyalty and family: these are the things that Lee Fish stands for.
The idea for Lee Fish formed in the 1950s in the minds of a handful of people who wanted to sell superior quality fish to customers. In the last 60 years, while the aims of the organisation haven’t really changed, the reach of the company has.
With their headquarters still in Leigh, New Zealand, Lee Fish has expanded their operations, enabling them to deliver their daily catch to chefs on the other side of the world.
While managing to reach customers in far-flung locations, like Europe and the United States, this small town has been able to maintain a clear sense of local ownership. Near 20% of the 750 residents in Leigh work for Leigh Fisheries in some capacity.
Longline fisherman Dan Harvey had his first trip out on a commercial fishing boat slightly earlier than most people. At just five weeks old, he was taken out on the sea in his cradle with his dad, Russell. “My earliest memories are of fishing with dad,” says Dan. “Every school holiday and all through high school, everything was always just out on the boat. It was where I spent half my life.”
Now, Dan owns RED Line Fishing, a longliner that specialises in catching sashimi grade fish in an ethical and sustainable way. They work directly with Lee Fish to distribute their fish to restaurants around the world.
Focusing on quality
The ideals by which Lee Fish operates comes through in the way they catch and handle their fish.
Instead of catching fish and then hoping it will sell, Lee Fish targets their catch to what’s needed. By focusing on quality over quantity, Lee Fish is also better able to stick to the limits set by New Zealand’s strict quota management system, which aims to conserve major fisheries stocks and make the seafood industry more efficient.
“The fish we take is very good quality,” says Tom Searle, operations manager for Leigh Fisheries. “We maximise the quality by taking as little from Tangaroa [the Māori god of the sea] as we possibly can.”
Instead of using a trawler or a net to catch fish, the fishermen use a longline. This is where a single line with baited hooks is used to selectively pick the fish. Once the fish has been caught, Lee Fish can deliver their catch around the world within 24 to 36 hours. From drawing up the line, the fishermen follow a strict process to ensure the quality of the fish is maintained until it reaches the plate.
Speed is of the essence
Showing respect for the fish is an essential part of the Lee Fish ethos. They use ikijime, a killing technique that originated in Japan. It's considered the fastest and most humane way of killing fish, resulting in instant and painless death. It also helps preserve the freshness and taste of the fish.
The fish are placed belly down onto ice in an ‘iki-bin’. This acts as a mini-refrigerator, holding the fish at between zero and two degrees celsius.
When the boat heads back to port, a refrigerated truck is waiting to take the day’s catch to the factory. There the fish are sorted, graded into sizes, and carefully hand-packed into styrofoam boxes.
Speed is of the essence. But for the chef at the end, knowing exactly where and when the fish they’re serving was caught is just as important. Using the latest software, Lee Fish is able to offer their customers complete transparency.
A barcode on the side of each box details when the fish was caught, how the fish was caught, the name of the species, and on which boat the fish was caught.
A global connection
Running their local business on a global scale means Lee Fish needs a direct connection with their customers, even when they’re on the other side of the world.
By embracing software that enables that global connection, Tom and his team can do business around the world without needing to meet their customers face to face.
Sticking to their strict time limit and maintaining the high quality of their product is key to Lee Fish. And any technology they use has to be an enabler.
“We’re constantly racing the clock,” says Tom. “Everything we do is based on the ‘just in time’ principle. It’s about getting the fish off the hook to the chef on the other side of the world as quickly as possible. And we need accounting software that can keep up with us.”
Once packed, the fish are taken to a state-of-the-art cargo facility at Auckland International Airport, where they board their flight to cities all over the world.
Creativity with food
Twelve hours after the plane has left New Zealand, it lands in Los Angeles International Airport. The shipment of fish is taken straight from the hold and driven just ten minutes down the road to the Lee Fish USA factory. Once there, it’s sorted into orders before being delivered to restaurants around the country.
Elsewhere in California, chef Nyesha Arrington is prepping her kitchen for the day’s menu and waiting for her fish to arrive. Celebrated for her advocacy for using farm fresh and responsibly-sourced ingredients, Nyesha sources products from around the world to draw inspiration for her menus.
“Choosing Lee Fish is one of the easiest decisions I make when curating a menu,” says Nyesha. “It’s beautiful and it’s consistent.”
Born and raised in California, Nyesha’s love of food is a family trait. At just five years old, Nyesha started cooking early, spending time with her grandmother, who introduced her to Korean dishes like kimchi, octopus and bulgogi.
"My first inspiration was my grandmother," she says. "And in my adolescent years it was my mum and my dad who both cooked.
From playing ‘restaurant’ as a child to being head chef of her own real one in Los Angeles, food and creativity has always gone hand in hand for Nyesha. After graduating from the Art Institute of California culinary school, Nyesha spent time working with Michelin-star chefs before setting out on her own.
When the fish from New Zealand arrives in Nyesha’s kitchen, she draws on her heritage and her culinary education to create food that speaks to her identity, and excites and engages the people who eat at Native.
“To be able to turn around a product that is so impeccable in 24 hours and offer it to my guests with a smile – that I know in my heart is full of integrity – makes me jump out of bed in the morning," she says.
A new day of fishing begins again
While Nyesha is plating up the lovingly prepared fish to diners in Los Angeles, back in New Zealand, Dan and Russell are already heading out on the water. With their lines ready and their bait set, they’ll spend the next 24 hours at sea catching fish and using the ikijime method to ensure it’s freshness.
Back on shore, the team at Lee Fish is getting ready to receive the day’s catch. And for Tom Searle, everyone involved in the process is integral.
“It’s about the fisherman on the water,” he says. “It’s about the guys in the factory. It’s about the accountant punching the numbers. It’s about the chef at the end that has the pleasure of plating up the fish for the consumer.
“We’re all just completely and deeply passionate about what we do, which is why we like to use Xero to run our business."
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