Whole Local Black Cod with Chef Val M. Cantú
Updated: May 3
Chef Val M. Cantú is the chef and owner of Californios, a 24-seat restaurant in San Francisco's Mission district. We challenged him to blow our minds with a dish highlighting Four Star Seafood's local black cod.
We had the pleasure of watching Chef Cantú artfully break down a gorgeous black cod as he prepared his dish for our Four Star Chef Week challenge. To say it was like watching poetry in motion would be a grand understatement. He truly is a master at his craft. When asked about his technique and method, he had this to share...
“Fish Butchery is one of the most important skills for a chef to master. To be great at fish butchery, you must display grace and precision in your movements, your blade should be a certain level of sharp for each type of fish, and you must put in many hours of practice and sharpening. Be thankful and pay respect to each fish that you are lucky enough to have on your board.”
He went on to say, “One of the most important steps to good fish butchery is to give yourself plenty of room to work. I like to have the fish on ice and a clean dry towel and another clean towel, dampened with water. Practice the same level of cleanliness and focus on your knife cuts with other mise en place, as you would with the fish, and then, fish butchery will come naturally.”
Remove the head of the fish by making a diagonal cut from behind the pectoral fin angled toward the edge of the head. Flip the fish over and repeat a mirrored cut to sever the head completely.
Next, make a horizontal cut above the tail, scoring it to the depth of the vertebrae.
Take your knife, hold the fish steady with one hand, and slice along the backbone from the head-end of the fish to the tail-end, lengthwise above the vertebrae in front of the dorsal fin, cutting deep enough to free the flesh from the backbone on one side. Turn the fish around and repeat this mirrored cut to free the other side's flesh. Guide the knife through the center to remove the upper fillet.
Hold the fish's tail and remove the backbone of the fish by cutting on the underside of the ribs.
Skin the fillets (if you desire) by laying them skin-side down. Cut about a centimeter of flesh away from the skin on the tail-end. Using your fingers, hold the exposed skin steady. Run your knife beneath the flesh of the fish and slice firmly lengthwise to cut the fillet away from the skin. Repeat on the other fillet.
Presenting the Baja style fish taco by Californios! Chef Cantú explains, “It’s just a classic done well, with a couple additions. We use local black cod from Four Star Seafood, which is the ultimate fish for crispy fried fish, dredged in a secret house beer batter. It’s got a Chile Costeño Baja sauce, fermented radish, Castelfranco chicories, and nasturtium, all sitting on our house sourdough tortilla that is warmed over oak coals. We then serve it with limes, salsa verde, and pickled onions.”
When asked about the inspiration behind this dish, Chef Cantú shares, “This taco started because we were craving fish tacos. In our fourth year as a restaurant, we had not made a fish taco for the menu, and it felt like the right time. Although our menus tend to skew towards a more contemporary version of Mexican cuisine, nearly all of our dishes are rooted in tradition - this taco being no different. The subtle differences in this taco are not all that dissimilar than what you might find on the beaches in Ensanada, but hopefully it reminds you of them and tastes just as delicious.”
ABOUT CHEF VAL CANTÚ
At the age of five, his father moved the family to a small town in central Texas and opened a Mexican restaurant and tortilleria. Having grown up around food, Val graduated with a degree in English and Business from the University of Texas at Austin before returning to cooking. While in Austin, he worked at Uchi and then set his sights on the Bay Area. Once in San Francisco, he spent a year as the sous chef at Sons and Daughters in Nob Hill, and quickly began working on Californios. Having fallen in love with the bounty of the Bay Area, Californios first appeared as a pop-up in 2013, while he searched for a physical space. The restaurant opened quietly in January 2015 and was awarded its first Michelin star in October 2015. Californios was designed by his wife, Carolyn Cantú, and is managed by his sister-in-law, Charlotte Randolph.
Val was named a Rising Star Chef by StarChefs and the San Francisco Chronicle in 2016, and one of America's Best New Chefs, by Food and Wine Magazine, in 2017. Californios was honored with, a perfect, Four Star review, from Michael Bauer and the San Francisco Chronicle in October 2017, and Two Stars from the Michelin Guide, shortly thereafter. Californios has been awarded Two Michelin stars, three times consecutively, and continues to be family owned and operated.
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