Every forward thinking, risk taking innovator that I’ve ever met seems to have one denominator that is both common and essential to their long term success. They attract other like thinking and highly motivated people to their vision, entice and encourage them to expand on it, then try to keep the boat upright as it plows through heaving ocean swells toward some far off tropical paradise ambiguously located in the magical Land of Plenty.
It’s safe to say that Dave Rudie, owner of Catalina Offshore Products (COP), swims in these entrepreneurial seas. Since starting his business 40 years ago as an Uni (Sea Urchin) diver and processing and selling out of his family’s garage, he has cemented a place for himself and his company in the elite upper tier of seafood wholesalers in San Diego.
We often think of affecting change in the world in terms of Big, Fast and Explosive. Big ideas, Explosive action, Fast results. Kind of like setting off a bomb — if you’re dead set on blowing something up, the bigger, the better, right? Certainly, that is the way that some change occurs, and it is definitely those types of events that tend to garner a lot of attention. But, more often than not, change is not fast and explosive.
The more accurate analogy of how change usually comes to fruition might be that of a locomotive moving at about eight miles an hour. It’s big, for sure, but rather than a spasmodic, manic result, its path is calculated and relentless. As it moves forward, things will, without doubt, change. Anything that remains on the tracks in front of it will be somewhat smaller and reduced after its passing. The train is moving slowly enough so that even the average, curious or undecided person can trot alongside for a while — observing, yet not committing to the full journey. Yet, it is moving fast enough to discourage that kind of lollygagging for very long. Sooner or later, you need to jump on board for the full ride or slow to a walk and wave bye-bye to the future.
Meet Tommy Gomes, the guy running back and forth on the boat, rocking it, exploring its capabilities, pushing its limits and yelling, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” He’s also the guy driving the locomotive as well as the public face and Trusted Fishmonger of Catalina Offshore Products. He and the staff at COP are leading the charge in affecting real change in the San Diego food scene.
Tommy sits in his office at a spartanly outfitted desk, befitting a man who looks like he doesn’t really need a desk. As we converse, it is evident that that he not only speaks and lives with passion and intensity, but that he is frank, direct, determined, unapologetic and resolved. I found myself beguiled by his stories, leery of twitching a muscle lest he lose his train of thought and cause me to miss the much anticipated punch line or wisecrack. Then, out of nowhere, he cracks that smile, the one full of boyish charm and mirthful merriment that made me wanna say, “Come on, Bro. Bring it in for a hug!”
He speaks with eloquence on the history of fish and seafood in San Diego. The glory days past when San Diego was the hub of the worldwide tuna industry. The gory days past when we lost touch with our fishing and food producing roots. The current return to the forefront of the fishing scene where boats are now taking a right turn instead of a left turn (or vice versa if they’re coming from up north) and bringing their fresh catches to San Diego instead of Hawaii.
His knowledge of the fishing industry worldwide is encyclopedic and encompassing as evidenced by his recollection of a single specific American long line fishing boat still operating out of San Francisco.
His disdain for big boat fishing techniques, mass seafood processing, chemical infusion and other artificial measures to introduce a cheap, voluminous supply of inferior product into our food supply is palpable. “Remember the Gorton’s Fisherman,” Tommy asks? “Don’t trust him, he’s a liar.”
Then he turns to logistics, lamenting how our local lobster catch is being bought up and sent to Asia, “Imagine 4 tons of local spiny lobster making their way down dirt trails in Vietnam on a bunch of donkeys and water buffalo.”
On the health of our food chain, “There is no good, cheap seafood. You pay for the cheap stuff with your health, eating chemicals, preservatives and freezer burnt, GMO enhanced artificial food!”
As Tommy unabashedly shares the tales of his pre-Catalina Offshore life — working fishing boats under seven different foreign national flags (boats where he was the foreigner on the crew) and surviving the extreme ebbs and flows of life, it is evident that he is no angel. He’s lived life on the edge and fallen off a time or two. He’s the youngest and last surviving of nine brothers and cares for his still living parents, who are now in their 90’s. The details of his story are powerful and compelling, but it is a story best told by the man who lived it — or you can read the book that he’s collaborating on with a well-known local author.
In fact, collaboration is the word that may best define the dichotomy that is Tommy Gomes. As he puts it, fishermen don’t talk to each other. That’s why they fish — so they can sit on a boat all day long and not have to talk to other people. Yet, here’s the fisherman that knows everyone and has become a beacon in the local culture and community, drawing so many to him through thoughtful outreach and philanthropy.
Let’s pick up the story where Tommy was working at as a fish filleter for Catalina Offshore in the early 2000’s. How did he get from cutting fish into pieces for a living to being, arguably, the most recognized and welcomed face in the restaurant industry in San Diego and what are his observations, goals and hopes for the industry in which he plays so big a part?
Looking to advance in the company, Tommy realized that, as a small, family owned company, COP was not likely to have an upwardly mobile position open any time soon. A keen observer of the market, he had identified that there seemed to be a link missing between where COP was positioned as a fish and seafood wholesaler and the public. Since the three existing salesmen had the wholesale side of things wrapped up, Tommy approached Dave with the idea of allowing retail walk in trade directly to restaurants, chefs and the general public into the facility.
That’s what trailblazers do, right? When there is no trail to get them where they need to be, they cut their own. Anyway, as Tommy remembers it, he’s pretty sure Dave let him run with the idea just so he’d fail and Dave would have a good excuse to kick Tommy to the curb…or out of the boat.
Trade with the public started off slowly. First there was a single ice table, then two, then four tables and a helper. Today, the inside of the facility sports multiple fish cases and an open door policy to anyone looking for fresh, local, sustainable seafood. The interior, recently remodeled, has the quintessential SoCal vibe, both welcoming and intimate, like something your really creative (wild-eyed, artistically savant) surfer brother in law might set up in his garage and call his “man room”.
So, given his perturbation with the issues he has identified in the processed seafood industry, what is Tommy’s solution? It is as organic as is the fish that he and COP offer for sale every day and can be applied industry wide — not to seafood alone. First and foremost on his agenda is education.
His non-profit organization Collaboration Kitchen features well-known local and celebrity chefs who teach cooking seminars to the general public and are sponsored by Catalina Offshore and Specialty Produce (the fruit and vegetable equivalent to COP of organic, sustainable and locally sourced food). This “underground” cooking event is held monthly and can only be followed via social media such as Facebook.
The story Tommy tells of the inception of CK has Dave telling Tommy to go for it when Tommy broaches the idea – with one caveat. “You’ve got six days,” says Dave. Huh? Tommy proceeded to call every food writer and chef he knew and ask for help. That was in 2009 and the non-profit organization is stronger than ever — every event is sold out. All proceeds go to charity, usually to help children.
Tommy’s on-site cooking station in front of the fish cases is simply set up. A burner, simple spices, flavored olive oil and a refrigerator full of mystery ingredients. He is clearly in his element here, slicing and cooking fish, sharing stories and tips with any who gather around, all the while greeting friends and customers and keeping up a running patter.
In keeping with the education theme, chefs and restaurants are encouraged to bring their staffs into Catalina Offshore for training on how to properly handle product. All customers are also invited to observe, ask questions and enjoy whatever the latest creation is…and to applaud, whistle, stomp and cheer…
While munching on the delicious Monchong filet Tommy whipped up with olive oil, chives and capers, I ask him what he sees as the future for the dining scene in San Diego? The answer is more like where than what. Without a doubt, he believes that Oceanside is the next culinary mecca of Southern California. With a revitalization effort in full swing and affordable rents, the city is attracting talented chefs looking to serve righteous food to a righteous population. Yep.
This simple, wok stir fried calamari dish is indicative of the mission to source locally that COP and Tommy hold fast to. Most, if not all, of the tube and tentacle calamari sold in this country is processed overseas. COP recently searched for and found a local seafood processor and worked out an arrangement with them to process their squid domestically — and it is FINE!
The infectious enthusiasm and care for the product obviously runs through the staff as well. Caleb, the newest employee at COP, clearly delights in his work.
You can see here that Barbara Fasching, Tommy’s indispensable office mate and comic foil, is infinitely more interested in the beauty of this local spot prawn than in having her picture taken. Actually, I’m pretty sure she thought I was just shooting the prawn…my bad!
Right here I’m calculating how many crates of spot prawns I can carry at once and multiplying how many trips it will take to get all of them while figuring if they will fit in my truck. I know I can outrun Tommy, but Barbara used to run a chain of fifteen pawnshops and a self-storage facility, so she scared me. All of these were the days catch and were expected to be sold by the end of the day. I lived to fight another day.
I was repeatedly amazed at the true care and concern that everyone at Catalina Offshore showed for their products. Alex, 27 year veteran of COP, talks about how stressed the Uni are this season, while tenderly cradling them. In fairness, I have to ask, is that experience combined with some Uni Whisperer magic speaking or common sense? I mean, who wouldn’t be stressed, knowing that they were going to be served on a platter within 24 hours?
Just as the major fish markets in Japan test and grade their tuna every day, so does Catalina Offshore Products. The tuna are graded at COP each day for marbling, fat content, and color. This one was quite marbled with just the right fat content and a creamy texture — don’t ask me how I know, I just do, alright?
There are no shortage of chef sightings on a trip here. Tommy has forged strong relationships with many of the “heavy hitters” and an ever growing, talented litany of up and coming chefs countywide. He helps them, sometimes even giving out sets of knives to young, aspiring chefs who can’t afford their own, yet. He goes to their restaurants and works with them on their menus. He understands that the restaurant industry is ever evolving, that as chefs move, they take with them their loyalty and introduce more chefs and more diners to the concepts of fresh, organic and sustainable sourcing of food. He is involved with cooking seminars and food events all over the county.
His chef walk-in program makes fresh fish available to small establishments as needed. There are no minimum purchase or major account hassles to worry about to buy from Catalina.
Tommy’s mantra of “Educate, Promote and Have Fun” isn’t lip service. It is a philosophy that Catalina Offshore Products has implemented to position themselves as a forward thinking, thoughtful, community oriented business. Their goals of promoting and providing locally sourced, organic, natural, fresh seafood are not just cool ideas. They are tangible, purposeful objectives that are being acted upon now, making the future of not only seafood, but all dining in San Diego something to be looked forward to.
Bonus: Daniel Barron, Executive Chef of the much anticipated “Blush” opening in San Diego later this year stopped in and chatted. Here are a few teasers with a full interview to follow closer to opening:
He has built his own fermentation room. The oyster bar will be unlike any ever seen in this region. The menu will consist of Mediterranean, Asian, Caribbean and many other flavors. His soy sauce is currently aging in whiskey barrels. He is dry aging his own beef. He is making his own spam. And bacon. And Bacon. And BACON!
As we were saying our goodbyes, Carmine Lopez, Executive Chef of Great Maple dropped in for a visit. We chatted with her for a couple of minutes and then Tommy headed in our direction. I held out my arms and said, “Come on, Bro. Bring it in for a hug!” Yeah, right — can’t say I blame the big guy. Cheers, my friends!
Catalina Offshore Products
5202 Lovelock Street
San Diego, CA 92110