When a 72-pound tuna latched onto Roman Kleinrath’s line a couple of weeks ago, he knew he had a fight on his hands.
He also knew there were a lot of things he could do with the big fish that would please his customers.
All by himself in his 20-foot Mako powerboat, Kleinrath, 33, spent 45 minutes battling the yellowfin before finally landing it.
“I almost gave up twice,” he says.
Exhausted by the time he got it onto the boat, his work wasn’t done.
“It’s very important that you open the tuna up and ice it down very quick,” he says.
The effort was worth it.
Over the next several days, he served the tuna as sashimi, spicy tuna sushi rolls, nicoise salad and tuna steak Mediterranean-style with an olive/caper/anchovy tomato-based sauce at both LUCA and Hemingways restaurants, where he is the head chef.
Kleinrath is one of very few chefs who catches what he cooks.
The farm-to-table movement generated in the late 1990s, continues to be popular; but at LUCA and Hemingways, the food is often hook-to-plate.
LUCA co-owner Andi Marcher, 52, says he knew of only two other Cayman chefs in recent years who also caught their own fish. One of those chefs quit the kitchen and went into the fishing business full time. The other, Gunther Bernsteiner, of Morgan’s Seafood Restaurant, says he no longer has time to take his boat to sea. The Brasserie has its own boat and a crew that regularly supplies fish for the restaurant.
Marcher is not a chef, but he too is a fisherman. He and Kleinrath often go out together. They have worked together off and on over the past 11 years. When Kleinrath was the chef at Ragazzi, they would make a show of their haul for the customers.
“We used to drag the cooler of fish through the restaurant,” Marcher says. “There would be a tail of a tuna hanging out both sides of the cooler. We’d be all grubby. We’d say, ‘That’s the catch of the day’.”
When diners know the fish is being prepared by the same hands that pulled it from the ocean, it makes a difference, Marcher says.
“When you can go out to the dining room and say, ‘I caught that tuna,’ people love it,” he says. “They go bananas.”
Kleinrath says it adds an extra dimension to the dining experience.
“You can tell the customers are a lot more happy because there’s a story behind it,” he says.
He tries to go out fishing twice a week, depending on the conditions, and usually heads for the 12-mile bank west of Grand Cayman. Beyond the bank, the ocean floor drops and larger fish can be found in the depths. Kleinrath says he typically fishes at 600 feet, looking for tuna, wahoo and dolphin fish.
Trolling on the trip out, he might catch a barracuda or a black tuna, which he cuts up and uses to chum the water for the bigger fish he’s after.
“You have to be a little bit crazy to do this,” Kleinrath said, as his boat bounced over the water, occasionally stirring up a flying fish. “You work six days a week, you have a day off and you get up at 6 [a.m.] to do this.“
He started fishing when he first came to Cayman from his home country of Austria in 2007. He learned his techniques, he says, by talking to and watching other fishermen.
“I used to fish for these,” he says, pointing through the clear water at some trigger fish, “but somehow I figured out how to catch the big ones and I only go for those now.”
On a recent outing he snagged a 12-pound wahoo, small by comparison – he once caught one that weighed 48 pounds – but large enough to put on the menu at LUCA as the catch of the day.
Typically, he will pan sear the fish or, even better, create a ceviche with it.
“I like to keep it raw when it’s so fresh,” he says.
But this wahoo was bound for the stove top and a skillet in which some garlic, thyme and butter would chase it around. He laid the fish on a ladle-full of a local tomato belote, made with basil oil, accompanied by ratatouille and a breaded artichoke and accented with carrot puree.
It was a hit with diners.
“It’s exceptional,” said Randi Atom, 58, of Atlanta. “It’s very fresh. The sauce is good, but you don’t even need it.”
Her neighbor at the table, Sue Maurer, 59, of Madison, Wisconsin, was more effusive.
“Love it, love it, love it,” she said.
Many of those ordering it say they were influenced in their choice when they learned the chef had caught the fish himself.
Richard Dasbit, 62, of Louisiana, says that aspect influenced his decision “pretty much 100 percent.”
“I was impressed,” Dasbit says. “I would not have (ordered it otherwise). I was looking at the shrimp.”
Even as a seafood lover in Louisiana, Dasbit says, he had never run across a restaurant where he knew the chef was not only doing the cooking, but the catching as well.
“It’s the first I’ve ever heard of it,” he says.
Steven Ferdinand, a chef who has worked at high-profile restaurants in New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco, says he heard about Kleinrath during a recent visit to the Cayman Islands.
“I said ‘I want to meet this chef,’” Ferdinand says, noting that he made it a point to eat at LUCA. “You want the freshest fish you can get your hands on.”
Kleinrath enjoys the challenge of the sea. Fishing is fun, he says, but the bottom line is what happens at the table in his restaurants.
“When I caught the tuna,” he says, “there were a lot of happy people.”