It’s almost midnight at Mecha Uma as we watch Bruce Ricketts lug in a container of cloudy iced water with eels. Cold water makes them sleepy, Ricketts explains. An eel half in slumber is butchered, cleaned, and skewered. It is then ready for the grill.
What you notice throughout the cooking process is ceaseless movement. The eels atop the grill are restless in the hands of Ricketts, who moves and prods and fans the fish until they take on a slightly darker color, at which point they are lifted off the grill and steamed. The whole process is capped off by a final round of grilling, just until charred bits edge the fish. “See how it’s sizzling? It’s very fatty,” Ricketts turns to us, running his fingers over the eels.
Before long, these eels become the centerpiece of a course composed of multiple components: white soup, fragrant rice, and pickled vegetables. By virtue of its being a relatively obscure ingredient, and perhaps also on account of the knowledge that it usually comes in an unagi don or is rolled into a maki, the eel in this course is particularly revealing. You learn things eating this dish. For one, a single bite gives you a lesson on cooking methods as they relate to texture and consistency: Grilling eels heightens their fattiness. “Grilling, steaming, and then grilling it again makes it fluffy,” Ricketts explains.
It’s an ingredient that owes its complexity to an equally complex genesis. In Sargasso Sea, which is right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, eels are hatched as little larvae—the shape of which has been likened to willow leaves. They then take months traveling toward the north coast in search of streams and freshwater rivers, swimming upstream in order to feed and grow. They stay in these bodies of water for a period of 10 to 30 years, at which point they decide to travel back to Sargasso Sea to spawn and eventually die.
But perhaps the characteristic that has sealed eels’ less than favorable reputation as a menu item is their muddiness, which has to do with their inherent aversion to cold water. To protect themselves from cold water, especially during winters, they hide in mud, twisting their bodies together.
Some chefs are reluctant to use eel as an ingredient. “Wild eel was one of those things that people don’t touch,” says Ricketts. “One, because it’s oversized, number two, it’s inconsistent in that we don’t know what the diet of the eel is, and number three, no one wants to butcher it because it’s a practice that’s filled with a lot of mystery. It’s something you normally only see in places like Tsukiji Market.”
Ricketts, who has been butchering eels for almost a year now, first learned the process by watching online tutorials. “Wanting to learn a new skill, I said to myself, ‘You know what, let me do it.’” But it wasn’t the butchering that pushed him to pursue this obsession, it was the cooking. “When I cooked my first eel, I was so obsessed about how oily and fluffy it was.” The first cooking method he tried out was that very combination of grilling and steaming he demonstrated that night at Mecha Uma.
And what does he do about the mud?
“I work with a Japanese guy who grows his eel here and exports. He has a special feed for the eels, and he also lets them purge so they’re less muddy in taste,” he explains. “It’s his trade secret; he doesn’t really tell us about it.”
From there, he started trying out different techniques. “It’s such a versatile ingredient. If you stew it, it becomes gelatinous. If you roast it with, say, savory Western herbs like rosemary and thyme, you get something that’s a bit like pork belly. And if you know how to age eel properly—letting it rest for a little bit and then steaming it—you’ll get something very buttery, which really goes well with rice.”
SOME ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS
There was so much potential in this versatility, in the many nuances that could result from using different ingredients with the “very inconsistent” eels. The countless permutations that could materialize from the combination of different eels and really good ingredients—these were what fed Ricketts’s obsession. And possibly mild paranoia. The possibilities were exhilarating but also potentially maddening, especially for someone like Ricketts, who fixates on things like consistency.
“Out of the 30 or so eels that I’ll serve in a day, I’ll know that not every single eel will be good. I know that some eels will be better than others. And especially since we work with the wild kind, it’s a given that some will be more tender than others, and some will be just lean and dry. But you can only know that by the time you’re done cooking it.”
It also helps that after having tried a number of cooking techniques, Ricketts and his team have settled on and stuck with a definite system, which he believes to be the best way to prepare the particular fish. After butchery, he either ages the eels or grills and steams them right away. This is the only aspect that’s fixed. The others, like the menu, constantly change. Sometimes, he serves the eel with rice. Other times, the dish is “a bit more Western, with vegetables and purées.”
For him to come this far, he purposely had to remove the chef’s hat and put on a shokunin mentality—a way of thinking motivated by the pursuit of the mastery of one’s craft. “It’s really just about cooking it properly, and then doing it again and again until it becomes better and better and better.”
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