Food Arts presents the March 1997 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Rod Mitchell, founder/president of Browne Trading Company in Portland, Maine, the wholesaler whose selection, quality, and overnight delivery of seafood have expanded the creative horizons of chefs coast to coast.
Mitchell’s story is that of a local boy who made good. A Maine kid raised wise to the whys and wherefores of Down East coastal lore, he would ultimately find an eager outlet for his ingrained knowledge among an elite corps of chefs seeking diverse sea fare of impeccable freshness and flavor. Today his client list includes some of the heaviest hitters in chefdom—Daniel Boulud, Jean-Louis Palladin, Guenter Seeger, Charlie Trotter, and Eric Ripert. An initial core of 10 chefs now numbers more than 150 customers from Maine (Sam Hayward at Fore Street in Portland) to Hawaii (Tylun Pang, Kea Lani, Maui).
“He’s been working hard, endless hours with chefs, and there’s not a man in the industry who has the trust he has,” says Boulud (chef/owner, Restaurant Daniel, NYC), who entered into a partnership with Mitchell last year to sell a signature line of caviars. Boulud notes that the dish he created at Le Cirque in 1986—Maine sea scallops “in black tie” (sliced scallops layered with truffles and wrapped with spinach and puff pastry)—would not have been feasible without Mitchell’s pristine shellfish. “Because of the firmness and freshness of the scallop, it did not reject any liquid when cooking,” says Boulud, who lugged a container of Mitchell’s scallops to Lyons when he visited his family in January.
Mitchell, 42, goes to great lengths to secure the highest-quality seafood and adheres to rigorous guidelines in selecting product. He works with a network of fishermen and divers in Maine, Florida, and Hawaii, dealing largely with day boats that embark and return to port with their catch within 24 hours, as well as with farther-ranging vessels that guarantee hi “last-day’s pull.” Most fish arrive at his sales-and-shipping warehouse on Merrill’s Wharf mere hours after being pulled from the ocean, and chefs receive the whole fish via air and local delivery while it is still in a state of rigor mortis. “That way, they’re still sashimi quality and the chefs get the shelf life,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell insists that most of the fish he procures be caught by hook, not nets, which, he believes, make the fish crash into one another and causes them the kind of stress that diminishes quality. He hand-selects the small, sweet, cold-water Maine shrimp; has halibut bled in a particular old-fashioned Yankee way to ensure white meat; deals with only one crab picker, a woman who lives in a trailer in Owls Head, Maine; uses an extended Cambodian family to extract sea-urchin roe; chooses thin-shelled, beardless, cultivated Prince Edward Island mussels; keeps lobsters in tanks pumped full of ocean water; mixes salt water into his ice, which is shaved so that it wont clump and bruise the fish; and, of course, his scallops are harvested by divers, shucked aboard the support boat, and immediately sealed in special tins.
A chance encounter with Palladin led to Mitchell’s ascension to king of the sea. Mitchell, of New England stock dating from the Mayflower landing in 1620, had been schooled in fish ways by his grandfather, earl Browne, a fisherman who lived on a point of land on Merrymeeting Bay that carries the family name. Mitchell pursued marine biology at Southern Maine Technical College in South Portland, but at 20 he was sidetracked into operating a wine/gourmet food shop and a café up the coast in Camden, where the visiting Palladin walked in one day and suggested that he add caviar to his inventory.
In 1982, Mitchell sold his retail businesses to form Caspian Caviar. At Palladin’s request, he hired divers to gather scallops and tracked down other aquatic exotica himself. Word of mouth led to other chef clients. In 1984, Mitchell took on a partner, expanded Caspian’s line to include other luxury ingredients, and filled Palladin’s off-the-wall needs for glass eel, lamprey, sea urchin, and monkfish livers. Mitchell sold Caspian in 1989, and when problems arose with the controlling investors of his former company, he left in May 1991 to form Browne Trading with his wife, Cynde, who gave up her career a nurse practitioner.
The Mitchells have watched Browne Trading grow from a caviar refrigerator in their home on Peaks Island and a pickup with an insulated cap to the big warehouse they now own on the wharf, where they run the wholesale business, a smokehouse, and a mail-order concern that features Guenter Seeger’s Smoked Atlantic Salmon and Boulud’s Private Stock Caviars.
“I think quality, dependability, and trust is what sets us apart,” Mitchell says of his preeminent position. “We sell the best of the best to the best.”