Interview with Paul Johnson, Monterey Fish Market
Updated: Aug 15
Paul Johnson is the owner of Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley and San Francisco.
Meet Paul Johnson, the visionary owner of Monterey Fish Market in both Berkeley and San Francisco. Born in Rhode Island, where fish played a significant role in the economy, Paul's humble beginnings working out of his truck have now blossomed into a thriving enterprise. Today, Monterey Fish Market supplies sustainable fish to nationally acclaimed restaurants and renowned chefs, including Alice Waters, Michael Minna, Charles Phan, and Judy Rogers.
Paul's commitment to sustainability led him to serve as a board member for Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Guide, where he actively contributed to the development of sustainable seafood guidelines and programs. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul to discuss his passion for fish, sustainability, and his insights on finding top-quality fish.
Q: When did your interest in fish first begin?
A: It all started when I worked as a cook and traveled around the US on a motorcycle after school. Settling down in Berkeley, I began working at "In Season," a restaurant close to Chez Panisse, where I got to know Alice Waters. Neither of us was satisfied with our fish supplier's quality, so I started going fishing at Alley on the Wharf. I bought fish directly from the boats and sold them on the floor. Back then, fish quality was not a top priority in the industry.
Q: What do you mean by "Old School"?
A: In the past, the Chinese and Italian shops would visit Fish Alley in San Francisco to get fish. There was little attention paid to quality and freshness; it was a first-come, first-served approach. However, when I started serving individual customers like Alice Waters, I prioritized delivering exactly what they wanted, even if it meant offering better alternatives when a particular fish wasn't up to par.
Q: Did you begin dealing directly with the fishermen?
A: Yes, eventually. Currently, about 30% of the fish we obtain comes directly from fishermen or boats. However, seafood is a multi-layered business, and the process is more intricate compared to beef and vegetables.
Q: Why is the fish business more complex?
A: It's because fish are wild, and the supply and demand are ever-changing. Ocean conditions, weather, and various other factors make it challenging to predict availability, size, and taste of the catch.
Q: How did you transition to sustainable fish?
A: When we started in 1978, our focus was already on quality. We only bought local fish, which was caught by hook & line from small, local fishermen. We were among the first to adopt sustainable practices, although it wasn't explicitly termed that way at the time. Later on, sustainability gained popularity, but it had always been our standard practice.
Q: You also worked on the Seafood Watch Guide, right?
A: Yes, I served on the board for five years and continue to maintain a relationship with them. We sell fish to their café at the Aquarium.
Q: Your store's name, Monterey Fish, confuses some people. Can you explain its origin?
A: The name originated from the fact that we started the business on Monterey Street in Berkeley. Initially, I operated from my car and then rented a small store. Although there's another Monterey Fish store in Monterey, CA, we have no affiliation with them.
Q: What are the most frequently asked questions from your customers at the retail store?
A: Customers often inquire about when the fish was caught and its age. People need to understand that certain fish, like tuna, need time to mature after being caught for the best flavor. Handling and immediate cleaning are crucial for maintaining fish quality.
Q: What should people do to buy good quality fish?
A: Trust your fishmonger and build a relationship with a knowledgeable one. Provide feedback on the fish you buy, whether you like it or not, as it helps them understand your preferences better.
Monterey Fish Market has set an exemplary standard in sustainable fish and continues to be a reliable source of top-quality seafood. If you're looking for the freshest and finest, look no further than Monterey Fish Market.
Pier 33 San Francisco, CA 94111
1582 Hopkins St. Berkeley, CA 94707