Somewhere beneath the water’s surface, about 60 miles offshore and swimming among old shipwrecks, are the fish that excite Sea Island chefs this time of year.
By Tanner Latham
It’s one big deep breath for Mike Kennedy and then a plunge. He has no air tank, but he does have a spear gun. And what he’s found in his last four years as a free diver is that the very nature of free diving makes him less threatening to any fish he’s trying to catch.
“I think that because we are holding our breath, the fish are more attracted to us,” Kennedy explains. “They are curious. There is no noise.”
There is no cascade of rising bubbles.
And so, within 30 or 40 seconds of diving, he often gets a shot.
As the Yacht Club Manager at Sea Island, Kennedy oversees guest nature programs that relate to water, such as boating, kayaking and fishing. But starting in May, he takes personal spearfishing trips with his colleague Jon Kent, the director of outdoor pursuits at Sea Island, and a small group of other free divers. They set out at sunup and motor about 60 miles offshore to where they’ve found some old shipwrecks with the help of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which publishes a guide detailing the wrecks and reefs. At the wrecks, countless fish congregate, and the men keep their eyes peeled for the flat, silver and pearlescent-skinned ones called African pompano that average between 15 and 30 pounds.
Resort chefs line up at the dock, pick up the fish, filet it, weigh it and portion it out. “The guys call us in the morning and let us know when they are going out,” says Sea Island Resort Executive Chef Jonathan Jerusalmy. “When they are an hour away, they call and tell us what they have. That same night, it is served as specials in the restaurants. It doesn’t get any fresher than this.”
And the guests take notice. “I love the African pompano so much because every time we serve it, people say it is the best fish they have ever had,” Jerusalmy comments.
Also known as a pennant fish, threadfish and Cuban Jack, African pompano is often found in the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the waters stretching from the lower half of the Atlantic down to the Florida Keys.
According to Jacob Gragg, a sommelier at The Cloister at Sea Island, pairing a wine with the fish chiefly depends on how it’s prepared. If it’s grilled or lightly cooked, he recommends a gruner veltliner from Austria (specifically the 2010 Nikolaihof Federspiel from the country’s Wachau region). “I like this wine because of its high acidity and clean style of fruit characteristics, mostly lemon and grapefruit with a savory side,” he says. If the fish is fried or prepared with a rich sauce, he likes to go with a wine that has a higher level of richness, such as chardonnays from Sonoma, Calif. (particularly the 2010 bottling from Hirsch Vineyards).
But Jerusalmy says that no matter how the fish is prepared—whether poached, grilled or seared—the flesh holds moisture really well. “It stays very moist. It is fatty, but not too fatty. It is a beautiful pink color,” he says. “People are just so intrigued by it because it’s not the kind of fish they find easily at the store.
“I feel like African pompano is the kind of fish that people have not looked at in a long time,” Jerusalmy continues. “The flavor is incredible, but no one knows about it. This is the kind of thing that really excites me as a chef—to do something different, something people won’t see anywhere else. This is our duty as chefs. This is where I pride myself.”
Jerusalmy notes that this fish is only served during its peak months, between May and September. In addition, there’s no commercial fishing operation involved. Diners only see African pompano on menus when Kennedy, Kent and the other free divers have been successful.
“It is a way of fishing that nobody does anymore,” Jerusalmy says. “It’s not just casting out nets. That is why it’s so good.”
The African pompano is prepared in a diverse variety of ways at the restaurants throughout the resort. At Tavola, for instance, it can be wood fire-roasted and placed on a bed of creamy polenta, laced with fennel confit and accompanied by local vegetables. It might be chardonnay-poached and served with foie gras and micro herbs at the River Bar. And when diners are looking for a casual presentation, Jerusalmy says that Southern Tide will often beer batter it, fry it and serve it with house-made vinegar chips and a chowchow aioli.
Jerusalmy comments, “When we have it, it is the most magnificent fish we serve on the property.”