Born and raised in Los Angeles, chef Ben Small had an outsider’s view of the Maryland blue crab. It came in a little plastic bucket, all meat and no claws, the shell ripped away long before it was shipped to the front door of the restaurant.
But on a recent Friday, Small’s perspective changed. He bobbed and weaved in a boat on the Choptank River, off Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, the blue crabs’ front door. Newly relocated to the District, he was eager to see the living crab, to learn about its biology, and to understand why his restaurant, the Source at the Newseum, should buy local shellfish, showcase it on the menu and help sustain it.
The field trip was courtesy of a fledgling effort by Maryland to pull chefs out of kitchens to behold the crabs in their Chesapeake Bay habitat and persuade them to buy the local product.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, state officials also planned to launch a program called “True Blue,” to help consumers distinguish which restaurants use the Chesapeake Bay product for their Maryland crab cakes as opposed to using those imported from nations such as Venezuela and the Philippines.
Forty restaurants have volunteered for the program, which allows participants to display a “True Blue” crab logo with the state flag on their menus if they agree to inspections, according to Bay Daily, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation publication.
More than 300 chefs and retail seafood managers who had shunned pricier blue crabs have journeyed out to watch watermen pull wildlife from the Chesapeake Bay, said Steve Vilnit, director of Fisheries Marketing for the state Department of Natural Resources who runs the two-year-old program.
Small’s outing focused on blue crabs, which are making a major comeback in the bay. Maryland’s and Virginia’s governors recently announced the largest crab baby boom in almost two decades, from 207 million juvenile crabs last year to nearly 600 million this year, according to a yearly winter dredge survey conducted by the states.
The growth followed Virginia’s closure of the winter dredge season , when watermen dragged heavy traps along the marine floor, killing as many crabs as they caught. The dead were mostly pregnant female crabs. The overall population, estimated at a low of about 250 million when the winter dredge closed in 2007, is now more than 750 million.
Seafood wholesalers hope that driving up the blue crab population will drive down their price. Maryland crabs cost about $5 per pound more than crabs from Latin America and Asia.
On a bright, blue day, Small sailed with a 72-year-old waterman, watched highly skilled workers handpick steamed flesh from the shells of thousands of crabs at a processing plant, and listened to a sales pitch promoting the Maryland blue crab as unique — superior to its skinnier cousins from overseas.
“It’s awesome for me to see the source, where it comes from. I understand the beast more,” Small said. “When I was cooking in L.A., we got the Maryland crab, but it was delivered. I was in Virginia one time and saw a blue crab skitter in the water and it was the craziest thing for me.”
“I understand it more,” Small said as he headed back across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in a van. “Seeing those workers pick the meat shows you how much love goes into the crab. It’s the whole cycle. It helps me understand the bigger picture.”
On the boat with Small, John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability, green initiatives and sales for ProFish, a D.C.-based seafood supplier, could not stand still. “I love fresh seafood, man — at its freshest,” he blurted out. “I’m a seafood geek. This excites me!”
Rorapaugh said the promotion of blue crab meat in the two-year program has had a positive effect on his business. Three years ago, ProFish sold about 500 pounds of crab meat to clients from New Jersey to Norfolk. Last year it sold more than 38,000 pounds in five months.
“We want them to see why you should buy the Maryland crab,” Rorapaugh said. There’s no other crab like it, he said. To keep warm in the winter, Maryland crabs store fat, the yellow in their white meat.
“That’s what gives the crab a different taste,” he said. “It has a richness to it. Fat in any recipe has a richness. If you use Venezuelan meat, the crab will be tasty, but it won’t have that richness.”
Small said the fat is his favorite part of the blue crab. “I prefer to take a piece of bread and mop that fat out of the shell,” he said. “When I found out they sold tubs of fat, I said, ‘Oh, my God, I want that.’ ”
In the past, the Olney Grille restaurant in suburban Maryland had never used blue crab. But since owner Dan Hudson took the tour in September, the restaurant has used nothing but in its crab cakes.
“We get it on Wednesday and it’ll last a week. It’s so fresh,” Hudson said. “Flavorwise, you can’t even compare. All you have to do is open the lid and smell. It smells like the Chesapeake Bay.”
Hudson preferred crab from other countries because it was cheaper, about $15 per pound compared with Maryland blue crab at $20. At 500 pounds a month, “it’s a couple of thousand dollars extra cost,” he said.
A visit to J.M. Clayton, which processes crabs for retailers along the Atlantic seaboard, proved to Hudson that the crab was worth paying a little extra. He still uses other crab meat for bisque, a dip with spinach and atop sauteed rockfish, but not for cakes.
“True Blue” is the brainchild of Vilnit, a former seafood wholesaler who used to hold invitation seminars where watermen explained seafood products and value to chefs. As a marketer for state natural resources, Vilnit put a new spin on that training.
“Instead of bringing the fishermen to the chef, we bring the chef to fishermen,” he said. “The chefs are usually very excited about going out there. They teach me things I might not expect.”
At J.M. Clayton, where women such as Charlotte Jones, 72, and Renee Denby, 41, remove meat by hand, chefs stare wide-eyed. Small said he had no idea that workers sit on stools for hours, carving lumps of crab meat with a tiny knife, to fill that bucket of crab meat that arrived at his restaurant in Los Angeles. He said he is now willing to pay extra for “the love that goes into the crab.”
And that is the point, Vilnit said. “It’s not all about the price at this time. It’s about the story they can tell. They have a relationship with the crab.”