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.”