It is impossible, on a professional level, to have a conversation about fresh fish or fish mongery in Houston without mentioning PJ Stoops. He has been a fixture in the city's restaurant scene ever since he broke into it in 2007. He sells fish to a select group of chefs; it's not that he's particular about who he sells fish to, rather the nature of his business practices only lends itself to a limited amount of people. There has to be an element of flexibility both with the chef buying the fish and within the restaurant buying the fish.
When PJ comes with fish, a chef goes out to the pickup that says fish on it and asks "what do you got?" Then he explains and the chef buys it from him. It might be scorpion fish or vermillion snapper. It might be tile or maybe trigger fish. Maybe he'll have a freakin barracuda in there; the only things that one can be sure of is that the fish has come out of the Gulf of Mexico and it will be really fresh. With a corporate restaurant trying to maintain its quota of commodity fish like red snapper and salmon, or with a chef who doesn't have the inclination or the skill set to work with that kind of uncertainty, it just doesn't work. For this reason PJ has been selling fish, almost exclusively, to the best chefs in the city.
How many restaurants in the city do you deliver to?
Really, about a dozen, and not even to all of those regularly. It's hard for a lot of places to work with me given what I do. Most places need a level of consistency, something they can put on their menu and never change it. Even at some of the places I do deliver to, I'm still the "catch of the day guy."
How did you get into fish mongering? You started out as a chef, right?
Yeah, well I didn't go to culinary school. I studied English at UT, but yeah I was a chef. I guess it was when I came back to the US from Thailand, I met my wife Apple over there, our first kid was born over there, so I came back to work while I waited for them to be able to come over. It was a little over a year. I don't know I tried to be normal, like having a job, working in a kitchen and that was like, no. I mean, there's nothing wrong with it; it just wasn't what I wanted to do. Really, it was fishing with my dad, just fucking around; my parents used to be retired on the coast, and I caught stuff out there that I didn't know existed in our waters. So I was still in Austin, and at first, it was drum and crab, boring stuff, but it didn't exist there. It was the same bullshit fish companies that flew in stuff from Honolulu or where ever. I noticed the disparity between what I caught in the Gulf and what was available in fish markets in Austin. The problem is that it's a four and a half hour drive one way from Austin to the coast, and I was doing that two or three times a week.
What about Houston?
The thing is, I didn't think I was doing anything particularly remarkable, you know? I figured everybody was doing this and I'm just trying to break in. I mean Austin, it's land locked, maybe people didn't really care about fish. I passed Houston cause I figured it would be saturated with people doing what I was doing.
How did you start selling fish to Houston's best chefs?
Honestly, man, when I was in Austin I just started going online and clicking on every menu I could. I would look at them and see who would be interested in some of this stuff. Chris Shepherd and Bryan Caswell were the first two guys I brought stuff to. I mean Reef was a no brainer; seafood, Gulf Coast, yay! Chris, I wasn't as sure about, but I started taking them both fish and one day when I was delivering fish to Catalan, James and Meagan Silk from Feast were eating dinner and said, "we want some of that." Then Bryan gave my number to Randy Rucker and I started taking fish to the Rainbow Lodge, but it all started with researching places on the Internet.
How do you choose who you supply now?
Well, different people contact me all the time and, well, put it this way, I don't turn any one away, (but) they end up turning themselves away.
What does that mean?
It means that I only do what I do, and that's all that I do. I want to do a very specific kind of thing, and that limits me. It makes it where I can't do business with a lot of people because they need too many commodity seafood products on their menu, or some people don't want to pay on time. Some places want to put me on 30 day terms and I'm like, "how are you gonna put a guy in a pickup truck on 30 day terms!?" I don't want to have a seafood empire, or take over the world or anything like that. I have plans to pursue a very specific niche in the Houston market, and that's all I want to do.
Try PJ's fish at a number of different restaurants: Underbelly, Reef, Oxheart, Goro & Gun, and occasionally Vic and Anthony's and Indika. PJ also provides consumers with a retail outlet every Saturday at Revival Market where anyone can come in and buy a piece of our Gulf Coast heritage.