Squid cleaner for a day: Would you make
By MIKE HALE, Herald Features Editor
Posted: 06/29/2011 02:06:45 AM PDT
When it comes to messy jobs, Faustino Perez can stake claim to one
of the messiest, yet he works with a curious enthusiasm as the squid
cleaner for Abalonetti restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf.
Related: Squid Inc.: Has 'Calamari Capital
of the World' lost its identity with the famous cephalopod? (Scroll
down to read the article.)
Perez spends his workdays hunched over a
sink, practicing the fine art of eviscerating and cleaning mountains
of whole squid, their cylindrical bodies plump with gooey guts and
black ink. Perez, 35, cleans roughly 1,000 pounds of the slimy
cephalopods each week as part of the restaurant's long-standing
claim of serving the freshest, most sustainable calamari on the
Peninsula. "It isn't easy, and it's labor-intensive, but it's worth
it," said Abalonetti managing partner Kevin Phillips, who bemoans
the fact that much of the squid caught locally is shipped to China
for processing before arriving back in the United States. To
Phillips, Perez is a key to Abalonetti's success, so he invited me
down to the Wharf on a recent Wednesday to join in all the
In the bowels of the restaurant is the squid room, where for the
last five years Perez has spent five six-hour shifts each week
working his way through 25-pound boxes of fresh
Squid Inc.: Has 'Calamari Capital
of the World' lost its identity with the famous cephalopod?
By MIKE HALE, Herald
Posted: 06/29/2011 02:04:50 AM PDT
Squid enthusiasts who buy a box of "Monterey
Bay Calamari" at the local grocery store may not feel the weight
from its gigantic carbon footprint, but such a box often holds a
dirty little secret: Much of the squid caught in these waters is
shipped to China for cleaning and packaging. Only four local
processing plants remain as part of Monterey Bay's 150-year-old
market squid fishery (first harvested, ironically, by Chinese
fishermen in the 1860s). Due to labor costs and automation, it's
cheaper now to ship the product halfway across the world and back.
Which begs the question: Has Monterey (often
called the "Calamari Capital of the World") lost its identity with
the cephalopod, the 10-armed, elongated creature first described by
Aristotle in his "Historia Animalium" around 322 B.C.? And is our
fast-food nation — one that puts "Mc" in front of processed food and
calls it a meal — shunning an equally inexpensive yet healthful (and
potentially sustainable) seafood the rest of the world craves?
"People today don't know what they're
missing," said Sal Tringali, a third-generation squid processor at
Salinas-based Monterey Fish Co. "The Italian community eats squid
all the time. We call it poor man's abalone. It's very important to
us and we all grew up eating it. It's comfort food." Tringali sells
whole market squid for about a buck a pound, the same price seen in
the 1970s, he said. "Squid intimidates some people," he said. "We
want to give everyone a chance to try it because we know once they
do they will be back."
squid caught a short boat ride away. Clad in a dark apron and a ball
cap and wearing surgical gloves, Perez demonstrates his technique,
and the word that springs to mind is "machine." Through an
interpreter, Perez says he loves his job, and despite the long days
up to his elbows in awful offal, he never tires of cleaning — or
eating — what he calls calamar.
And the smell? He smiles, and shrugs, as if
it's not even a concern. "I take a lot of hot showers," he offered.
Perez works carefully but furiously. First
the knife comes down below the eye to remove, intact, the coveted
tentacles (they are set aside because, while some customers love
this delicacy, others can't stomach the idea). Next, he quickly
removes the fins, pulling off the skin with them in one motion.
Then, with an efficient roll of his hand, he propels the innards out
the tube and into a plastic bucket with a resounding plop. After
removing the plastic-like pen inside the tube (squid are
invertebrates), he tosses the cleaned, milky-white cylinder into a
colander (little if any rinsing is required in order to retain the
squid's natural salty essence). Before it even settles into the pile
he has grabbed another. The knife falls again and the process is
I'm captivated by his speed and precision, but when he motions me
over to try, I hesitate. "I already took a shower today," I'm
thinking. I decline
Tringali hears from local fishermen about
record hauls this season (the northern fishery season — mainly in
Monterey Bay — traditionally occurs from April through November).
Market squid, Loligo opalescen, is normally caught at night using
bright lights to attract the catch, but this season is so good many
boats catch limits during the day. Even with those record hauls,
Tringali laments the overall loss of identity with squid in the
general community, pointing to the now-defunct Monterey Bay Squid
Festival, the annual Memorial Day weekend event that ended its run
in the late 1980s. "It would be fantastic to have a squid festival
again, but it's hard to get people to (organize) it," said Tringali,
who encouraged squid fans to try instead the local Santa Rosalia
Festival, a free event in September that blesses the local fleet and
serves a myriad of Italian delicacies such as calamari.
While Monterey Fish Co. and a few others
sell their bay-caught squid to local restaurants, most of their
product is shipped to hungry consumers elsewhere around the world.
One local restaurant known for its squid, Abalonetti, cuts out the
middle man entirely, cleaning 1,000 pounds of squid a week in a room
behind the restaurant.
Restaurant managing partner Kevin Phillips
hires a fulltime employee just to handle the messy work, but insists
that it makes a huge difference in quality. "Look, number one it's
the freshest squid available anywhere, and number two the flavor (of
squid shipped to China and back) doesn't compare," said Phillips.
"It's sad to see much of our local squid shipped away."
an apron but pull on the
gloves to reduce the squeamish goo factor. Faustino backs away but
eyes me warily. I lower my knife and make the first cut, and I
immediately recognize a particular Spanish word: "No, no, no!"
Instead of cutting just below the eye to
keep the tentacles intact, I slice too low and I end up with 10
small pieces. Perez picks them up and throws them away while shaking
his head, a barely audible and gutteral "tsk-tsk" escaping his lips.
Translation: "Amateur." He backs away again and I resume, trying to
gain a rhythm. I find it difficult to remove the filmy skin in one
motion, and waste valuable time pulling at pieces of it. I roll my
hand over the tube and foul liquid sprays through the tiny top hole
and all over the front of my shirt. Perez shakes his head again (I
can feel it).
I labor through eight bodies before I stop
to do the math. There are roughly eight whole squid to a pound, and
it took me 15 minutes to clean all eight. That put me on pace to
finish four pounds of squid in an hour, meaning it would take me 250
hours to clean 1,000 pounds! Perez works through that 1,000-pound
mountain over a span of just 30 hours. I turn to Perez and must look
like a defeated surgeon, my gloved hands dripping with goo but
pointed upward in surrender. My patience is dead. So are the squid,
and they await the quick hands of Faustino Perez to help turn them
Abalonetti's "squid man" Faustino Perez uses
scant fresh water during cleaning in order to preserve the natural
seawater essence of the squid. "Overseas processing plants clean
with way too much fresh water and you lose the natural salt flavor,"
Phillips said. "Plus, they introduce chemicals to help retain
moisture, because the product is ultimately sold by weight (thus,
Abalonetti devotes an entire section of its
menu to calamari, offering infinite variations: flash fried (no more
than 25 seconds); elegantly sautéed and simmered in marinara; flash
fried over fried eggplant with Sicilian red sauce, Parmesan and
mozzarella (called Marty's Special); or modernized twists such as
spicy Buffalo, Baha or garlic. "We cook squid more than 20 ways ...
endless combinations really," said Phillips, who noted the
time-honored rule of thumb for tender calamari: "Cook it quickly or
for a long, long time."
Marty's Special is the iconic dish at
Abalonetti, opened 60 years ago this month by two families, the
Favaloros and Liguoris, who also operated Liberty Fish Co. Patriarch
Marty Liguori put Marty's Special on the menu in the early 1950s and
it's been there ever since. "Calamari wasn't served very much in
restaurants back then," said Phillips. "This recipe hasn't changed
at all in 60 years." It takes two days to make the marinara,
Phillips said, and the sauce simmers for 10 hours. "That sauce along
with our fresh squid is a magic combination," he said.