Editor’s Note: This past fall, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of our Farm to Fork program, Bon Appétit gave away $50,000 in grants to our local farmers, fishermen, and artisans around the country to help them grow their business. The 10 “Fork to Farm” grant recipients were selected from 25 finalists by our guests and teams at all our locations, with more than 26,000 people casting votes! Read all about the program and the winners here, or check out the previous updates.
As Waste Specialist Claire Cummings and I approach the bright blue building swimming with an elaborate fish mural, a grinning man comes to greet us. It is easy to see why Lyf Gildersleeve’s Flying Fish Company is so popular among Portland, OR, residents and Bon Appétiters — Lyf has a charismatic and welcoming way about him that makes you feel like you’re a special guest and part of the inside crew at the same time.
Flying Fish distributes sustainable seafood wholesale and retail and also sells its own smoked fish, sauerkraut, cocktail sauce, and stocks along with local products ranging from Frog Eyes Wasabi to grass-fed beef to avocado oil. (Lyf’s father started this family company in Sandpoint, ID, in 1979, and Lyf opened in Portland in 2011.)
Lyf talks to us a mile a minute about every aspect of his business, each topic flowing to the next and leading us through every corner of the little seafood complex while I try desperately to take notes and squeeze in questions. He tells us about his desire to constantly try new things, how fish that isn’t bought right away is smoked or sold at a deep discount to keep waste down, and how his small business has grown into a $1.5 million success in just a few short years … even though, as Lyf says, the business of sustainable seafood is “inconsistent, unreliable and people can’t always get what they want.” The secret is about training the consumer to change their ideas of what they want — conservation, freshness, and a small-scale, intimately connected purchasing system are the most important factors, not getting the exact same things all of the time. And the difference in flavor drives it all home.
Flying Fish’s signature product is perhaps their smoked salmon. The preparation uses honey from the company’s own beehive and, when available seasonally, herbs from the on-site garden to make a family-recipe marinade. Lyf offers us a taste of a piece he pulls out of the smoker, and perhaps it’s the excitement of feeling like I was part of the community or the intimate understanding of the process, but I — a devout vegan never even tempted by cheese and certainly never tempted by fish — yearn to try it. (I resist, but Claire confirms that it was divine.)
The smoked fish is sealed by a vacuum-packing machine for freshness and ease of distribution. Before the Fork to Farm grant, Flying Fish employees used an old, slow, and difficult-to-operate vacuum-packing machine. Now, Lyf’s beautiful and efficient new machine seals five packs at once in just 30 seconds. This packing cycle handles more than double the items in half the time! The new machine — dubbed “The Hummer” — gets used for both their smoked fish and the fish that they freeze (to keep it as good as fresh).
They are looking to start using the machine to cook and pack a shelf-stable canned tuna alternative that is much fresher, more flavorful, and more moisture rich than traditional canned tuna.
Lyf buys directly from fishermen or primary processors and small amounts from out-of-town wholesalers who support sustainable aquaculture farms. He has a degree in aquaculture, which helps him evaluate the sustainability of his sources’ methods. He plans to develop his own aquaponics system in the future to maintain a closed-loop system to supply both fresh fish and produce.
Five Portland-area Bon Appétit accounts are currently proud to serve Flying Fish seafood. “They do such great work with such a limited amount of resources,” says Scott Clagett, Executive Chef at Lewis & Clark College. “And their seafood is just fantastic.” And Lyf also generously contributed to a benefit dinner for the James Beard Public Market, the forthcoming daily, year-round downtown Portland market showcasing Oregon’s bounty.
His appreciation shines through in both his enthusiasm towards us and how his new machine is showcased in the tiny preparation kitchen. Although Lyf assures as that what he does “ain’t rocket science,” we can see how he has brilliantly carved out a place in Portland’s foodie community — and also how the vacuum packer is helping him blaze his way to creative new ideas, keeping customers coming back to see what he’s sealing up next.