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Aboard the BleauFish

An Iconic Miami Beach Hotel takes the ocean-to-table concept to a new level.

The sheer scale hits you from the moment you step inside the lobby of Fontainebleau Miami Beach: sky-is-the-limit ceilings dripping with champagne colored chandeliers by Ai Weiwei set over the glittering marble lobby inlaid with architect Morris Lapidus’ trademark black bow ties. To your left is the famed “Staircase to Nowhere”, a set piece where golden-era celebrities once posed for cameras. To the right, a black and white tribute to the days when Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack brought their midcentury swagger to the beach.

Built in 1954, the famed resort changed hands a few times before it was acquired by Miami developer Jeffrey Soffer in 2005. A billion-dollar renovation completed in 2008, during the Great Recession, only added to the surreality of it all. The Fontainebleau has hardly missed a step since. The 1,500-plus room hotel set on twenty-acres of oceanfront property offers ten pools, a two-story spa, the LIV nightclub, and seven unique bars. Dining options include Scott Conant’s Scarpetta, Stripsteak by Michael Mina, the Cantonese Hakkasan, and La Côte on the deck.

It’s not surprising that this much high-voltage hospitality calls for loads of lobsters, not to mention stone crabs. What may be harder to believe is that the hotel sources them through its own private fishing operation. The idea for a seasonal and sustainable ocean-to-table program came straight from the top, according to chef Thomas Connell, vice president of the hotel’s culinary program. “The owner is an avid fisherman and he loves the local waters”, Connell says. “He’s grown up with that and he wanted to do it on a large scale here.”

Soffer tapped Michael Henry to captain the hotel’s forty-three foot Torres commercial fishing boat they named the BleauFish. The operation focuses mainly on lobster and stone crabs, which are highly prized and heavily controlled. In a good year, they can pull up to fifty thousand pounds of spiny lobsters from Florida’s waters. They could go farther out on a bigger boat, but that would defeat the purpose. “Larger boats can go deep into the Gulf, but that means they’re too far to bring back their catch fresh that day, so they flash freeze it on the boat”, Connell says. Freezing can affect its texture, he notes.

It was only the second day of lobster season when I met Captain Henry at the Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove where the BleauFish docks. Weathered, lean, and laid back, Henry is everything you would expect in a lifelong fisherman. A Florida native, his father came to Miami with a group of friends after the war and found work as a fireman and lifeguard on South Beach. “My mother headed down on vacation, they met on the beach, and here I am”, Henry laughs. “It happened under the lifeguard stand.”

He’s joined by his regular crew, who have been with him from the beginning. Juan Carlos Prado learned to fish in Cuba before immigrating to the United States in 1991. Prado was living in Key West when Henry sought him out to join the BleauFish. Prado’s stepson, Michael Ginart, works alongside them. And today, the hotel’s executive chef, Ryan Wilson, comes along for the ride.

In preparation for the season, Henry’s crew laid out more than 2,000 lobster traps along the grassy sea beds and rocky channels that stretch past Florida’s Elliot Key to Key Largo. Streamlined for lobstering, the BleauFish can accommodate up to 500 traps on the deck. Each line is assigned a GPS code Henry uses to locate it after about three weeks. A couple of months from now, they’ll go northwest to Marathon Key toward Shark River to retrieve stone crabs. In between trapping expeditions, they fish — always by line, never with nets — mostly yellowtail but sometimes mutton snapper, cobia, mahi mahi, and grouper. “When we have it, we have it”, says Connell. “If Mother Nature wants to give, we’ll take. If she doesn’t, then we’re not going to push.”

The boat is about an hour out before it reaches the first line. Almost on cue, the Miami city skyline falls out of view and the crew gets to work. Moving up the line, Ginart deftly grabs the trap with a metal hook, timing his pull with the motion of the wave and using a hydraulic puller to lift it out of the water. Traps can weigh well over one hundred pounds, and a single line can hold anywhere between fifty to a hundred traps. Though the day is as close as it gets to his ideal of “nice calm weather and a lot of lobster”, Ginart admits he’d rather be fishing. Eventually, he’d like to have his own boat. “You’re just free; you know what your job is, and you’re just trying to do it right”, says Ginart.

Once the lobsters are onboard, Prado and Wilson quickly sort them by size. Lobsters that are at least three inches from the horns to the edge of the carapace are tossed into a live well that pulls fresh ocean water and passes it out the back of the boat. The odd fish, baby lobster, and early stone crab are tossed back. Undersized lobsters will be used as shorts — live bait left inside the traps to attract more lobsters. Along the reefs, they’ll bait with cowhide or fish heads instead.  Most of the traps on this line are a few years old and well-seasoned, but their stock took a hit when Hurricane Irma tore through the area last September at the height of the season. They lost 1,400 traps. Stone crab season was also hit hard. “When we get a blow like that, it’s like a housecleaning”, explains Henry. “It cleans the reef, it cleans the grass areas, and makes room. As much damage as it does, it’s necessary to get one every once in a while.”

“Live lobsters are individually netted into Water World, a customized, subterranean aquarium made up of six circular tanks pumped with 3,000 gallons of ocean water.”

Prado spent the summer building replacement traps, which are made with a tight-grained pine from Canada. The escalating trade wars have raised the price of imported lumber as the export price of lobster has dropped. Accustomed to negotiating elements far beyond his control, Henry takes it all in stride. Heading back to the city, he recalls the lawlessness of the water during the ’70s and ’80s at the height of the drug wars and Cuban balsero exodus of the ’90s, when seeing rafters escaping Cuba by sea was a weekly occurrence. These days it’s the weekend warriors and poachers emptying his traps that wreak havoc at sea. “The laws are good but they don’t have the resources to enforce them”, Henry says. “I see guys taking little fish and poaching, and enforcement can’t do anything about it.”

Henry leaves us at the dock before heading out for a few more hours. It’ll be mid-afternoon before they come back. He’ll radio back to the hotel and let Carlos Ladines, the hotel’s head butcher, know what’s coming their way. Ladines alerts the hotel’s chefs so they have time to update their specials. Their catch is loaded into a container pumped with sea water and trucked back to the hotel.

Once on site, the live lobsters are individually netted into Water World, a customized, subterranean aquarium made up of four systems and six circular tanks pumped with 3,000 gallons of ocean water refreshed weekly. Each system mimics the natural climate of the species and segregates prey and predator. “Some species don’t get along with the others”, Connell says. “For example, you can’t put live shrimp with snapper or you will end up with no shrimp and fat fish”. An array of UV purifiers, filters, aerators, and bubblers are used to create the best possible environment for each tank. The crew rescued two baby sharks from the traps the day before and brought them back to the hotel. When they’re strong again, they’ll be released into the ocean.

Guests are welcome to tour the tanks and make their own selection. If they do, they’ll walk through a warren of interconnected hallways, storerooms, kitchens, and offices to reach it. The elaborate system that makes the ease upstairs possible. 

While all the chefs take full advantage of their access to the catch, chef Jian Heng Loo and his team at Hakkasan are uniquely adept at working with fresh seafood. “In Asia, all the markets have live fish”, Connell says. Wok-fired stone crabs with black pepper sauce and Caribbean lobster stir-fry with XO sauce are recent guest favorites.

But it’s perhaps what you don’t taste that makes their ocean-to-table program so unique, and the considerable effort it takes to put together worthwhile. “They say you should never know what seafood tastes like”, says Connell. “You should know what the sea tastes like. Fresh fish tastes like the ocean.”

Experience our fresh local catch at one of our award-winning restaurants by visiting fontainebleau.com/dining