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Slice of Life 

GW FINS fish butcher Mike Bouvier lives on the cutting edge of seafood preparation.

Halfway through a small school of black grouper, Mike Bouvier stops to switch blades. Trading his thin-bladed fillet knife for a 14-inch stainless scimitar, Bouvier whittles the curved edge along a flat sharpening steel, starting off slow but quickly gaining speed. In five strokes, GW Fins' fish butcher stares off into middle distance as his cutting implements begin to blur. Staccato "schhhlikk schhhlikk schhhlikk" sounds come even and almost impossibly quick. His hands at peak honing velocity, Bouvier's bald head looks like a still photo framed by robotic hummingbird wings.

It's not quite noon in Fins' kitchen and already Bouvier is midway through his normal weekday shift. He spent most of the morning hours working the sweet side of the restaurant's menu: mixing batter for mascarpone cheesecake, tossing tubs of stale bread cubes in sweetened egg mixture, assembling individual apple pies in 15-ramekin batches. Alone in the kitchen with Chef Tenney Flynn, Bouvier juggles his pastry production with his other major duties as house fish butcher.

For a seafood restaurant like GW Fins, fish cutting is a vital kitchen skill and one that both Flynn and Bouvier take very seriously. "About 90 percent of what we sell is seafood," says Flynn. "We get whole fish flown in pretty much every day and our menu changes nightly." Flynn's cuisine is known for its straightforward presentation and light, flavorful sauce work, a combination that won a Best New Restaurant nod from Esquire in 2001 and a Best of Show title at May's New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. "If you get good quality fish, then you don't have to do much to it."

During his 9-to-5 kitchen shift -- a rare day gig in the restaurant world -- Bouvier sees his fish-cutting function as a "wonderful opportunity to see all kinds of sea creatures." A New Orleans native and 20-year veteran of the local kitchen scene, he brings an obvious intensity to his knife work and developing knowledge of seafood.

Like many back-of-the-house journeymen, Bouvier's kitchen career consists of a long string of restaurant gigs with a notoriously low payback-to-labor ratio. "In this town, there's so much competition that even when you're good, it's hard to get a raise," he says. "Everybody's replaceable, so wherever I work, I try to make myself indispensable."

At different times, he's worked as line cook, butcher, receiving clerk, pastry guy, saucier, and now, fish cutter. He worked at Emeril's during its first year, did a short stint in San Francisco, and returned to help open Emeril's Delmonico. "Emeril's was where I really understood the working of food," he says, "how it really behaves."

When he cuts fish for Flynn, Bouvier keeps almost obsessive track of his efficiency and speed. Given any repetitive task, he constantly hones his skills, often pitting himself against the clock. "I'm the kind of person who spurs myself along," he says, "so I'll time myself while I reduce strokes and try to beat my record."

On this particular Friday, he'll be breaking down fish from the Gulf and imports flown in from major Atlantic and Pacific ocean fisheries. The kitchen's walk-in cooler is stocked with whole black grouper, green-tagged rockfish pulled from the Chesapeake Bay, sides of Gulf swordfish that resemble racks of albino spareribs and a 20-lb. chunk of Ecuadorian big eye tuna. Every fish, whole or dressed, sits in a Lucite tub of finely crushed ice. "We always work ice to ice," he says, "Keeping the temperature down is the only way to keep fish really fresh."

With the newly honed scimitar in hand, Bouvier starts a few delicate strokes on the tail end, creating a 4-inch flap of scale and skin -- just enough to grab with a Latex-gloved fist. With a secure grip, Bouvier leans his wiry frame at a 45-degree angle for leverage and slices the pink translucent meat from the silvery-brown skin line. The sword-like blade slides the length of the fillet as he pulls the skin while pushing the scimitar with a gentle sawing motion. Seconds later, the shimmering slab of fish flesh separates from its protective covering, and Bouvier tosses the skin into the cleanup sink.

"Isn't this beautiful?" He holds up the smooth fillet. "I've been cooking in New Orleans for 20 years, and Fins gets the freshest fish I've seen."

Once the whole fish are broken down, Bouvier reaches the last phases of the day's cutting -- removal of tiny residual pinbones, a final close inspection, and cutting filets into single-portion slabs. By the time the regular dinner crew arrives to start the prep work, he's stacking batch-marked bags of tuna in the cooler.

With his station cleaned and the desserts done, Bouvier hones his scimitar one last time, lost in its flashing motion before turning to speak. "I went to a fish processor the other day and saw people using the steel like this ...," he says, holding his fist out, then miming a downward knife stroke. "I'm gonna have to try that one out," he says, considering the lesson. "It might be a little more efficient, you know?"

click to enlarge New Orleans native Mike Bouvier is a 20-year - veteran of the restaurant scene, but he's found a - home with his knives and GW FINS.
  • New Orleans native Mike Bouvier is a 20-year veteran of the restaurant scene, but he's found a home with his knives and GW FINS.
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