It’s 5:12 a.m. Behind a thick panel of plastic curtains, fish bones are ripped out under fluorescent lights and blood smears on plastic cutting boards. I’m standing in a small puddle next to Alfredo Gurrola, one of the most sought-after seafood purveyors in Los Angeles, marveling at the pink tuna bellies standing at attention on nearby table, awaiting their fate.
With scales splattered on my leather boots, I turn to Gurrola and ask how he chooses fish.
“It’s a combination of learned technique and instinct. Even though you can know why the fish should be one way, or look for clear gills, you must have the feeling. You have to love it.”
What he loves is a market that smells of salt and the faintest wisp of seaweed. Six days a week, Gurrola walks the floor at International Marine Products (IMP) in downtown Los Angeles, overseeing deliveries and meticulously inspecting orders placed by his roster of restaurant clients. Silver mackerel straight as a board is still in rigamortis. Abalone from New Zealand, the size of a grown man’s fist, suctions itself to the interior of a plastic bucket. A five hundred pound bluefin tuna marked SG—sushi grade—with a red felt pen is unearthed from beneath a tarp.
In spare moments, Gurrola calls markets on the east coast and sends texts to local chefs with the morning’s updates, like when storms prevent a box of Nantucket bay scallops from arriving on time. It’s a fast-paced, twenty four hour job. Some might buckle at the intensity, but the daily challenges have helped fuel his passion for nearly thirty years.
Growing up in Zacatecas, Mexico, fish was rarely in his mother’s kitchen, and Gurrola softens into a smile when I ask how his role developed from driving a truck for IMP—his first job in 1985—to working directly with chefs and brokers. “I saw how IMP handled the fish, how the chefs prepared it, and the freshness.”
Although his depth of knowledge was cultivated slowly, Gurrola’s confidence can be traced to one memory. Early on, Gurrola was showing an IMP customer a fish he was particularly in love with that day.
“It looked so good, so beautiful,” he recalls. “When I showed it to the chef and explained how the fish was cut, he looked at me and told my boss ‘I want to buy that fish just because I see the passion he has.’”
Gurrola turns away and opens a box of tiger prawns, pulling one up by the tail before it curls its body in protest. The rest remain covered in wood chips.
“To prevent suffocation,” he says, noticing as I lean in closer.
For Chef Michael Cimarusti, relationships are as important as the products. He worked with a handful of IMP reps before Gurrola took over the account for his two-Michelin star Hollywood restaurant, Providence, and the two bonded quickly.
“I trusted him immediately,” Cimarusti says. “I know he has his eye on everything that comes to us and understands the quality we’re looking for.”
Years later, Gurrola still insists he is not a salesman.
“I can’t sell fish by talking. My selling point is offering quality.” Cimarusti is quick to interject. “That’s the point! He doesn’t have to sell anything to me. I just know that when I need something, there’s nobody else to get it from.”
Providence maintains strict sustainability standards and doesn’t mind paying more for wild fish. “It’s a value choice that people need to make,” Cimarusti notes. “When you’re guaranteed the fish is wild and sustainable, there are costs associated with that. Do you want to pay $10 for a piece of grilled salmon that was farm raised irresponsibly in a foreign country and not tested for its wholesomeness, or do you want to buy something wild, that’s keeping American fishermen on the water, that’s being harvested in a sustainable manner?”
This conviction, stemming in part from Cimarusti’s lifelong devotion to fishing, translates into the seasonal menu at Providence. “Whatever we do to the fish here is as important to the experience of our guests as anything else. I tell the cooks all the time, that fish didn’t come all the way from Japan or Australia to be mistreated. Somebody went and pulled that fish out of the ocean and shipped it around the world. It’s incredibly precious. Not only monetarily, but honoring the ingredients. To have it go to waste is a cardinal sin to us.”