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Flavors: Bounty from the Waters at Seafoods of the World

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Stella Fong
Kevin Lowry processes a fresh delivered 15-pound halibut.

Seafoods of the World located on the southwest end of Billings has been bringing bounty from the waters to under the Big Sky since 1978. J Ivan and Jean Smith started their wholesale fish business out of a green station wagon rented from Ryan Oldsmobile. Their son David Smith now run the business with his daughter Taylor Leuthold.

Smith said, “My father was basically in the grocery business since he was sixteen so this is actually the 77th year of the Smith family being in the food business.” He continued of the Smiths starting as a wholesale seafood company which still compromise 80% of the current business, “Basically we started calling customers and my dad was very frugal. To get a business started you can’t have a lot of expenses.” To reach customers such as the Duck Inn on the Hi-Line, “ We would load up our station wagon, crank on the air conditioner, put on our coats and we would drive up to Havre, unload everything and we were back on the road in fifteen minutes on our way home.”

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Stella Fong
Marketing Specialist, Taylor Leuthold stands in front of her family’s business Seafoods of the World with her father, David Smith.

In the beginning, retail customers would buy fish from the office upstairs, “We had a two-door freezer in our office and people would come up and look through there and our price list. They were buying things that they couldn’t even see, and we would send somebody down to go into our freezer and pick it out, and we’d meet them downstairs at the base of the stairs in a dark hallway.” Smith shared as he chuckled for what seemingly could be perceived as nefarious transactions.

Five years ago, Smith expanded to now having 20,000 square feet for their business. About 1500 is devoted to their retail area with a fresh fish counter and freezers that hold much of their 400 or so products.

Seafoods of the World mostly bring in fresh fish to process themselves. Kevin Lowry, Fresh Fish Manager said of the arrival of fresh seafood, “We’re pretty much at the airport six, seven days a week. We get our fresh that way and we get our frozen seafood on trucks.”

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Stella Fong
David Smith sits at his desk at Seafoods of the World where once retail customers would come upstairs to order fish.

Taylor Leuthold joined her father’s business four years ago, taking on the responsibilities of marketing. With her efforts, Seafoods of the World has a new website along with a presence on social media.

Smith admitted, “I graduated from the University of Montana in ’85, and so this is my 35th year, and it’s funny how things have changed. In sales now, its not just your business phone, the cell phone, texting, email. I mean to be in sales now, you have to know how to do all these things. It’s really a multitasking business.”

In general, locals welcome the offerings from the sea. Her biggest challenge is to convince those people who just eat salmon and halibut to try something else. Her strategy is, “Really connecting with those similarities. Most of those people are looking for those mild fish to begin with.” Providing recipes are “super helpful in connecting those parallels with people.”

For people who are venturing into eating seafood for the first time, “Typically I start people on halibut or cod, depending on the price point. Something that is really mid and meaty tends to be super popular with meat eaters,” Leuthold said.

During the holidays, when business surges, King crab, lobster tail and shrimp are popular selling items. Smith said, “It takes us about six weeks to prepare for December.” Fresh fish is brought in, cut up and packaged. According to Leuthold, their vacuum packer is one of their most important pieces of equipment. Seafood is packed up, sealed and frozen between 0 to -4 degrees F. to give the item a longer shelf life.

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Stella Fong
The fish sold from the fresh fish case has never been frozen.

For customers buying fresh fish, Assistant Fresh Fish Manager, John Essex gave some key factors to look for. “Fresh fish. It won’t smell fishy. The eyes are clear,” he continued sharing that gills should be bright in color when fresh and darkens to red or gray when it ages. Also, “Press the flesh, if it springs back, it’s a good quality fish.”

Behind the fresh fish counter is the processing area. Fresh Fish Manager Kevin Lowry, filleted a fresh fifteen-pound halibut. The fish glistened with wet shine as though it had just been lifted from the ocean. It smelled of fresh ocean and not of dried salt or ammonia, often times, characteristics of rotting fish. After rinsing slime off the fish, Lowry quickly cut around the collar, along the fin, and down around the tail to produce two large fillets. He bagged the bones for customers who wanted to make stock to make final trims of the fish, removing any remaining bones.

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Stella Fong
Kevin Lowry wheels a box of fresh halibut from the cooler for filleting.

To cook salmon, Executive Chef Nick Steen of Walkers Grill explained, “I let the fish be the star. I don’t put anything on it except for salt. I never put pepper on my fish. I think pepper is too harsh for something that is so delicate. What I literally do is season it with salt, and then I get a pan as hot as I can possibly. I put oil in there with a high flash point, and then I sear it really hard on that one side.” To cook the other side, “I then flip it over, add butter and baste that butter on top of the fish to let it keep shining and glistening as much as I can.” With salmon, Steen likes to remove the fish’s scales and leave the skin on to crisp up to the texture of a potato chip.

For halibut, he cooks it the same way as his salmon, he said, “Halibut is a little bit more delicate. I don’t try to grill it. I don’t think it holds up as well.”

Fresh seafood should hold up on its own when procured fresh. For now, Seafoods of the World continues to bring bounty from the ocean to here under the Big Sky.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.