ANNA MARIA -- Ed Chiles has a certain Zen when it comes to speaking about mullet and locally caught seafood.
"It is who we are. It's how this area was started. The economy of Manatee County, back into its earliest days, was anchored in two things: agriculture and seafood," Chiles said.
He knows tourists, especially Europeans, crave his dishes, but finding a way for the locals' taste buds to savor the flavor of the local gray-stripe mullet or having red snapper collar prepared like fried chicken is more challenging. It's all about honoring what the sea gives you, he said.
"We're working on a project that we kind of loosely termed the Heritage Seafood Project. That's about taking our native heritage products and utilizing them and educating people about them. Mullet is kind of the example," Chiles said, and other Gulf of Mexico catches help support the mullet's role.
The behind-the-scenes process doesn't sound appetizing at first when you understand what's used are parts of the fish restaurants typically decide not to use. It's not because it's bad meat -- chefs haven't figured out how to make something appealing out of it until now.
"We're making it work and it's fun. We're taking and doing babyback ribs, if you will, of big swordfish and big tuna instead of throwing that away," Chiles said. "The ribs above that dorsal line, when they cut those filets off, there's still a lot of meat left on there. The closer to bone, the better the meat. I've been trying to figure out how to use these proportions we're throwing away for 34 years. It amazes me that I haven't figured it out until now, but we're figuring it out."
At the Sandbar Restaurant in Anna Maria, diners will see a rotation on the featured dinner menu of swordfish ribs, tuna ribs and then snapper collars on the featured lunch menu. If Chiles is at the restaurant, he'll be sure to talk up the new creations, and even offer to buy it if the customer doesn't like it.
"We say look, the skin on the snapper is really good. So you scale it and when you fry it, it's crispy, and you eat it exactly like you would a fried chicken breast. You don't eat the bone when you eat a fried chicken breast. And the bone in the collar is scapula-like. It's not pin bones, so when you're done, you have less than probably 3 or 4 percent of the weight of the collar left in those bones," he said.
"You just pull all these pockets of meat off, more like a chicken than eating a crab where it's cavities instead of pockets, and it's fabulous."
Maybe no fish needs an image makeover more than the mullet -- the top Cortez export. To Chiles, the reason locals might not like the usually greasy fish is it's not prepared right. He's leading the way to serve the Gulf's gray-striped mullet with new recipes: smoked, fried, grilled and blackened.
Filleting the mullet so it's not bony when served is what you'll find under Chiles' direction, and the meat from the belly is almost like a foie gras, said Ted LaRoche, one of Chiles' business partners.
LaRoche believes Cortez and Manatee has the opportunity to be like the lobster fisherman in New England, where his grandparents hailed from, having to advocate and support the local delicacy enough to make it en vogue.
It's all perception, LaRoche said. To him, mullet is nothing more than a saltwater version of catfish.
"I think it's just a question of presenting it to people in an attractive package instead of wrapping it in a newspaper at a yard sale," he said.
Overseas visitors are more likely to grab hold of the mullet now.
"Europeans get it immediately, and more and more people are getting it. Once they have it then they're coming back because it's wild, sustainable, native, fresh fish," said Chiles of sandy bottom mullet.
"It's very good for you. It's very high in Omega-3, and it's one of the highest fat content of any fish, and it's right behind sardines."
Chiles recently had a chance to show off the mullet to a captive American audience. County Commissioner and Port Authority chairwoman Carol Whitmore decided to take out a group of Port Manatee officials celebrating a deal with Pasha Automotive Group from California.
He went through his selections and evangelized for the mullet. It's something that still sits with Matty Appice, director of international sales for Port Manatee, who is planning a return visit.
To Appice, mullet was nothing more than a bait fish and he wasn't sure how this was going to go down, but he and his fellow diners couldn't stop talking about the taste and preparation of the fish.
"I really like salmon and, if I didn't know any better, I thought I really was eating salmon," Appice said.
Whatever is leftover from the night will be trucked to Gamble Creek Farm, where Chiles is leasing farmland to grow organic vegetables for his restaurants and for wholesale. He plans to include the fish in compost buried 18 inches below the surface for crops to continue the cycle.
The money in mullet is especially in the female's roe. Anna Maria native Seth Cripe started Anna Maria Fish Co. in 2007 where more than 1,500 pounds of Cortez bottarga is made from salt-curing and sun-drying roe sacs. The company is the first in the United States to be certified to process bottarga. Chiles came on board as a business partner. Bottarga is the seafood equivalent of prosciutto, used for garnishing and dressing salads and foods in the way it's sliced from umber meat.
It's big business for overseas companies that buy the roe from Cortez area fishermen for $6 to $15 a pound, freeze it, process the roe into bottarga and resell it for more than $100 a pound.
"We have allowed somebody else to reap the benefits of our precious natural resource, which is the mullet roe. No. 1 export in the oldest continual fishing village in state of Florida by far is the eggs from the female gray-stripe mullet. Hundreds of thousands of pounds go out as export," Chiles said.
The Cortez bottarga has received attention on the "Today" show and the New York Times and is in the kitchen of Caragiulos in Sarasota in addition to Chiles' restaurants, but remains a tough sell.
The operation is expected to kick up again when peak mullet season comes in November, and by Nov. 15, the Anna Maria Fish Co. should be curing mullet roe inside a kitchen at Gamble Creek Farm.
In the restaurant business, every ounce counts toward the bottom line, so why not take the effort while supporting the mullet?
"It helps me utilize more product and be more efficient, and this is a business of pennies, so it all makes sense," Chiles said. "It's a beautiful piece of fish, why throw it away? Why not honor the fish? This is wild, sustainable fish. This is as good as it gets."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.