Bill Sexton grew up on the water. A native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, his maternal grandfather was a “water man,” making his living from fishing, tug boating and anything else that kept him on the Chesapeake Bay.
“That’s really where I got my background,” said Sexton, who grew up fishing and crabbing and has spent the past 26 years working for Phillips Seafood.
Last year he was appointed executive chef of the company’s flagship restaurant on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
He recently discussed seafood trends and crabbing with Nation’s Restaurant News.
What seafood trends are you seeing in Baltimore?
I think the biggest trend is ‘back to the bay.’ Both the state and a lot of advocates have pushed to clean the [Chesapeake] Bay so much that the seafood is coming back. The first big thing was the rockfish, which started coming back after they put a moratorium on commercial fishing. Then the crabs started to come back, and now the oysters.
For years people have lamented overfishing and over-crabbing in the Chesapeake. Are you saying the crabs are back?
The minute I say that, then we’re going to have a bad year. If a storm comes in or the weather’s too hot, the crabs move upriver or downriver. They’re really controlled by what goes on in the environment. Sometimes we’ll have great weather, and they’ll move into the pots, and then a lot more crabs are caught.
Last year was great. We had no problem getting really good-sized crabs. But sometimes a bad year leads to a good year, because you know the crabs are there. It’s a question of whether you’re in the right spot to get them.
For a long time it was so bad that all the crabs were being brought up from the South. But last year we opened a crab deck at the restaurant in Baltimore where large groups can go out and enjoy crab together, and it’s a big deal to sit on the deck and have crabs that come from Maryland.
Do you do a lot of fishing?
I’m in the restaurant business. When I have some vacation time I do it, but that’s about all the time I have anymore.
One nice thing about this family [Phillips] is we get to work with the local fishermen here. Fishing goes back so far that the business is all integrated here. When we opened up the crab deck, we were right away able to get what we needed. We already had the relationships going in.
We also serve a lot of oysters here, and [chief executive] Steve [Phillips] did a lot for the reinstituting of oysters in the Bay [by spearheading projects to re-seed oyster beds].
Now we serve six to seven different oysters. It seems like every one of the rivers has a different flavored oyster. Usually in the rivers you get a sweeter oyster, and when you get farther in the bay it’s a saltier oyster. The nice thing about real oyster eaters is they all have an opinion about what they think is best.
Those oysters are cultivated, right?
Almost everything that’s sold commercially is not considered a wild oyster. It’s not like the old days when they’d send the boats out and dredge for the oysters. They plan them, they cultivate them and then after 18 months or two years they harvest them. It’s become a science about how they handle everything.
It’s interesting, the guys who are doing it. It’s not like their families were doing it. They just wanted to do something unusual and all of a sudden they’re oystering.
Working with crab
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Crab cakes are a big Phillips specialty. Do you have tips for making good ones?
If you’re in Maryland, we put mustard in our crab cake. In Virginia they use less mustard. As you go farther south they add different onions and peppers and spices. But after more than 20 years of making crab cakes, I think mine are the best.
The No. 1 thing is to use a high-egg-content mayonnaise. If not, it will brown off too quickly. And use the least amount of filler you possibly can. You want to use 80 percent crabmeat and just enough mayonnaise and filler to keep it together.
In a restaurant you have to be careful, though. You need enough filler to hold it together because you don’t want to present something that doesn’t look good.
Aren’t there cost considerations, too?
Yeah, but we’re lucky in that we control all that. We bring it right in from our own packing plant.
Is it cheaper to get crabs from the bay or from Southeast Asia?
If everything’s running well over here, because of the cost of shipping and importing from overseas, sometimes the cost can be lower here, but the season’s a lot shorter. It’s not year-around like in Asia. But even in Asia you have the monsoon season when the boats can’t go out, and that drives the price up.
Do you only use blue crab?
We only use swimmer crab. The blue crab is one species, but there are other swimmer crabs that have more of a spotted look to their shell. What constitutes a swimmer crab is the little fin in the back, unlike a king crab or a snow crab, which walk on the bottom [of the continental shelf].
Swimmers go out in the ocean to and mate, and then they come back to the bay and hide in the grass. Their whole lifespan is based on the length of time that the sun is in the sky. We used to think that they only laid eggs at one time a year, but scientists have learned that by controlling the light they can lay eggs three times a year.
Is there a trick to getting good soft-shell crabs?
For most soft shells nowadays, a crabber will pinch the back fin and notice it’s a peeler — he’ll notice a separation in the fin. He’ll put that crab in what’s called a peeler box, and as the crab peels [sheds its shell] he’ll take it out and put it in a wet environment and ship it out that day or the next morning.
That’s how you get really good soft shells. People who really like soft shells are not real fans of paper shells [the new shells that start to grow after a crab sheds].
How do you cook soft shells?
At home I’ll just dust them in a little flour and cook them in fresh lard with just a touch of garlic, and then top them with caramelized parsley, a touch of Worcestershire and a squeeze of fresh lemon. We don’t use lard in the restaurant, though.