When dinner service begins at Mina's Fish House in Oahu, Jared Chang, 20, Hawaii's first fish sommelier, explains that his job is very similar to that of a wine sommelier.
Except in lieu of a wine list, he arrives table side with a porcelain dish filled with gigantic, whole kampachi and uku fish, uncooked, glistening and staring blankly from their bed of crushed ice, parsley and charred lemon garnishes.
“Pairing fish to a guest is similar to pairing wine," Chang says of his role, which involves chatting with guests about their seafood preferences, and making suggestions based on texture, preparation and above all, taste.
“Depending on the fish, people experience different things on the palate," he adds, explaining that fish flavours can range from delicate and sweet to rich, meaty and full. Kampachi, for instance, is “firm and rich in oil, with a nutty bite," whereas uku is “mild and flaky, with a buttery sensation."
Based on his advice, a table goes with the kampachi.
Minutes later, the fish returns, filleted and broiled crispy, slathered with a fermented black bean, ginger and scallion marinade. The fish is hand carved and plated by a beaming Chang himself. The fish is rich with flavour, holding its texture on the tip of the fork, then melting into a garlicky marvel.
Without Chang's pre-meal guidance, many visitors to Oahu may have otherwise ordered a classic Hawaiian staple such as grilled mahi-mahi or ahi tuna poke.
Chang wants to help people realize there are many more fish in the sea.
“I want to share the rich culture of fishing, the conservation of fish, and the genuine aloha spirit we have in Hawaii," Chang says. “The heart and soul of a fish house should be bigger than how a meal tastes, because the art of fishing is so much more than that."
Originally from Oahu's Ewa Beach, Chang has spent most of his life learning fishing techniques from his uncle, a carpenter who takes out his tackle box every weekend. Change works on fishing boats to develop his skills as a deckhand. He also harbours a love for shore fishing from the beach, which he says is more complicated than deep-sea or off-shore methods, because it requires an in-depth knowledge of shore-based species, long-casting techniques, and tide conditions.
“Fishing's been a huge passion for me as long as I can remember," says Chang. “I love how it brings friends and family together."
When Mina's Fish House opened at the oceanfront Four Seasons Resort Oahu in the spring of 2018, Chang started his first restaurant gig as a busboy. But soon, James Beard Award-winning Chef Michael Mina recognized Chang's potential — and had a brainwave.
“Jared had never worked in a restaurant before," Mina says. “When I first met him, we talked about his passion for fishing, and I was so intrigued by everything he knew. I wanted our guests to have that same experience."
Mina, who envisioned a high-end fish house with a laid-back, toes-in-the-sand feeling, appointed Chang as the restaurant's fish sommelier, a first-of-its-kind job he hoped would help coax restaurant guests outside their mahi-mahi comfort zones through informed conversation and engagement with fish from beginning to end.
Chang agreed to the role, and despite not having any fish sommelier examples to follow, set about establishing sourcing relationships Oahu's local fishermen — usually by approaching friends and family. Mostly though, Mina notes, Chang is just his friendly, passionate, fish-loving self.
The result today is an open-air, oceanfront, line-to-table dining experience that is equal parts rustic and refined, with tables in the sand, string lights overhead, and Mai Tais served in recycled Spam containers.
As part of his job, Chang also shares interesting tidbits with guests tying their meal to Hawaiian culture, such as the Onaga snapper, which is traditionally served during special occasions, or moi, a reef fish once reserved for ancient island royalty.
In Hawaii, he explains to a table finishing their kampachi, fishing is an ancient art that connects people with their environment, and with each other. Navigating the coasts, currents and tides in search of the day's catch, and knowing where, when and how to gather it, is all about living in balance with the ʻkai (sea).
It's a tradition that also includes preparing and sharing one's bounty with the community — and in doing so, feeding not only the stomach, but the soul.