How to Fillet a Fish

    Published: 06-16-2009
    Views: 48,951
    Chef Barton Seaver demonstrates how to make How to Make Pan Seared Rock Fish with Pumpkin & Pecan Sauce, including how to fillet a fish.

    Barton Seaver

    He is 28, but his culinary resume reads like a seasoned 40-something. Washington, D.C. native Executive Chef Barton Seaver, a Rising Star of 2006 and recently nominated as a Rising Star Chef by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, of Hook was taught at an early age about the importance of food.

    Dinner in the Seaver home was a seven nights a week family affair. Eating dinner with his family was a communal celebration and involved shopping for the freshest ingredients at local markets, instilling this value in him at a young age. Mac and Cheese was never just out of the box, but prepared with a homemade bamel cheese sauce and pasta made from scratch. Summers spent at a family friends hog farm on the Chesapeake Bay, along with crabbing and going with his father to buy fresh seafood from local fisherman, taught Seaver the importance of supporting local purveyors and using quality and fresh ingredients.

    According to Seaver, "Seasonality and locality made sense to me early on." Seaver began his professional career working for popular D.C. restaurants such as Ardeo, Felix, and Greenwood. After years of invaluable kitchen experience, Seaver made his way to Hyde Park, New York, where he trained at the renowned Culinary Institute of America. During his schooling, he spent time in the kitchens of Tru restaurant and The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton under Sarah Stegner in Chicago.

    Upon graduating with honors, he immediately took a fellowship position at C.I.A. as a graduate teacher in both the meat and fish classes. Working in this hands-on environment taught Seaver the importance of proper handling and techniques of exceptionally fresh products, all the while giving him direct access to sources of fish through the eastern seaboard ports. Under the guidance of Chef Corky Clark, he learned to appreciate underutilized species of fish and became a proponent of sustainable ocean products.

    Seaver is a certified sommelier through the Sommelier Society of America and is continuing his studies with Wine and Spirits Educational Trust in London. Recently, he was asked to join the Board of Directors of DC Central Kitchen as the culinary force behind the non-profits educational programs. Additionally, he is also active in the Slow Food movement, and recently cooked at the bi-annual Slow Food Terra Madre conference in October 2006 in Italy. Other organization involvements include the Chefs Collaborative, the James Beard Foundation, the National Restaurant Association, the International Seafood Conference, Chefs Congress, a culinary resource to the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Seafood Alliance. As a firm believer in the idea that chefs are the keepers of food culture, he is publishing a monthly article for the online newsletter for

    In an effort to educate fellow industry members, Chef Seaver will address the issue of sustainability from the perspective of a chef offering solutions to common problems they face in their profession such as buying decisions and their responsibility as the definers of what is fashionable eating. Monthly columns are archived on the website with new articles posting on the 15th of each month.

    Barton Seaver: Hi, my name is Barton Seaver. Today, we will be showing you how to prepare a Pan Seared Rockfish fillet, but first, I am going to show you how to cut the fish. So, one of the keys to cutting fish is that you have a clean dry knife, you have a clean dry board and that you are in control of the fish; you dont want it sliding around, flopping about. Have a nice sharp knife that we are going to start off with. Now, the bone structure of the fish is the backbone runs down the dorsal line here and then you have a set of rib bones which comes up through the belly cavity here. What we are going to do is, cut down the backbone up over the ridge or cut down the dorsal line and then come up and over the ridge of the backbone and then over the rib bones and out, which will leave us a fillet with the skin on. Perhaps, in fish like this, you want to typically leave the skin on for the sake of crisping the skin, adding texture to the final dish, which we will demonstrate a little bit latter for you. So, the first thing I am going to do is that, I like to place the fish swimming to the right so, the head is away from you and the first thing you do is, cut around the collar. So, you want to make one nice, smooth instroke and come right out. You want to cut just underneath the two fins, facing the fish away from you. I will do this here so you can see it. What to do is, you come straight down the lateral line. Now, dont be afraid of this. If you make nice, sawing incisions, thats when you end up with a piece of fish that looks beat up. So, once you get to the backbone, as you can see right here, I've just come just up and over the backbone and then down and out. Now, the knife will go where the bones tell it to go. So, it is actually quite easy. Once you start here and then you are at the rib bones. You want to insert the knife, rotate over, so you are on top. As you can see here, I am just on top of those bones and you want to cut down at this point, not out. If I would cut out, my knife would come straight through here and also cutting off the belly flab. So, you want to cut straight down, thus leaving that belly flab intact and we have a nice beautiful fish fillet. So, youve taken all the meat off this side here and left it all on here; it is a nice and intact. So, you are going to have a lot of texture and room to play with. So, we will take this fillet, put it over here and repeat the same process, but everything goes in pretty much reverse as you are going in the opposite direction. Now, one of the things to be careful of is, these dorsal spines, will get you. They will stick right in your finger if you are not careful. So, anytime you are handling a fish, always brush it in the way that the fins go. These not only hurt, but they will make your hands hurt for quite a long time as you get a nice, little infection; it's kind of nasty. So, what well do here, same thing; just come straight along the dorsal line, straight up and once we get to that backbone, I will just come straight over it. I, then rotate the fish around so, you can see this here coming straight out. Then, again I will rotate it. Now, you shouldnt rotate it this much for, you cutting yourself; it is just for the purpose of demonstration. This is the easiest side to cut, because if you are a right-handed cutter, you have the natural motion of the knife coming straight down over the rib bones. As you see, I have put in my knife right at the joint of the ribs and you come straight down those bones. So, again we take the fish off, we have a nice, clean fillet right here. There is a little bit of the belly fat, as well as the dorsal fat left on there. I have left the fins on the bones. So, now you have the complete carcass here. Now, this can be used to make for stock, for soups, for broths, for poaching liquids, whatever you want. The only thing I would recommend to do is, maybe chop the head off, because you are going to have a little bit of undesirables of the fish in there and these bones have plenty of flavor in them. So, it will be plenty of flavor. Just cover it, cover it lightly with water and bring it to a simmer about half an hour and you are done. So, take that off, I will put that up here. So, now you have your fillet.

    As I said, you have a little bit of the fat left on down here; that is quite easy to take off. Now, this portion of the fish is delicious. It has got the most fat of any portion of the fish here; this is the belly flab. However, look at this; the size of this, much thinner. So, it's not going to cook at the same rate as the head fillet here. So, what I typically do is, just remove that off. Now, if you are doing a dinner party for enough people that you have enough fish here, this portion can be trimmed up and then sliced very thin into a crudo or almost like a sashimi style preparation or it can be diced up into a ceviche or a tartar. So, save these scraps. If you dont do anything with them, eating themselves, you can just throw them right into your fish broth. Now, the last thing that we have to do here is, we have just a few pin bones running down the backbone. If you have a pair of needle-nose pliers, you can just pull those straight out or the easiest method to do is, just to V-cut them out. So, you have one, two, three, four, five bones running down. So, it is easiest just to make an incision right on one side of them and then to basically, just cut right on the other side of that, taking that whole section off, because again, that is thinner than would need be to cook. So, with the pin bone whether it is, needle-nose pliers or just a set of fish tweezers, you can just go into the fish, get a firm grip on one of the bones, which is not always so easy to do and just pull straight out. So, there is, only five of them on the rockfish, so it is quite easy to pull out. So, if you are doing a whole roasted fillet or something like that, that is the best way to do it, but as you see, I am doing, I am just finding the top of the bone with my finger; it is actually a rib bone here; it is a rib bone that I had left on; finding the top of the bone with your finger, grabbing it with the tweezers and then holding below it with your other fingers just to ensure that it is pulled out smoothly and cleanly. So, here is your fish. Now, since I have this fillet completely cleaned up already, what we are going to do here; is cut a nice portion. Now, nice portion of fish is probably about five to five-and-a-half ounces. That is about all that we are going to need. When we are talking about fish and protein, the human body only really needs that four to five ounces. So, a portion like this is healthy. It is generous, but it also will allow the rest of your dish to really be enjoy the other side of accompaniments.

    So, out of this fillet, we got three portions, I just always cut off the little tail piece. There is a lot of little sinew and sort of a different texture down here. So, I cut that off. So, you have three nice pieces of fish here as you can see. Now, one of the things about fish skin is that, when you cook it, it tends to curl up as all the tendons and connective tissue in it contracts. So, the way to avoid that is to just make very small incisions right along the skin. Now, that just cuts some of that connected tissue. Now, you can see I am not cutting through the flesh at all, just barely cutting through the skin. So, when I put this down into a hot surface, it will stay flat and crisp up entirely. So, we will do that. You can also get quite adventurous with the shapes and sizes and cutting designs, criss-cross, patch marks, whatever you would like. I tend to just do this and leave the beauty of the crisp skin as the real presentation on it. Okay, now that our fish is cut, we are going to show you how to pan sear the fillet.