If you’ve seen the 70’s blockbuster, Jaws, you’ll surely remember Quint, the badass, no-nonsense fisherman who brought order to a chaotic room full of reporters and politicians with the screeching sound of his nails against the blackboard. In Pittsburgh we have our own sort of Quint. Henry Dewey’s rawness, authenticity and love of fishing remind us of Quint, but what’s most badass about him is the quality of his fish and the pride and artistry he puts into cutting it.
A fishmonger, if you’ve ever seen one, Henry is the co-owner of the Penn Avenue Fish Co. When you go there, you’ll see him surrounded by hundreds of pounds of tuna, halibut, salmon or sea bass where he and his crew are cutting and slicing 80-pound fish with the craft and delicacy of an origami paper cutter.
Penn Avenue Fish Co. has a lot of fans in the tech community and is a must-stop in a Strip District shopping spree. You enter the space and feel like you just got off a pirate ship somewhere in Florida and walked into the local fish joint. A huge marlin, marine murals, a pink flamingo, and a mermaid statue decorate the place inhabited by fishmongers in trade apparel who look like they just got off the boat with the catch of the day. Enough to make Jack Sparrow feel right at home. “I’m a Florida boy,” explains Henry, “so I try to make my place like Florida style, when you walk in I want you to feel like you’re in Florida.”
As you wander through the space past the oyster shucking area, the seafood gumbos, the octopuses and make it to the fish section you immediately realize you’re in no ordinary fish store. On to the left is the restaurant and sushi bar, who many consider the best in town. Sure you’ll find the staples: tuna, swordfish, salmon, but Henry goes beyond into black cod or turbot. “People that know what they’re cooking, know what they’re eating. We always try to have one or two or three items that are super exciting that people never had. We had 20 pounds of John Dory in the house today and it’s completely gone. You just have to keep it exciting.”
We’ve found excitement at New York’s Citarella or the fish markets in Madrid and Barcelona, but they’re no match for the combined quality, variety and artistry you see here. “The strongest cog in the operation is building relationships with the best purveyors and paying your bills on time so when I want a number one tuna they give it to me.” Then you have to move the inventory fast, as the fish doesn’t get any younger. “ It’s like riding a bike, it’s easy to ride a bike fast but it’s really hard to ride a bike slow; you’ll be shooting flies away from the fish all day long.”
The final touch is the treatment of the raw material to put restaurant grade fish in your kitchen, and this is where the fishmongers come in. “We have this thing that when we cut a fish we try and have that be the best fish that we’ve ever cut. It’s a constant improvement. We all cut fish the same way, the way that I cut it. If some guy gets abducted by an alien and he’s in the middle of cutting fish, someone else can step in and finish it and know exactly where the other guy left off. There’s different styles of fish, like the salmon, trout, arctic char, you cut them all the same, all of their skeletal structures are the same. The young guys are really eager and they love learning how to cut fish.”
Henry carved his teeth in the restaurant industry, starting as a dishwasher, moving on to cook, and eventually executive chef. Along the journey an innovative chef advised him to “worry about all your technique and knowledge before you worry about money as that will eventually come.” So he kept perfecting his craft and found a job at Benkovitz Seafood until the day it closed. As serendipity would have it, while doing some internal brainstorming on opening up his own fish market, he ran into his friend Angela Earley, a pescatarian who had just graduated from college and was tinkering with the very same idea. They had met years earlier at the Déjà Vu lounge, where Angela was managing the bar and Henry running the sushi bar and built a strong relationship thereafter. “Angela does everything I can’t do and I do everything she can’t do, I always try to find someone that is the opposite of me and that seems to be a good recipe for a successful partnership.”
Pittsburgh has turned into a foodie’s playground in the past decade and Henry certainly played a role in the seafood department. “I feel like I’m a little bit part of that because if I wasn’t here and people want to make miso-glazed black cod they’d have a hard time even finding it. So many people come here and they do restaurant quality stuff at home. If you take that piece of tuna home you won’t have to do anything to it and it’ll be as good or better than restaurant quality.”
So what’s in store for the Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the new normal? “The pandemic caught us by surprise. I remember that Sunday I didn’t know what to do and we didn’t order any fish and we got completely wiped out. Everyone just came in and bought every piece of fish they could. It’s been head-spinning busy. We build a great level of trust with our customers so they’d give us their credit cards and we just bring it out to their car. Right now the dust is starting to settle and we’ll bring the oyster happy hour back. We strived to do the highest quality possible and the customers really appreciate that. We have the nicest customers ever, they bring us baked goods and if they see us out at a restaurant they’ll buy us drinks.”
In his free time, you’re unlikely to find Henry at a bar, not his thing. Instead, he’s probably playing guitar and bass with a local garage band. When in the kitchen, he enjoys his favorite fish. “My number one favorite fish is the French turbot. You can go pretty fancy with it, it’s like a nice firm Halibut with a metallic ocean flavor that’s very French.”
Henry calls himself a Florida boy with a retro attitude. He has no time to waste on social media and his use of technology is limited to a tablet, an iPhone and a delivery account with Ritual.co. His raw, no-nonsense style seems both contrasting and complementary with the pride, care and artistry he puts into his work. But don’t let that softness fool you, if he met Jaws at mid sea he’d have him for breakfast.