Profile: Hamish Parsons, Lobster Importer

South El Monte, Los Angeles. Hamish Parsons is at ease as he scoops out a giant lobster from a tank with his bare hands. He laughs when its fire-orange claws dig into his arms and pull on his black shirt “I like it when they’re feisty like this,” Hamish says. “It means they’re healthy and happy.”

Hamish is an earnest and ruggedly handsome man who enjoys his work. These eight-year-old mature lobsters, weighing between four and eight pounds, are flown in live from Southern Australia, where they are caught in the pristine, cold waters off the coast. Once happy in their tanks in L.A., they are Fed-Ex’d overnight – still alive, packed in wood shavings — to the top restaurants in L.A., San Francisco and Napa.

Hamish’s Pie

Occupation: Australian Seafood Importer.

What city are you from in Australia? Adelaide.

Visa type: H1/B

Where do you live when you’re in the U.S.? Venice, Los Angeles, CA.

What are you currently working on? Recently, I’ve been working on developing new markets for Moreton Bay Bugs.

When did you move to the U.S.? January, 2009.

What’s your story on getting to and living in the U.S.?

I came over here as a part of a market development team promoting Australian Southern rock lobster to U.S. restaurateurs and seafood distributors. We setup some tanks in L.A. and I spent my first six months barging into restaurants pulling eight-pound, live Australian lobsters onto kitchen counters. There’s been some dramatic changes since then, but we managed to grow a niche business trading in high end Australian and New Zealand seafood.

What are your creative inspirations?

I pick up a lot of ideas and creative energy from my friends. I am a bit of a dreamer, ideas are constantly floating in my head. My creative inspirations right now are to build a fully integrated sustainable seafood business which ships direct from fisher to the U.S. householder

What are some of your other creative endeavors?

To build an organic ocean trout farm in Northwest America

When you’re not working, what can you be found doing?

I’ll be surfing, golfing, riding my bike, stuffing my face with some great food, working it off at the gym or enjoying a refreshing beverage with some friends.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Who knows? I tackle life one day at a time. I will work my way back to Australia, eventually. I am almost certain of that.

What’s your favourite quote?

I heard this one last week, and thought it was pretty cool: “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbours and may every year find you a better man.” – Benjamin Franklin

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

I’ve never really paid attention to advice; it might stop me from making my biggest mistakes, and I can’t learn without making mistakes.

What are your tips for dating American women?!

Make sure you change your clothes after packing seafood! American women can be a testy beast — you’ve just got to roll with the punches.

Hamish Parsons' lobsters. (photo: Angela Ledgerwood)

The Life with Lobsters

How is the seafood industry in the U.S. different from at home?

Eighty-five percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. With a 300-plus million population, and a domestic fishery 15-20 times larger than Australia, the market is enormous and extremely diverse. Any one of the largest 10 cities in North America would consume more seafood than the whole of Australia combined. The variety of seafood available is much greater due to less import restrictions, and the pricing is much more competitive.

Do you find there is a difference in the quality of the produce?

There is a perception from Australians that Australian food is automatically better than the everything else out there. Most often, it is the case, but there is so much good seafood out there. Alaskan halibut, North Atlantic scallops, and Alaskan king crab are three must-have, domestic U.S. products when travelling through the U.S. Fortunately, we still have the edge on quality, but this is only because of the diligent suppliers that we work with it.

What is the timeline for, say, getting a lobster from the boat in Australia to a dinner table in L.A. or San Francisco? What steps does it take to get to the customer?

Caught: The fishermen in Southern Australia, Tasmania and Victoria catch the lobsters in their pots and bring them back in a live well tank in the hull of the boat. After spending a day or two in tanks in a local town — for example, Mt Gambier, Robe or Hobart — they are chilled down and exported to the U.S. via air freight.

Travel: They travel dry in a foam box surrounded by wood shavings, and are kept cool with gel ice packs, i.e much more comfortably than us in economy! By the time we receive them and get them into our tanks in L.A., they have been out of water anywhere from 24-30 hours.

Dinner: From there, we keep them a minimum of 24 hours and then ship them out across the country to our customers. The can be from pot to plate in as little as three days.

What are you ideas on farming and sustainable fishing? Where do you think the industry is going?

There’s no easy fix. Demand keeps growing and supply is shrinking. We need to embrace aquaculture as the alternative, but the consumer needs to be informed. As we speak, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is considering an application for approval of transgenic (genetically modified) farmed salmon. This will change the face of aquaculture and, as is the case with other meats, consumer options will increase, particularly in alternative organic products. Wild fisheries, particularly in poor countries are generally unsustainably managed, and it is difficult to envision any significant improvements in the current scenario. Unfortunately, politics is nearly always in the way of fisheries management reform — and always reactive; never proactive. The good news for us Australians is that, as a general rule, our own fisheries are very well managed.

What’s the difference between a farmed and a wild lobster?

Easy – A wild lobster exists; a farmed doesn’t! Well, that’s not strictly true. They are farming some lower-value tropical species in Southeast Asia now. But cold water Australian lobsters — such as the West Australian, Southern rock lobster or Eastern rock lobster — are so slow growing that it is currently not cost-effective to farm.

What are you favourite restaurants in the L.A. and San Francisco?

San Francisco – Murray Circle, Michael Mina, Fleur de Lys.

L.A. – Providence, the Bazaar at SLS Hotel, Craft, Gjelina.

Where’s the best place to get a lobster roll?

Lobster rolls ain’t lobster. You will not find a lobster roll in the U.S. with anything but their East Coast Maine lobster in it. That’s the one with claws that looks like a giant yabbie. Whilst this is a huge fishery and you’ll find these lobsters everywhere across the U.S., it’s not what you’d call a ‘spiny’ lobster. Australia’s lobsters are spiny lobsters, (ie. No big front claws and the majority of the meat coming from the tail) and have a sweeter, more delicate flavor. Spinys also fetch four to five times on the market as much as the U.S. Maines. Taste is always a personal thing, but in a head-to-head taste challenge the differences are so obvious it’s hard to think they are both called the same thing. Regardless, if you still want a lobster roll, I would suggest Portland, Maine.

Where can our readers buy a good lobster?

From the Commodore to the Aston Martin:

Maine lobsters – Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons, etc. for somewhere around $7-$9/pound.

Spiny Lobster tails – West Australian, South African, Caribbean or Brazilian – Wholefoods, other mid-level grocery chains – $23-$40/pound, depending on type.

Live Californian Lobsters – Quality seafoods, Redondo Beach boardwalk or specialty Asian grocery stores – $23-$27/pound.

Live Southern rock lobsters – Ultra high-end western restaurants or specialty Asian seafood restaurants.

What’s your advice on when to order lobster?

Australian lobsters are of course a great product, and you will never be disappointed with the results, but here in the U.S. they tend to be more expensive than other lobsters. This is simply because our lobsters are so demanded in Hong Kong and China that the purchase price from the fishermen is generally very high. When looking for a good lobster, bear in mind that the tastiest lobsters are the cold-water, spiny lobsters, followed by the warm-water spinys and then, as a last choice, the non-spiny Maines. Some fisheries are more sustainable than others. Look at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List as a guideline as to what you are your more sustainable choices.

What’s your favourite fish recipe?

I love Australian yellowtail (Kingfish) sashimi, but a good ceviche is hard to beat.

What are your tips for cooking seafood at home?

  1. Start with good ingredients.
  2. Don’t be afraid of frozen — a good frozen fillet is always going to be better than a chilled one that has been in the shelf for a week.
  3. Don’t overcook it. There’s nothing worse than dry fish.

How do you spot the best quality seafood at the market?

For whole fish – Look for clear eyes. If it still has gills, have a look at them — you’ll have to lift the gill cover. If the gills are pinky red, the fish is good. If they are brownish or dull, then the fish is older.

Buying fillets – Look for cracks in the flesh. This is called gape and is a bad sign. Note: some fish is more inclined to crack than others. You want flesh that looks nicely knitted together and is consistent in colour.

Hamish’s Sauce

Who are some fellow Australian creative pioneers in the U.S.?

Eddie Ritchard – A very talented actress and friend (NIDA Alum) who is poised to take the U.S. by storm in 2011.

Emma Dallimore – Channel 10’s US Correspondant for the 6 p.m. show with George Negus. Creative, talented and all round legend.

Sam Holt – Entrepreneur/Writer. Always sinking his teeth into something interesting in the U.S. From a guide to being a dad to creating instructional DVDs and books on golf.

Contact Hamish for Lobster

If any Billabout readers want some of Hamish’s specialty items, they can e-mail Billabout and we will put you in touch with Hamish.

Angela Ledgerwood

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