Chilean-born Patricio Osses plays the part of fish buyer to Manhattan’s top eateries. He brags about the fact that his day starts so late— at 4 a.m.—a luxury he can now allow himself, as an established business owner. By the time Patricio rolls into the fish market at dawn, the freshest fish is already waiting for him, thanks to a network of trustworthy providers. “I’m very selective,” he warns. “If I don’t like something, I send it back. I would never buy something that isn’t 100% great. I’m very demanding with the fish I buy.” It’s Patricio’s impeccable eye and sense of taste that we’re counting on, as we take a journey into his home and into his kitchen. What delicacies from the sea await? Join us as we get to know Patricio, his past, his passion and his favorite fish preparation.
It may come as a surprise that someone who works with fish day in and day out didn’t grow up eating it. “Growing up in Chile,” remembers Patricio, “my father used to say he was going to take me to the beach to eat a fine piece of fish. But once I got there, I inevitably ordered steak and fries.”
While Patricio was still a boy, his family suffered a diaspora. His parents divorced; his father moved to New York, where he started a business importing seafood from Chile; and his mother moved to the Netherlands. Patricio and his siblings stayed behind for a few years, before moving across the Ocean with mom. “I didn’t eat much fish over there either,” he remembers. “I started eating more and more when I finally moved to New York and saw the variety that my dad used to sell.”
It’s one of those beautiful summer days, and Patricio is already busy, when we arrive. The plumpest octopus you’ve ever seen sits cooked on a tray. The salmon trout and the toro—fatty tuna belly, which he cleaned himself the night before—are ready to be grilled on hot coals outside. He prepares a fresh salsa to accompany the seafood. “It doesn’t matter that I’ll use the same salsa for the octopus and the fish. They’ll have a totally different taste,” he says. Seeing how hungry we’ve become, Patricio offers an improvised snack: octopus with olive oil and a bit of Spanish paprika. The flavors are outstanding.
Patricio enjoys color, variety and freshness in the food he cooks. He loves using lemons and coarse salt to boost flavor. Having worked at a handful of New York restaurants, he has picked up a few magic tricks from the chefs he observed. When he eats out, he wants to enjoy what he offers his top-name clients: consistency. “My job is about bringing the best product every single time. I can run to five different places, until I find what’s worthy of my clients, because I want to offer excellence. That is the most important part of my job.”
Patricio remembers one occasion when a chef at The Four Seasons, one of his biggest clients, needed sea urchin and sardines for the James Beard Awards banquet. “There was a problem, because sardines only came once or twice a week from Portugal, and none came that week. The menus were already in print, and the chef couldn’t change anything. I made a few calls and found a friend who had three boxes of fresh anchovies. I went over to him, handpicked 70 of the best-looking ones and brought them over to the chef. He was nervous, but in the end the anchovies saved the day!”
When talking about his true passion in life, Patricio talks about his family. “I like to cook, be with my wife, my kids. We’re like a clan. We go everywhere together,” he says with a big smile. Meanwhile, his phone is buzzing with messages from a “spy” he planted at his son’s tennis match to send updates. “Felipe won!” Patricio says with a grin on his face, knife in one hand, phone in the other.
If you’re looking to engage Patricio’s services, you might just have to wait. Today he works with only a few select clients in an effort to deliver the best possible results. The New York Times article that featured him in 1999 catapulted him into a kind of seafood seller’s hall of fame, which had an Oprah-effect on his career. Patricio is a true problem solver, someone his clients rely on one hundred percent, and that trust is what matters most to Patricio, ahead of growth or profit. And that means, for many New York City diners, Patricio is the person to thank next time you get caught eating the freshest fish in town.
Patricio's Recipe for Seafood in Fresh Salsa.
Photos by J.R. Sheetz and Pako Dominguez.