Where L.A.'s Top Sushi Chefs Source That $250 Omakase

A look at the inner workings of International Marine Products, where nearly all of the city's high-end sushi restaurants source their fish.

"It's a point of pride here that it doesn't really smell like fish," says Ryuichi Watanabe, holding a California rockfish in his gloved hand as he stands amid plastic tubs overflowing with ice to safeguard the goods.

Watanabe, sales manager at Los Angeles' International Marine Products on a dodgy block at East Seventh and South San Pedro, is not exaggerating. This refrigerated warehouse, which moves some $200,000 worth of live and recently departed fish each day, smells nothing like the seafood counter at Ralphs. Taking a deep whiff on the morning of May 9, just shy of 6:30 a.m., I can only smell a hint of ocean brine and the faint scent of near-frozen air.

This 49-year-old culinary institution, widely thought to be the finest wholesale fish market in America, caters exclusively to the restaurant industry and hosts near-daily visits from chefs as far south as San Diego. (IMP ships nationwide but declines to sell to adventurous home cooks.) Top-tier local catches, sea urchin from up north, Maine lobsters, pristine arrivals from Japan and Korea — it all comes through IMP before dispersing to top sushi restaurants in L.A. If you order the $250 omakase at Q Sushi, the spicy snow crab at Nobu or the Mediterranean sea bass at Bouchon, your dinner passed through IMP.

The market is largely credited with making L.A. a sushi city. Its exclusive partnerships with fish farms, relationships with fishermen and a purchasing office in Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market have made it a one-of-a-kind middleman. A subdued version of the legendary Tsukiji auction takes place at IMP in a separate, even colder room. There, a small army of big-forearmed men selectively dismember and grade tuna before chefs arrive to inspect and sample the torsos. Blue fin belly, for one, is going for $38 a pound on this day. (A steal compared to a pound of gnarled, pistachio-colored wasabi root, imported from Japan, which costs $100.)

Offerings started to spike in the 1980s and '90s, making sourcing easier for the likes of Nobu Matsuhisa, an early customer. "Even yellowtail used to be frozen," says Matsuhisa of his early days working in L.A. "When I started to use fresh, customers actually complained. They noticed the color and texture were different and thought something was wrong."

Boom time for the L.A. food scene has added more Western eateries to IMP's client base. "We sell to everyone now. This New Zealand hiramasa is popular with Disneyland restaurants and Republique," says Watanabe, holding a silvery-green fish destined for a crudo plate, bathed in ponzu or a green Thai curry, at a dinner service that evening. IMP staff credit Wolfgang Puck buying from them during Spago's early days as a tipping point.

Still, IMP belongs to sushi chefs, dozens of them sifting through upwards of 40 options (excluding oyster varieties) on the sales block amid near silence. There's no dramatic airborne salmon (a la Pike Place in Seattle), no tourists to impress, no shouting, no bidding wars at the scale. The subdued efficiency may be a product of IMP's early hours (5 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Saturday, which diametrically oppose those of its clientele). Some of the 20 or so customers swiftly navigating the tubs today no doubt left work after 11 the night before.

Nearly all of the voices heard during this visit are Japanese. Even Watanabe, a former banker who goes by "Ray" and arrived at IMP to remove himself from desk life, toggles between Japanese and English as he sifts through the churning tanks of live lobsters and spot prawns while engaging with customers. Galen Kirkpatrick, a former fisherman and IMP staffer, scoops up a live halibut to pantomime how they're prepared. I shudder a bit as it flops around on a sterile-looking surface, a prospective buyer peering over my shoulder without emotion at someone else's dinner.

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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