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Portraits of Cooks

“Justo moves his hand up the filet in a literal flurry of movement; with each bone that comes out, he taps the pliers on the cutting board to release it, then, never stopping, in one continuous motion, repeats repeats repeats. It sounds like a quick, double-time snare drum beat, a staccato tap tap tap tap tap tap, and then . . . done. A pause of a few seconds as he begins another side of fish. I can barely see his hand move.”

Anthony Bourdain dedicated an entire chapter of “Medium Raw” to Le Bernardin’s Justo Thomas, the now-almost-legend-like fish butcher carrying out the masterful salmon fillet job described in the excerpt above.

Northern Virginia has no Le Bernardin. But the Super H-Mart in Fairfax, VA, has some of the freshest seafood you will find anywhere. Cod, salmon, flounder, catfish, carp, mackerel, hairtail, and more varieties of shellfish than I can recall. Oh, live blue crab and even live crayfish, occasionally. At the fish section’s epicenter is Heradio, master fish butcher. With skills that rival even the most seasoned sushi chefs, hand him a live flounder and he will have it gutted, cleaned, filleted, sliced, and in your mouth before you can say Eric Ripert.

Heradio, the fish butcher.

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Today I am starting a new feature series on i am not a lawyer.

Portraits of Cooks” will be a series of photos of the men and women who do the real cooking behind kitchen doors – the cooks. The “star chef” conundrum has proven to be phenomenally profitable for many, including the Food Network and its posse. In the midst of all the Bobby Flays and Paula Deans, however, the faces of the people who actually prepare most of the food we eat at restaurants – the line cooks that tirelessly wash, chop, fry, stir and grill – are lost. The star chefs get all the acclaim and fame; this series will pay due regard to the owners of the calloused and burnt hands that too often remain unrecognized. This series connects food to face.

Whether I’m dining out in my favorite joints or discovering new spots, getting to know the cooks has been invaluable. Not only do you learn firsthand about the restaurant and the food, you build a deeper understanding of the restaurant industry and of the people who comprise it. Understanding the people behind the food is the first step in truly understanding food itself.

Meet our first cook, Jose Ventura of Famous Luigi’s Pizza. One of the oldest pizza joints in downtown DC, Luigi’s pizzas are made fresh and baked to perfection, never shy on the cheese. The handmade dough is actually the best part of their pies, thanks to Jose and his crew.

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