If you see a blur of plaid as a scooter flies past you on the street, a shady deal on the corner with an exchange of foil pouches and cash, and smell the lingering odor of hot buttered rolls and lobster, there’s a good chance you just witnessed Greenpoint’s notorious underground lobster roll guy, Ben Sargent.
Sargent, 32, was recently in the New York City foodie spotlight for running an underground lobster roll experiment from his basement apartment in Greenpoint. His story was featured in a New York Daily News article at the beginning of February, which brought him unwanted attention from the New York City Fire Department.
The illegal operation was shut down and Sargent was issued a warning. While he’s realizes his underground business was illegal, Sargent said he risked the lobster roll operation in the name of research for a book he is in the process of writing about his lifelong connection with chowder.
Sargent said he is currently pitching the book to several publishers, which he hopes to hear back from in the next two months. With or with out a green light from a publisher, Sargent said he plans to spend this summer traveling around the country researching local ingredients to create a unique chowder that best reflects the local flavors of each state.
“I’d be cool to do a chowder for each state. There aren’t that many landlocked states and I could use freshwater fish or like crawfish, catfish, they all go great in chowder,” Sargent said.
Sargent, who has appeared on the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay and the Martha Stewart Show for his chowder notoriety, has had no formal culinary training.
“People like to hear that I dropped out of the French Culinary Institute. They run it like the army,” Sargent said. “If you’re willing to work for free or next to nothing, you can learn anything you want in the restaurant business.”
At the moment, Sargent hosts a weekly podcast/radio segment called Catch It, Cook It, Eat It for the Heritage Radio Network where he speaks to local fishermen about their experiences and encourages listeners to rethink the confines of the city.
It is a combination of family tradition, health and environmental reasons that attract Sargent to creating new chowder recipes, which he said he first learned how to make after spending hours fishing and clamming in Cape Cod with his grandfather.
“Because of the fish used, chowder has a lot of omega-3’s which are great for you,” Sargent said. “But it’s also about eating lower on the food chain. Chowder uses a lot of clams and mussels, which put less of a dent because there are more of them.”
He said he hopes the book will encourage people to learn more about the local ingredients available and show that a formal culinary education is not necessary to be able to cook really great food.
“I’m doing the thing that I’m meant to do,” said Sargent.
A Sneak Peek: Ben’s Bahamian Seafood Chowder
From inside his cramped, basement apartment decorated with remnants of past business adventures, article appearance clippings, guitars and a general island, surfer theme, Ben Sargent prepared one of his original chowder recipes, Bahamian Seafood Chowder.
“It’s a Caribbean flavor,” Sargent said. “I just grab stuff and throw it in there. That’s what its all about, getting rid of what you have left over.”
He said it is generally a two-hour long cooking process, one hour to make the spicy, curry, coconut broth and then a second hour to allow the vegetable, fruit and fish he prepares separately to simmer together. While the recipe suggests at home cooks use conch, Sargent says any fleshy fish that doesn’t break apart would also work well.
The most surprising twist to this recipe, plantains, which Sargent warns could get too soft if stewed too long. Overall, the chowder is a satisfying brothy, oily medley of exactly what you expect from a Bahamian-inspired dish, potatoes, curry, coconut with just a little kick.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds conch, pounded to 1/8- inch thickness, and cut into 1/2-inch strips
1 large Spanish onion, halved and thinly sliced
Kosher salt, to taste
2 red bell peppers, seeded, cut into bite size chunks
2 green bell peppers, seeded, cut into bite size chunks
3 tablespoons Jamaican curry powder (tester: note which brand you use)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Pinch sweet paprika
1 bay leaf
4 cups heavy cream
3 cups fish stock
1 (28.5 ounce) can peeled tomatoes, crushed with your hand, plus their juices
2 (13-ounce cans) coconut milk
1/4 cup coconut cream
3 pounds Russet or other baking potatoes, peeled and cut into bite size chunks
3 large carrot, peeled and cut into bite size chunks
2 large green plantains, peeled, quartered lengthwise and sliced into bite size chunks
2 yellow plantains, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced into bite size chunks
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound firm-fleshed white fish, (such as Mahi Mahi) cut into bite size pieces
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Hot sauce, for serving
Melon or coconut halves, for serving
1. Melt the butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add the conch and onions and cook season with salt, to taste, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the bell peppers, stirring, until the peppers soften, for 8 minutes. Stir in the curry powder, cayenne, paprika, bay leaf and salt to taste and cook until fragrant, about 4 minutes.
2. Stir in the heavy cream, fish stock, tomatoes, coconut milk, coconut cream, potatoes, carrots, and plantains, bring to a brisk simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the conch and green plantains are tender, about 1 hour. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
3. Add the fish pieces and parsley and simmer, uncovered, until fish is just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaf and serve with hot sauce, if desired in a bowl or, more decoratively, a half a melon or coconut.
Cook’s Note: Conch info about removing the silver skin and yellow parts before pounding.