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Dining: Sea Rations

Browne Trading Co.’s offerings include salmon and caviar, the latter of which accounts for a third of the Maine firm’s sales

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Rod Browne Mitchell sometimes rises early to go fishing aboard his 23-foot powerboat before heading to his office in Portland, Maine. For Mitchell, the founder and owner of Browne Trading Co., a purveyor of seafood and caviar, these morning excursions are busman’s holidays. He sells his catch of mackerel and striped bass at the company’s Portland retail store, or he offers the fish to the restaurants that constitute 90 percent of Browne’s clientele.

The yellowfin tuna at Daniel, the codfish at Le Bernardin, and the sea urchin at Esca are all shipped to Manhattan from the Browne headquarters, a 207-year-old brick building on Portland’s waterfront. “Primarily, we concentrate on the best restaurants in the country, and we’re conscientious about freshness,” Mitchell says, as he walks past a tray containing four whole red snappers that were caught a day earlier near the Gulf of Mexico and will arrive at a Las Vegas restaurant the following day. “Fish is supposed to have a shelf life [out of the water] of 10 days, but we don’t like that. We like to ship at two days, maximum. We’re the largest overnight UPS customer in Maine.”

Mitchell, 52, named his business after his grandfather Earl Browne, who taught him to fish Maine’s waters, but he credits the late Jean-Louis Palladin, an influential chef who helmed the Jean-Louis restaurant at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., with nurturing his business. “He taught me to be serious about what I was doing,” Mitchell says, “and that my fish and seafood should be absolutely as fresh as possible.” The two met in the early 1980s in Camden, Maine. Palladin was visiting a friend in the town, where Mitchell ran a shop that sold wine and gourmet groceries. Mitchell recalls the chef asking him why he did not stock caviar. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’d like to,’ and he introduced me to the man who supplied him with caviar,” he says.

Palladin encouraged him to offer other seafood delicacies found closer to home, such as the diver scallops that Mitchell used to collect from the ocean floor when he was a young man. “It’s firmer because it’s not under stress from being dragged or killed in a net,” Mitchell says, explaining why a diver-harvested scallop is superior to other varieties. “[When diving], you should only be able to fit one in your hand at a time.”

Palladin recommended Mitchell’s caviar- and seafood-supplying services to fellow chefs, and ultimately, Mitchell left Camden and cofounded Browne Trading Co. in Portland in 1991 with his wife, Cynde. The company opened the store and launched a retail mail-order catalog after fielding inquiries from diners who wanted to know where the chefs had purchased their seafood.

Chefs and restaurants remain the core business, however. Mitchell spends his late mornings at his desk, calling prominent clients and handling their orders personally. On this morning, roughly 30 minutes after one of his salesmen purchased a 330-pound bluefin tuna that had just arrived at the Portland docks, Mitchell sells a 15-pound section of its top loin—a cut that is ideal for sushi—to Esca, an Italian seafood restaurant in Manhattan. He is smiling and relaxed as he speaks on the phone to the chef, who, at one point in the conversation, asks where Mitchell is. “Sitting right here,” he says, “taking care of you.” 

Browne Trading Co., 800.944.7848, www­.brownetrading.com

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