Passion, especially for food, comes in all shapes and sizes.
At Bluewater Grill in Tustin, it is dressed as a rail-thin chef with a perpetual smile, endless knowledge, and energy so unflagging, it’s hard to keep up.
‘I recognize that not everyone is enthralled by food. I don’t understand it, but I recognize it,’ says Chef Brian Hirsty, with a grin.
Self-described as ‘the only skinny chef you can trust,’ Hirsty believes in simple, fresh fare. He also believes in providing new experiences, and has made that a hallmark of Bluewater Grill, which, incidentally, he defines as ‘a seafood restaurant, not a restaurant that serves seafood.’
His passion starts at the source, insisting on buying direct from local fishermen and farms. He explains, ‘With direct feedback, I can control size, harvesting methods and finishing techniques.’ He cites opah and moonfish as two of the more exotic fresh-from-the-sea ingredients he uses. ‘Most people won’t try seafood unless they believe in the freshness, the quality, and believe that it’s something they are going to enjoy,’ he says.
‘We never compromise on quality,’ echoes General Manager Chris Rock, offering the example of the Catalina Island Harpooned Swordfish. Caught between August and October, these 360-pound fish are not line-caught, which can cause stress and the release of toxins, degrading the quality of the fish. Instead, they are killed by harpoon and processed almost immediately on day boats, then rushed to Bluewater Grill.
To signify its arrival, a swordfish is rolled through the restaurant during its busiest time, in what Rock deems ‘the best marketing ever.’ And the fresh selections don’t stop there.
The Crab Cakes are Atlantic red crabmeat that are pan sauteed until golden brown, then served with cajun remoulade.
The Salt & Pepper Shrimp are whole shell-on shrimp that have been flash fried until crispy, and seasoned with garlic and ginger (hint: you eat them whole—shell and all).
The Ponzu Sashimi Sea Scallops are served in the shell, topped with wasabi aioli, seaweed salad and masago.
The Cedar Plank Salmon (click for recipe) is seared in sake and soy, marinated with a fruit Beurre Blanc, and served on a cedar plank that was milled to Hirsty’s specifications.
The Thai Green Curry Mussels & Clam dish is simmered in a cilantro curry coconut milk sauce.
The Tempura Yam Crusted Halibut, with hints of Thai basil and mint, is served with a glass noodle salad and sweet chili glaze.
And the Local Swordfish—a house specialty—is served with a citrus stonefruit salsa.
One more, because the Baked Stuffed Maine Lobster (click for recipe) is a classic: Lobster stuffed with a buttered panko bread crumb and shrimp stuffing, and a must for any lobster lover.
Finish with a spectacular Bananas Foster and you will have had an experience. And, for Bluewater Grill, that’s what it’s all about.
Hirsty brings his own experiences and what he calls ‘cuisines I’ve come to love’ into his menu items. He says, ‘I like to take the ethnic influences and make them my own.’
Unsurprising for a chef who was cooking Kung Pao chicken in his first wok at age 10, and mastered Thai curry pasta at 15 years old.
‘I like exploring new things,” he says. “If you are passionate about food, you live for taste sensations—something that inspires you to something you haven’t felt before,’ he adds.
Hirsty keeps it authentic by knowing the cuisines, understanding the background and what is true to form. And, he is bold about capitalizing on the expertise of his employees. ‘We have Latin talent already in the kitchen; it would be a shame not to use it,’ he says.
There is no question that the team of Hirsty and Rock share a passion for their work that extends itself to their employees.
‘I am blessed to have hired my entire team,’ Rock says. ‘I hired people like myself, who have passion for food and are comfortable being in front of people. I was willing to hire people even without serving experience because they cared so much about the customer’s experience. Of course, we countered that with an intense training course,’ some of it even offered online. Now, he says, ‘People are so happy here, we can’t get rid of them!’
Hirsty adds, ‘One of the things I take pride in is raising the skills of our people.’ He points out that almost all of his current line cooks started as dishwashers. ‘We elevate their quality of life; that means a lot.’
Rock believes that Bluewater’s ‘out of the box’ marketing efforts, including employee contests and taste-tests, help build energy and momentum for the team. ‘We cultivate customers through our staff,’ he expands. ‘They teach us and the public.”
He adds, “A lot of people are scared of seafood, so it’s essential to teach. I consider it a direct way of marketing, hands on, with that person. You begin to see the emotion. You can see their taste buds change, and how they get overwhelmed with new flavors.’
‘The look of satisfaction on a customer’s face—that makes it worth it,’ says Hirsty. ‘But what we live for is that empty plate. You can tell me what you want, or what you liked, but I’m looking at the plate.’
As a ‘front of the house kind of chef,’ it is Hirsty’s personal mission to break his guests’ inhibitions and get them to try new things.
‘I like to talk about the food items,’ he says. ‘They say they’ve never tried that. So, of course, I’m going to go get a sample for them to try it. The best way is to take out a beautiful plate and lay it in front of them.’
As Rock demonstrates the proper way to eat the Salt & Pepper Shrimp—traditionally eaten whole—he adds, ‘When people think seafood, they think texture or taste. There is a stigma on the tentacles. So, we have fun with you. When we have fun, you’re more likely to try it.’
He continues, ‘This is a form of entertainment. People are spending money on entertainment. We can’t forget that’s what dining out is.’
Performance is second nature to Rock, who was actually a theatre arts major. ‘Now I’m on stage 60 hours a week,’ he says.
Rock has been with the company for 10 years, though this particular restaurant is just two years old. ‘Both owners,’ he says, ‘have seafood backgrounds. One is in Connecticut, and grew up fishing. One is from Australia and owns a harpoon fishing boat. They are into anything that makes better fishing. They are pioneers.’
In Hirsty’s words, these weren’t ‘two guys who opened a hotdog stand and decided to do seafood.’ The restaurant has deep roots in the seafood industry.
Hirsty, too, is ‘an artist at heart.’ He is ‘the kind of guy who sits down with a pad of paper at night for all the ideas that come.’ The result is a menu full of carefully constructed creations that are both full of flavor and visually stunning.
‘Whether it’s teaching my people, or teaching my guests—getting them to try things they haven’t tried before—those are the things that satisfy me,’ says Hirsty. ‘I like to break down their inhibitions. I love to give people the passion I have.’
See the passion. Better yet, taste it for yourself.
See our video from Bluewater Grill here.
See our blog from the Los Angeles tour, Try It, You’ll Like It.
Visit Bluewater Grill:
2409 Park Avenue
Tustin, CA 92782
665 North Harbor Drive
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
(310) 318-FISH (3474)
630 Lido Park Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 675-FISH (3474)
1720 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016-4005
This is a Raves & Faves Featured Restaurant.