Jeff Powell, a Johnson & Wales educated food service management professional who by day serves as the food service director for Chariho regional schools, had been smoking fish recreationally for nearly two decades when he realized a longstanding dream and launched Ocean State Smoked Fish Company in July 2014.
With Danielle Spry, who he credits as his “Chief Inspiration Officer” by his side, this Warwick resident has been smoking upwards of 100 pounds of fish every week at the Hope & Main kitchens in Warren.
Today, he’s smoking 70 pounds of salmon that has been drying overnight in the walk-in cooler. Drying the fish causes it to develop a pellicle, a slightly tacky “skin” that allows smoke flavor to better adhere to the fish. Powell seasons the fish liberally—today it’s a mesquite blend of herbs and spices—before placing the racks of salmon into the smoker, a high-tech electric unit that allows for indoor smoking with virtually no detectable ambient odor. Depending on the thickness of the fish, it may smoke for upwards of two hours.
Anytime you are processing food, and especially meat, for sale, safety is important. in addition to Hope & Main’s state-of-the-art kitchen, Powell uses a special digital thermometer that not only checks the temperature, it communicates temperature data to Powell’s laptop. State law says that smoked fish must reach and maintain a temperature of 145 F for at least 30 minutes. Powell not only knows that he reaches that benchmark, the data is recorded securely so he is able to provide that information to health inspectors on request.
As important to Powell as safety and flavor is the kind of fish he chooses to smoke and what residual impact his choices make on the industry.
“I thought very carefully about what kind of fish to choose,” Powell says. “It’s mostly local species, including scup, cod, hake, bluefish, haddock, skate wing, and mackerel, depending on seasonal availability. I’m very focused on helping the local fishing community.” Powell’s exacting standards have earned his product the approval of the Department of Environmental Management’s tightly regulated Rhode Island seafood label, proving Powell is buying his fish from a Rhode Island source.
According to Powell, Ocean State’s Rhode Island Smoked Fish Salad features scup, (also known as porgy) as its main ingredient. Long regarded as a “trash fish” used as bait or shipped overseas, scup has newfound respect among local chefs, Powell included. “A Rhode Island fishing vessel can net 10,000 pounds of scup per vessel per week every week all year long,” Powell notes. And yet, Americans are spending money importing tilapia, farm-raised—on animal waste— in Asia. Utilizing our abundance of scup is not only good for our health, it allows our local fisherman to earn a living wage off our own waters.
Keeping with that mission, Powell has plans in place, to be administered through the Rhode Island Fisherman’s Memorial Fund, to set aside a portion of his profits to send a child from a local fishing family through culinary school.
The only non-local fish smoked by Ocean State is the salmon, which hails from the Faroe Islands. “Faroe Island salmon is prized by sushi chefs,” says Powell. “It’s the best out there.” Wild-caught salmon is traditionally very lean, which makes for an inferior product when smoked.
Ocean State’s products include smoked salmon and bluefish by the piece, as well as smoked salmon and whitefish salads and bluefish pate. They’re sold at East Side Marketplace in Providence, the Pawtucket Winter Farmer’s Market, Tom’s Market in Warren, and Grapes & Gourmet in Jamestown; as well as at restaurants including Hemenway’s and Rogue Island in Providence.
When it comes to business, Powell cannot say enough about the impact of Hope & Main, and its founder, Lisa Raiola. “I have so much appreciation for Lisa and Hope & Main, and what they are doing here. She’s my hero. There are 30 of us who wouldn’t be here if not for her vision.
“Hope & Main is the reason I’m in business.”
Powell knows what it takes to incubate a food business from both a practical and policy standpoint; and as chairman of the Economy Work Group of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, tasked with making it easier for food businesses to succeed in Rhode Island, Powell and his committee are working on a manual that will point small businesses to available resources.
“Lisa (Raiola) has said ‘If you’ve seen one food business, you’ve seen one food business’,” Powell says. “That’s true, no two are alike. But we can put together some general info that most will find useful.”
For the immediate future, Powell’s mission is to get his brand out there. “When people think smoked fish, I want them to think Ocean State Smoked Fish,” he says.
With the 70 pounds of salmon soon to emerge from the smoker on this day, and 60 pounds of haddock going in tomorrow, he’s getting there, one pound of delicious smoked fish at a time.