Even if most of chef Kirby Sholl’s face is hidden by a mask and his telltale Mets cap, you can still see it light up when he starts talking about Maine halibut carcasses. During his tenure behind the stove at several Maine restaurants, the New Jersey native, now chef de cuisine at Chaval in Portland’s West End, has cooked his share of flaky white Atlantic halibut portions. Halibut, after all, is a quintessential ingredient for summertime coastal cuisine. But it’s not the filleted loins that excite Sholl.

Normally, as much as 40 percent of the halibut goes to waste. Sholl is using every bit in a series of dishes for the Halibut Project at Chaval. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

He gently positions what remains of a 65-pound fish that’s been reeled in by a Maine fisherman and relieved of its heavy loins by a fishmonger at Brown Trading Company. The fillets were sold at a premium price to other chefs. Sholl points out that 40 percent of the whole fish remains at his disposal there on his board. He points to the head, cheeks, neck (and the sac of gelatinous blood attached to it), collar bones, ribs and smaller loins that sit just below the fins, all perfectly edible parts of the fish. Sholl uses each of these off-cuts to make the myriad dishes now featured on Chaval’s menu under the heading: The Halibut Project.

“Working with parts of the fish that some chefs might view as waste is just a cool, fun way to bring delicious food to the table,” Sholl says. He’s been working with Chavel chef/owner Damien Sansonetti since before the Spanish and French-inspired brasserie opened in 2017 to produce its nose-to-tail menu. “Nose-to-tail” is a culinary philosophy that dictates nothing edible from a butchered animal goes uneaten. Sansonetti sources whole pigs and lambs and sides of beef from local farms and breaks them down on site to serve everything from New York strip steak au poivre to pork pâté de ocean, which is dotted with kelp.

“Using all parts of a large halibut is a natural progression of what we’ve always done here” Sansonetti says. “The best part of this project, though, is watching Kirby take it and push it in so many different directions.”

Grilled BBQ halibut ribs, one of the dishes now on the menu at Chaval as part of The Halibut Project. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Since mid-May and through the end of local halibut season in late June or early July, Chaval’s Halibut Project menu features dishes like ceviche with cherries, fennel and lovage; crispy, golden fin “wings” with lemon aioli, green onions and herb emulsion; grilled ribs with house spice rub; cheeks with cream, spinach and sorrel; halibut head cheese; Cou de Fletan, a braised neck broth with spring vegetables; and blood sausage made in the style of Spanish morcilla.

Crispy Golden Fin “Wings” at Chaval. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The recipes were developed over several Maine halibut seasons using techniques Sholl has employed many other times at Chaval; at Miyaki, a high-end Japanese restaurant in Portland; and at Islesford Dock Restaurant and Gallery on Little Cranberry Island, where he has also worked the line. Diced, the fin loins work like any flaky white fish does in any ceviche preparation. He cooks the cheeks using a method good for any delicate protein from sweet breads to shad roe. The halibut head cheese includes “sea vegetables” (the term many are using to replace seaweed), just like Sansonetti’s pork pâté does. And the wings dish evolved when Sholl’s girlfriend sent him back to the kitchen complaining that earlier versions of the dish were too messy to eat given the number of tiny bones at play. He thought he fixed the situation by removing the meat and frying it. But that dish resembled a chicken tender. So he tried frying a portion of the fin and the bones to use as a serving vessel; now he believes he’s made a tasty dish that clearly communicates it came from a big fish.

Paired with cream, sorrel and brown butter, the halibut cheeks will make a delicious dish. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

He’s been making the ribs since he lived on Little Cranberry Island, inspired by a recipe from a cookbook by famed Chicago chef Paul Kahan. They look remarkably like baby back pork ribs on the plate but the meat is softer, halibut white and with a halibut taste, of course. Over the years, he’s sent halibut ribs out to fellow chefs who have dined at Chaval as a treat from the kitchen, a common professional courtesy that also shows off the resident’s chef’s creativity. But Sholl says when a fisherman friend deemed them his new favorite cut of the fish, that was the highest compliment yet.

“When the people who harvested the fish tell you your dish is good, that is the ultimate seal of approval,” Sholl said.

Sholl has no illusions that his time-limited halibut menu will solve major environmental problems like overfishing or rampant food waste. “But if we can maybe move the dial just a little bit in the right direction while giving customers delicious food, I’m good with that.”

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Brown Butter Roasted Halibut cheeks with cream, sorrel and spinach.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Brown Butter Roasted Halibut Cheeks

This recipe was developed by Chaval’s chef de cuisine Kirby Sholl as part of the restaurant’s Halibut Project in which he uses every part of a halibut carcass in various dishes for the duration of the local halibut season. Halibut cheeks range in size depending on the size of  the fish when caught. You’ll need 5-6 ounces of cheeks per person. If halibut is out of season, this recipe works with cod cheeks too.

Serves 2

10-12 ounces halibut cheeks
Kosher salt
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons butter
4 sprigs thyme, tied together with kitchen string
1 cup chopped spinach
1/2 cup chopped sorrel
Cracked white pepper
1 cup mixed greens and edible flowers
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Season the cheeks with salt and set aside.

Pour the cream into a small saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat until it is reduced to 1/4 cup, about 10 minutes. Set aside but keep warm.

In an ovenproof skillet large enough to hold the cheeks in a single layer, melt the butter over medium heat. Place the seasoned cheeks into the pan. Let the butter foam, settle and start to brown slightly, about 2 minutes.  Use the thyme sprigs to baste with the browned butter. Drop the sprigs in the pan. Slide the skillet into oven and roast, basting the cheeks at the 2 minute mark, until the cheeks are opaque throughout, about 4 minutes.

As the cheeks roast, stir the chopped spinach and sorrel into the warm cream. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Toss the greens with the olive oil and lemon juice.

When the cheeks are cooked, divide the cream, spinach and sorrel sauce between 2 shallow bowls. Place half of the cheeks in each bowl, spooning some browned butter over each. Top each serving with half the salad and serve immediately.


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