By Melody Yuan
November 23, 2022
Steven Wong, owner of Aqua Best Seafood Market
How Steven Wong and his family business, Aqua Best Seafood Market, connect East and West while sourcing and distributing high-quality seafood to the Big Apple.
From shiny black bass to large king crabs lying on the ice, Aqua best seafood market comes alive in the early morning hours of downtown New York. With a mission to bring the freshest, highest quality catch to the kitchens, owner Steven Wong is busy checking customer orders.
“We currently service over 250 restaurants, many of which are Michelin-starred,” says Wong. Despite the success and size of Wong’s seafood business today, Aqua Best had humble origins, fueled by an immigrant mother’s yearning for her favorite seafood dishes from back home.
“Aqua Best actually started around 1986 under a different name by my mother,” Wong explains. “When she first immigrated from China to the United States, she really missed the food back home. She then realized that there were many immigrants who were not familiar with the trips and who were faced with the same situation.” Although Wong’s father died in 1987 and had to raise four children alone, Wong’s mother persevered and began sourcing seafood from the United States. “It was a one-man show,” Wong recalled. “She literally started from scratch. From Massachusetts to the Virginia coast, she started selling to restaurants and small supermarkets and built Aqua Best to be what it is today.”
Stay above the turbulent waves of the times
As a second-generation owner, Wong further diversified Aqua Best’s customer base. “New York City is central to every cuisine,” says Wong, “and over the past 10 to 15 years we’ve pushed more towards that trend.” Wong’s family business now serves more than half of New York’s Michelin-starred restaurants.
“One of the biggest challenges in keeping this business going is finding all the logistics,” Wong says. “We are constantly researching different types of seafood that chefs demand, as we are present in all facets of the food industry. A French restaurant will have very different demands than a Thai or Korean restaurant.”
In terms of volume, Aqua Best consumed an average of 60-80,000 pounds of lobster per week, with the number reaching 150,000 pounds during the holidays.
However, the biggest challenges came abruptly, first with former President Trump’s trade war. “We were one of the largest exporters of lobster from the United States, primarily to China,” Wong explains, “and with the sudden change in policy, we didn’t have time to adjust the way we “We were running our business. We couldn’t just reroute our logistics overnight and our lobsters were taxed almost 25% more than our Canadian counterparts.”
The second blow came with the outbreak of COVID-19. “A lot of countries closed, we saw fewer international flights and yet we still had to maintain the same level of quality, freshness and variety in the city.”
Wong credits his connections with overcoming the giant wave of logistical challenges that have drowned many food companies. “I know it sounds cliché, but our relationships with our business partners were really important. We imported and exported all over the world and our business partners provided the best product they had, and we in turn sent them the best lobsters. that we had.”
Wong’s relationship with East West Bank also ensured that financial matters were taken care of. Having been part of Wong’s seafood business from the start, East West Bank understood Wong’s predicament. “Our relationship with bank managers and loan officers was crucial,” Wong explains, “because whenever we had a large debit or credit account that needed to be dealt with quickly, we knew we could pick up the phone and talk. directly to someone we knew. . That level of trust and connection helped us feel more comfortable making decisions.”
Exciting Trends in Seafood Dining in NYC
The pandemic has shaped many different trends across various industries, and one notable food trend has been home cooking with seafood. home, but with lockdown I’ve seen a lot more people get adventurous and comfortable with cooking seafood. I mean there are so many recipes and video tutorials on great seafood dishes. seafood online,” says Wong. Whether it’s making your own sushi or making delicious clam pasta at home, it’s a trend that Wong is excited about.
Wong’s recently award-winning restaurant, Essex Pearlparticipated in the annual meeting Taste of Asia event in New York where they presented a recreation of the traditional lobster roll. “It was so much fun,” says Wong, a complete twist on the Maine lobster roll, Essex Pearl’s lobster roll featured ingredients like pickled chiles, fried shallots and sauces with bold flavor profiles. “When was the last time you tasted something new? In the culinary world right now, you can create a new and amazing flavor profile and that’s what Daniel Le, my business partner and executive chef at Essex Pearl has done. It’s all very exciting because there’s a lot of noise around that our lobster roll is the best in New York right now.”
Wong attributes his success to the creativity and innovation of his businesses, while understanding his audience. “Anyone can start a business, but you have to understand what your audience wants and who your customers are,” says Wong. “You need to plan carefully and understand your product or service in order to sell to the right people. I sell myself on quality and service. I am not a price oriented company where I will go cheap, but I will guarantee good quality seafood.”
Cuisines linking East and West
Wong believes food can connect cultures across East and West as well as generations. “At Essex Pearl, for example, we primarily have quirky Southeast Asian flavor profiles, but we also use Western ingredients like Mediterranean sea bass instead of an Asian fish to recreate dishes.” In doing so, Wong hopes people can find comfort and familiarity, but also excitement in new flavors. “My job is to find similar flavor profiles and make them more easily accessible and comfortable for our non-Asian customers. We want to continue to use authentic flavors and create an opportunity for people to approach and understand new foods. You can come to Essex Pearl and transport yourself to Southeast Asia while being in New York.That’s the kind of bridge we’re creating.
With Thanksgiving on the horizon, many families across the United States are gearing up for the annual turkey feast. Although not widely celebrated in other parts of the world, Wong points out that in Asian and Chinese cultures, lobsters represent a similar purpose to a turkey feast. “Lobster is the meat of choice for many Asian festivities, which is perfect for me,” says the lobster guru. “I ate so much lobster I can taste the difference,” Wong says. “There are some really easy ways to choose the best lobster if you want to try something completely different this Thanksgiving this year.”
Video originally produced by Eater in 2020
For Wong’s mother, Aqua Best allowed her to find a way to access and share the taste of home. “My mom loves shellfish, so clams have always reminded her of her hometown.” Although he’s known as New York’s “lobster sourcer,” Wong’s favorite seafood dish is actually mussels. “Believe it or not, I love my mom’s mussel dish which uses simple ingredients like garlic, fish sauce, sesame oil and soy sauce. But I’ve never been able to to recreate it.” Wong loves the smell and flavor of the dish which evokes nostalgic feelings. “You know, this dish originated in my mother’s hometown, a place where I never grew up, so the dish itself is a connection to her heritage that is now intertwined with memories of my childhood.”