Some snicker at the mere mention of his name, others speak of him in hushed tones. To them, he is an indisputable legend, a man with a near-mythic ability at peddling wholesale seafood. Is it a good time to be an octopus salesman? It is. Global demand, adventurous millennial palates, the popularity of Hawaiian poke and President Trump’s trade war with China have all done their part to secure Stephen Fried’s hallowed place in cephalopodic circles. Still, the octopus boom cannot alone explain his outsize reputation among chefs and restaurateurs around the country. Lots of guys can tout a tentacle (okay, anatomically, it’s an arm), but he alone is Octoman.
“If it wasn’t for me, Octoman wouldn’t even exist,” said Fried’s boss, Frank Gullo of Gullo Specialty Foods in Westbury. “And you can write — you can let him know I said that.” Technically, Fried was already selling octo when he met Gullo in 2011, having previously been introduced to the trade by an octopus broker—yes, they exist—who knew of his work as a food journalist and host of the public access cable series “Beyond the Dish.” But in going to work for Gullo, Fried was able to marry his alter ego Octoman to a prestige product, one he would come to call the “Lamborghini or Ferrari of octopus.”
Its trendy popularity notwithstanding, octopus, which is a type of mollusk, often elicits mixed reviews from diners, especially when poorly cooked. “It has to be prepared expertly,” said Lilly Kanarova, whose tapas bars Salumi in Massapequa and Plancha in Garden City both feature octopus starters. “Otherwise, it’s extremely chewy, almost like a gum, or, on the other hand, extremely mealy.” As it happens, Kanarova does not buy Gullo’s octopus, which diners rarely find either gummy or mealy, and restaurateurs and home cooks alike consider almost idiot-proof. (“I tell Michelin-starred chefs, ‘set a timer for 40 minutes, drop it in and it’s done.’ A dishwasher can do it,” said Fried.)
The secret of Gullo’s success? Octopuses (that’s the correct plural) that are caught in the Mediterranean or on the Spanish coast, frozen onboard the boat, put through a proprietary tenderizing process in which the mollusks are tumbled in a sea salt and ice-water solution, and frozen again for shipping.
Octoman always knew that Gullo would be good for his brand, but the reverse was in no way certain, at least initially. “He comes down to the facility,” Gullo recalled, “and I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re crazy. What is wrong with you? You’re bouncing off the walls.’ ” Still, Fried’s energy, charisma and prodigal octo-mongering skills were undeniable. During his eight years with Gullo, Octoman has sold tens of millions of dollars of octopus to restaurants in the New York area and beyond, and thanks in large part to his efforts, Gullo is now the country’s largest importer of tumbled, tenderized Spanish octopus. “It’s like selling insurance,” said Fried, smiling. “They fall in love and then just keep buying. It makes my life a lot easier.”
He’s ... intense,” said Doug Gulija of The Plaza Cafe in Southampton, who has been buying Gullo octopus from Fried for years. “Honestly, the first time he called me, I thought, this is going to be nonsense. He sounded like a car salesman. But he’s got passion, so I gave him my time.”
As they debated the finer points of sous-vide preparation and the like, Fried impressed Gulija with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of a creature that is little more than muscles and neurons, his obvious reverence for it (“three hearts, nine brains”), his cooking prowess and his deep familiarity with the challenges restaurants face in keeping octo lovers satisfied.
“We always have octopus on the menu,” said Stephen Rosenbluth, executive chef at Cardoon Mediterranean in Seaford, who currently serves it grilled over a quinoa tabbouleh. “It’s a very, very popular dish, but it’s also a loss leader in terms of food cost. Each tentacle is $10, and you can’t charge $30 for an appetizer.” Because of the tenderizing it undergoes, however, Gullo’s octopus loses only 25 to 30 percent of its (mostly water) weight during cooking. As Fried never tires of pointing out to restaurateurs, non-tenderized octopus often loses twice that during cooking, thus making Gullo the better buy. “Steve’s a salesman, but he’s not lying when he says that,” added Rosenbluth. “He has the product to back it up.”
It’s also a product that came along at just the right time. “I think octopus is definitely becoming more popular,” said Zach Goebel of Bronx-based Baldor Specialty Foods, which distributes Gullo seafood to restaurants throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. “People are worried about beef for the climate-change aspect, and octopus is a clean, healthy protein source. Once they get over the tentacles, they find that the flavor is fantastic.” Goebel has nothing but good things to say about Octoman (“he’s really passionate about the product, he’s never tried to sell it by just talking about a good price and decent yield”) or Gullo octopus (“the tenderizing means you don’t have to cook it as long or intensely, so it presents beautifully on the plate”).
The combination of Gullo’s product, Fried’s evangelism and the public’s insatiable desire for all things octo has proved both unbeatable and lucrative. Every year, Octoman sells roughly $2 million worth of his namesake mollusk. He’s sold it to buzzy Manhattan establishments such as Gramercy Tavern and Oceana; he’s sold it to Long Island restaurants such as Heirloom Tavern, Rustic Root, Gatsby’s Landing and more; he’s sold it “around the country—places like Kansas City, Chicago, Atlanta, D.C. and Louisville,” said Fried. “Specialty Foods is one of the places chefs can trust.”
With industry recognition and widening octo-fame have come grilling demonstrations on morning TV in Houston and the Heritage Fire festival in Snowmass, Colorado. Fried has found himself holding up a 15-pound octopus for the “wow factor” at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, and posed for umpteen pictures in various Octoman T-shirts. Indeed, sometimes it seems that Fried’s demand is rivaled only by the product he so successfully hawks. He typically conducts business like a man in a hurry, keenly aware that seafood tastes can change at any moment, yet determined to ride the octo trend for as long as it lasts.
It is 9:30 on a Thursday morning in the bright, spotlessly clean kitchen of Trattoria Italienne in New York City’s Flatiron District, a time of day too early for both Fried’s energy and the eating of octopus. Today, his Octoman T-shirt is red and he runs around chef Jared Sippel’s kitchen at almost comic speed, slashing open a package of thawed Gullo octopus, carving up a tentacle, then loudly offering “octo for breakfast” to anyone within earshot. “It’s pretty amazing, this product,” he announces to Sippel’s staff, who look up from their prep work and half-listen while readying for the lunch rush. “It comes frozen, you thaw it, marinate it on the grill, and that’s it.”
Sippel looks on helplessly as Fried douses a tentacle in a mixture of olive oil and smoked paprika (“it adds a little Spanish thing”), then throws it straight on the fire, where it spits and sizzles. “We haven’t been able to take it off the menu,” Sippel says of his appetizer of Gullo octopus, gigante beans, harissa and Sicilian olives.
“People demand it,” adds Fried, goading him. “They come for the octopus.” Sippel looks at Fried, uncertain how to respond. “How consistent is our octopus? Does it ever change?” The chef dutifully shakes his head, and we are left to wonder what might have happened if he’d responded otherwise.
A few minutes later, amid the unearthly calm of Trattoria Italienne’s pre-lunch dining room, Fried reflects on his preternatural success, sounding by turns humble and rueful. “I’m not getting rich selling octopus, but it’s been a great source of income, a great way to build my brand,” he says. “I’m now recognized in the industry as Octoman, as having an amazing product. I like to associate myself with quality.”
That Octoman has had a good run is no question. Just how long his run will continue is another matter. During the first half of 2018, unprecedented worldwide demand for exotic meats led to shortages and record high prices for octopus. According to an April report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “prices were at such a high level that consumer resistance set in,” a situation that will likely continue into the foreseeable future. “It is expected that sellers will have to reduce their prices in order to move product.”
In the case of other seafood delicacies, farming has often been the answer, but scientists have yet to figure out how to simulate the precise conditions necessary for baby Octopus vulgaris—the species Gullo sells—to hatch and thrive. In the wild, an octomom “keeps watch night and day over thousands of eggs for six to eight weeks,” said Fried, all the while “aerating and oxygenizing them.” The gestation period is so taxing, octomoms typically starve to death.
And then there’s the growing controversy over the animal’s intelligence. By some estimates, an octopus’ nine brains contain a total of a half-billion neurons, or roughly the same amount as a dog. Anecdotal reports of their skill at navigating underwater mazes and other feats of aquatic genius have persuaded some consumers to forgo eating octopus altogether, and some restaurateurs to forgo serving them. Michelin-starred Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, who used to offer fried Gullo octopus at his Manhattan restaurant Cosme, made waves a few years back when he took the mollusk off the menu, in part “because they’re so smart,” according to Fried. And though Rosenbluth hasn’t felt the need to do anything so drastic at Cardoon, he, too, has heard from diners who consider them “very intelligent creatures and think twice about consuming them.”
“I’ve read that if they lived 40 to 50 years, they could be smarter than humans,” said Fried with a mixture of awe and anxiety. As it is, vulgaris lives only about two years on average, never getting a chance to fulfill its full intellectual potential—probably a lucky thing when you’re an octopus salesman.
Anyway, for now business remains brisk, and the somewhat unusual relationship between Octoman and Frank Gullo — who these days has taken to calling himself Octoking — seems likely to hold. “It’s love-hate, like with my wife,” Gullo said. “There’s days that are great, and there’s days that are horrible. I keep him tamed, I guess the expression is. I ground him. I curse him out. It works.”
What is Fried’s opinion of the relationship? “It’s okay,” he said dryly, for once not speaking in superlatives. “I think he loves what I do because I’ve created this niche. He can trust me.”
One thing on which Gullo and Fried are in complete agreement? It’s a great time to be selling octopus. “The millenniums—I guess we’re calling them the millenniums—their palates are more outgoing versus generation-whatever-X,” said Gullo with a big smile. “Think about it. We sell octopus in Nashville, Tennessee. Who the hell would have ever thought that you’d be eating octopus in country-music land? People are integrating, leaving New York City because it’s too expensive. Chefs, too. They want to build their own careers without paying $150,000 a year in rent, so they’re bringing the culture with them.
“And knock on wood, they’re taking our product with them.”
8 GREAT OCTOPUS DISHES AVAILABLE ON LONG ISLAND
Octopus has been considered a delicacy for centuries, especially in the Mediterranean and Asia. Out of the many restaurants on Long Island that do a beautiful job cooking it, here are eight stellar options.
Grilled octopus with quinoa tabbouleh, Kalamata olives, pine nuts and artichoke romesco
2479 Adler Ct., Seaford; 516-785-2390; cardoonny.com
Charred octopus with spring onions, walnut romesco and aged sherry
113A Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck; 516-466-5666; restaurantlola.com
Braised octopus with black rice, garlic scapes and fennel slaw
990 Franklin Ave., Garden City; 516-743-9213; perennialrestaurant.com
Grilled Spanish octopus with chorizo, chilies and cranberry beans
630 Old Country Rd., Garden City; 516-548-8162; smallbatchrestaurant.com
Grilled octopus with potatoes, onion, lemon and Spanish smoked paprika
215 Atlantic Ave., East Moriches; 631-703-3479; coraltapas.com
Oktapodi skaras with fava beans, pickled vegetables and red-wine vinegar
95 School St., Bridgehampton; 631-613-6469; elaiaestiatorio.com
Grilled Mediterranean octopus
273 Main St., Huntington; 631-385-3474; neraki.com
Octopus salad with a citrusy ponzu sauce
47 S. Ocean Ave., Patchogue; 631-207-6888; 360taiko.com