An ICE Alum's Career in Sustainable Seafood
Brandon Kaufman's career change journey from fisherman in sales to philanthropist chef.
Self-proclaimed philanthropist and seafood aficionado, Brandon Kaufman (Culinary, ‘20), attributes fond childhood memories with leading him to where he is today. A native of Long Island, New York, he grew up fishing the Atlantic waters with his father any spare moment they had to get out at sea. At first, Brandon had plans to join his family's taxi business; however, changes in the industry, a life-altering trip and the pandemic opened new doors for this eager and driven culinary entrepreneur.
What was once a mere hobby and a bonding pastime for the Kaufman family has taken center stage in Brandon’s life, becoming a part of his day-to-day work at The Joint Eatery in Sherman Oaks, California. The ICE grad is a line cook at the market-style restaurant, which serves some of the highest-quality seafood in the area and prides itself on innovative dry-aging techniques and sustainable sourcing. Some of Brandon's tasks include meticulously cleaning, gutting and fabricating the daily catch, which he says goes as far as “brushing the teeth of the fish.”
Brandon simultaneously works as a sales manager for Oracle, a Fortune 500 computer software company, several days a week. He began working at the corporate headquarters based in San Francisco upon graduating from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2015 and admits, “It’s grueling work juggling both careers,” but he's thankful for the support he has received from his colleagues to pursue his passion.
Though Brandon has enjoyed his job at Oracle for the last five-and-a-half years, he felt as though it wasn’t his true calling. This realization became even more apparent after his 25th birthday when he took a trip to Japan with his best friend. He remembers that the trip “opened his eyes to a whole new world.” After spending almost a month eating and exploring his way through the country, he came home with a new spark for seafood. His childhood love for the sea became a full-blown obsession.
Upon returning, Brandon devoted his free time to practicing the art of sushi. He says that he “would ask the grandmas shopping at the local Japanese market, called nijiya, for their recommendations on making the perfect rice.” As he began to hone his talents, he started hosting small sushi parties with close friends, which were welcomed with overwhelming praise and excitement. Due to the success of these close, intimate events, Brandon set out to create his first culinary venture called Sushi4theSea, a supper club with a mission of giving back to the environment.
Brandon would single-handedly host eight to 10 guests, serving a 15-course, seafood-inspired tasting menu. With little professional experience at the time, he donated all of the profits from these events to Project AWARE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to marine conservation. He says, “it was important for me to give back to the ocean — in a way — what I was taking away from it.”
After multiple successful events, Brandon knew that this was his newfound passion. In October 2019, he enrolled in Culinary Arts at ICE's Los Angeles campus in the evenings, as he continued to work his day job at Oracle's Santa Monica office. While in school, Brandon recruited some of his fellow classmates as volunteer sous chefs for his pop-up dinners in the area.
Amazed by Sushi4theSea’s events, one of Brandon’s recurring customers — a USC grad student — shared their excitement with the university’s dean of the health sciences department. Upon hearing about the Trojan alum’s mission, Brandon was invited to host virtual cooking classes for the grad students, teaching seasonal and simple recipes and cooking techniques.
However, along with the rest of the world, Brandon was forced to shift gears due to the pandemic in 2020. Unable to host small, intimate dinners, he sought out other ways of giving back. With his Oracle coworkers’ help, Brandon organized a fundraiser to support the nonprofit organization No Us Without You LA, which is providing food security for undocumented back-of-house staff during the pandemic.
The food industry has taken a hard hit since March of 2020, with beloved restaurants closing in Los Angeles, like Bäco Mercat and Somni (just to name a few). Upon scouting locations to complete his externship, Brandon was faced with the difficult task of finding a welcoming spot with employment availability, considering the circumstances. Many of his top choices were still closed for indoor dining and only operating with limited takeout menus and staff. Despite these challenges, Brandon is a devout believer in the phrase, “What’s meant to be, will be.”
Keeping a positive mindset, he continued networking and reaching out to chefs and peers in the restaurant community, which led him to Liwei Liao, the founder of Boba Truck and The Joint Eatery. The two immediately connected over their Northeastern roots and mutual love for fishing. Soon after, Brandon landed a job with Liwei's market-style restaurant working on the line handling seafood from all parts of the world.
Brandon explains his sheer excitement to be doing something that completely fascinates him. “I stayed late my first day to make sure I knew where everything was so that I wouldn’t have to ask again,” he says, adding that any spare moment he has is spent researching and learning more about the seafood industry. Brandon works hard to gain the respect of his peers by asking lots of questions, helping to clean, and going above and beyond what is asked of him daily.
Above all, Brandon is proud of the product they serve. He notes that The Joint Eatery has some of the best offerings in all of LA, made possible through partnerships with premier suppliers rated highly by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. He says that the staff does their best to minimize waste and goes as far as making dog food and smoked fish dip as a byproduct of some of the finest fish sold.
Brandon is learning the ropes of dry-aging fish, a concept Liwei has worked meticulously to perfect at his market. This unique method of preserving fish helps draw out about 40% of the water content, making the fat levels and flavor profile more predominant, Brandon explains. About 90% of the fish they sell at the store is dry-aged, unlike many of its competitors, resulting in high demand and steady business.
This continued success despite the difficult times has given the team a reason to celebrate, as evident in their joyful re-creation of a viral TikTok trend that was featured in Time Out Los Angeles. Moving forward, Brandon hopes to continue to learn more about the seafood industry, perfect his culinary skills and one day work at a Michelin-starred restaurant — or even operate one himself!
Pursue a future in seafood with culinary career training at ICE.