By MIKE HALE, Herald Features Editor
When it comes to messy jobs, Faustino Perez can stake claim to one of the messiest, yet he works with a curious enthusiasm as the squid cleaner for Abalonetti restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.
Related: Squid Inc.: Has ‘Calamari Capital of the World’ lost its identity with the famous cephalopod? (Scroll down to read the article.)
Perez spends his workdays hunched over a sink, practicing the fine art of eviscerating and cleaning mountains of whole squid, their cylindrical bodies plump with gooey guts and black ink. Perez, 35, cleans roughly 1,000 pounds of the slimy cephalopods each week as part of the restaurant’s long-standing claim of serving the freshest, most sustainable calamari on the Peninsula. “It isn’t easy, and it’s labor-intensive, but it’s worth it,” said Abalonetti managing partner Kevin Phillips, who bemoans the fact that much of the squid caught locally is shipped to China for processing before arriving back in the United States. To Phillips, Perez is a key to Abalonetti’s success, so he invited me down to the Wharf on a recent Wednesday to join in all the gut-flying fun.
In the bowels of the restaurant is the squid room, where for the last five years Perez has spent five six-hour shifts each week working his way through 25-pound boxes of fresh squid caught a short boat ride away. Clad in a dark apron and a ball cap and wearing surgical gloves, Perez demonstrates his technique, and the word that springs to mind is “machine.” Through an interpreter, Perez says he loves his job, and despite the long days up to his elbows in awful offal, he never tires of cleaning — or eating — what he calls calamar.
And the smell? He smiles, and shrugs, as if it’s not even a concern. “I take a lot of hot showers,” he offered.
Perez works carefully but furiously. First the knife comes down below the eye to remove, intact, the coveted tentacles (they are set aside because, while some customers love this delicacy, others can’t stomach the idea). Next, he quickly removes the fins, pulling off the skin with them in one motion. Then, with an efficient roll of his hand, he propels the innards out the tube and into a plastic bucket with a resounding plop. After removing the plastic-like pen inside the tube (squid are invertebrates), he tosses the cleaned, milky-white cylinder into a colander (little if any rinsing is required in order to retain the squid’s natural salty essence). Before it even settles into the pile he has grabbed another. The knife falls again and the process is repeated.
I’m captivated by his speed and precision, but when he motions me over to try, I hesitate. “I already took a shower today,” I’m thinking. I decline an apron but pull on the gloves to reduce the squeamish goo factor. Faustino backs away but eyes me warily. I lower my knife and make the first cut, and I immediately recognize a particular Spanish word: “No, no, no!”
Instead of cutting just below the eye to keep the tentacles intact, I slice too low and I end up with 10 small pieces. Perez picks them up and throws them away while shaking his head, a barely audible and gutteral “tsk-tsk” escaping his lips. Translation: “Amateur.” He backs away again and I resume, trying to gain a rhythm. I find it difficult to remove the filmy skin in one motion, and waste valuable time pulling at pieces of it. I roll my hand over the tube and foul liquid sprays through the tiny top hole and all over the front of my shirt. Perez shakes his head again (I can feel it).
I labor through eight bodies before I stop to do the math. There are roughly eight whole squid to a pound, and it took me 15 minutes to clean all eight. That put me on pace to finish four pounds of squid in an hour, meaning it would take me 250 hours to clean 1,000 pounds! Perez works through that 1,000-pound mountain over a span of just 30 hours. I turn to Perez and must look like a defeated surgeon, my gloved hands dripping with goo but pointed upward in surrender. My patience is dead. So are the squid, and they await the quick hands of Faustino Perez to help turn them into dinner.