Hooked on US caviar

A year-and-a-half ago, Richard Brauman entered the caviar business. In an industry once dominated by Russians, Brauman is holding his own — with a little help from his mom.

Tucked into an alley in Somerville, Brauman’s enterprise, The Little Pearl, offers caviar from fish caught in the United States. Brauman’s 64-year-old mother, Patricia, drives up from New Jersey once a month to help out. Today, she is making blini and Swedish pancakes. Her hair is covered with a net, her hands with bright green latex gloves. By the end of the day she will have produced 1,000 pancakes that will be vacuum-sealed, frozen, and shipped to customers.

Brauman’s American caviar is winning over chefs. Recently Michael LaScola of Nantucket’s American Seasons restaurant featured Little Pearl’s Rainbow Trout caviar on a menu he cooked at the James Beard House in New York.

What gave Brauman’s business a boost was a 2005 trade embargo imposed on beluga sturgeon from the Caspian and Black seas. Some aficionados were distressed — beluga was the most expensive and top-selling caviar here. “Essentially [the ban] created a market opportunity,” says Brauman. “There are a number of fisheries and farms in the US that produce a product that I find just as good as beluga.” One is his Transmontanus Rex white sturgeon caviar farm-raised in Idaho.

The Little Pearl had been operating out of space at Captain Marden’s Seafoods in Wellesley for a year before Brauman opened the Somerville location last month. It’s essentially a warehouse with a commercial kitchen. Caviar from across the nation arrives in bulk and is packaged in jars, then shipped out. Two full-time and seven part-time employees are part of the operation.

The 31-year-old entrepreneur has traveled the country visiting fish distributors and farms, researching what type of feed they use, examining water quality, and learning salting techniques. Little Pearl’s wild Keta salmon caviar comes from Juneau and Fairbanks, Alaska; trout caviar from an organic feed farm that draws water from Great Smoky Mountains National Park; wild spoonbill paddlefish and hackleback sturgeon caviar from the Tennessee River.

The way Brauman describes it, the big difference between American caviar and the others is the use of borox, a preservative banned in this country. It leaves the eggs tasting less salty and a little more sweet. Since American caviar has no preservatives, says Brauman, he thinks the taste is purer.

In high school, Brauman, who grew up in New Jersey, read about AquaFuture, an experimental fish farm in Turners Falls. He headed to Massachusetts for college with the hope of working there. During his junior year at Boston College, he did, with the job title of “fish tech,” which meant checking water chemistry, feeding the fish, and building small experimental feed systems. After college, he earned an MBA from Babson College, then went to work for the Federal Reserve Bank in capital markets.

His AquaFuture experience came in handy in graduate school, when Brauman was researching how to overcome the cost barrier of fish feed, which amounts to 30 percent of revenue. “A lot of the experiments I did involved feed trials; how much food is needed for the fish to grow,” he says. “In a farm setting, fish are fed more frequently to increase growth.” Seeing that feed is wasted, Brauman created a cost-effective feeding system, an invention that is patent pending. The cost of fish feed can be reduced from 30 percent to 5 percent of revenue, he thinks. He’s also looking to open his own fish farms.

The stacks of pancakes are piling up around Patricia Brauman as she makes tiny round blini. Before Little Pearl, Brauman’s mother had never cooked professionally. “She’s Italian,” her son says, “and grew up cooking.” They created the recipes themselves.

As New Year’s Eve approaches, and many people toast the year with sophisticated items such as caviar, Brauman has another mission. “Caviar is the ultimate luxury food, but still unknown and misunderstood by many people,” he says. A century ago, it was served on bread in pubs in New York. “There was a booming industry in the Delaware and Hudson rivers for Atlantic sturgeon. It was overfished to the point of extinction.”

With new sources of American caviar, he hopes to reignite the old appeal and allure.

The Little Pearl caviar is available at Foodies Urban Market, 1421 Washington St., South End, 617-266-9911; and Pemberton Farms, 2225 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-491-2244 or thelittlepearl.com.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

Click here to see this article on Boston.com