Fish, chefs, tattoos, and how Sacramento’s Michael Passmore became one of the premier sustainable farmers in America

The Passmore Ranch owner is into fish. He even gave two to his wife for Valentine’s Day.

Michael Passmore’s 86-acre fish farm in Sloughhouse has become the gold standard in California for various types of sustainable freshwater fish, including sturgeon, trout and silver carp.

Michael Passmore’s 86-acre fish farm in Sloughhouse has become the gold standard in California for various types of sustainable freshwater fish, including sturgeon, trout and silver carp.

PHOTO BY Ryan Donahue

From far away, the water in the 9-acre, rectangular pond at Passmore Ranch looked like it was boiling. Closer up, it sounded like a river rushing over rocks. But it was just the fish.

Ranch foreman Rodolfo “Rudy” Torres had just blown fish food onto the water’s surface, and hundreds of bass were gobbling it up, their tails splashing and churning the water, their mouths wide open.

It was a warm morning, and Michael Passmore, the owner of the 86-acre fish ranch, was sitting in his orange Kubota, a small, all-terrain vehicle, merrily watching his fish.

“Look at that,” Passmore said to a friend. “I love that. Their little Hoovers are open, and they’re just chowing down. Those are happy fish right there. Don’t you love that water sound? I need to just come out with my chair and sit here.”

OK, yes, Michael Passmore is into his fish. This is a man who gave his wife, Vandy, two 140-pound sturgeons a few years ago for Valentine’s Day.

For the record, Vandy says she loves her, uh, pets. They’re now close to 200 pounds and are named Sal and Sam, though no one can tell which is which. “I married a fish farmer,” she said. “For better or worse.”

Passmore, however, is no simple fish farmer. He knew no one when he started, and his only business plan was work hard and see what happens, yet Passmore has become one of the most universally respected—and liked—people in Sacramento’s food universe. His fish, and, even more, the man, have earned an almost stunning loyalty from chefs around the country.

Passmore Ranch, out in the rolling grasslands and low hills near Sloughhouse, has become the gold standard in California for sustainable freshwater-fish producers—so much so that Passmore was featured at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as the example of sustainable fish farming.

And the lineup of chefs who use Passmore fish represent a who’s who of American cooking—including Top Chef Masters names like Rick Moonen in Las Vegas, Cindy Pawlcyn in Napa Valley and Dominique Crenn in San Francisco.

There’s also James Beard Award winner Corey Lee, Dallas star and bad-boy chef John Tesar, and Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood, one of only two California restaurants with three Michelin stars.

Passmore fish is in Sacramento restaurants like The Kitchen, Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine, Formoli’s, Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar, Ella Dining Room & Bar, Restaurant Thir13en, and more. It was also featured at the recent Farm-to-Fork week dinner on the Tower Bridge.

Chefs say Passmore Ranch is creating a new benchmark for cooperation between restaurants and farms, for producing a product exactly the way they want it, and for teaching them how to use the fish.

“He’s the prototype,” said Moonen, one of America’s top seafood chefs and a national leader pushing sustainability. “He’s a pioneer. He’s expanding what’s in our diet by raising fish not normally available. He’s the example of how to produce great, sustainable fish, and of how to give chefs exactly what we need. His success can teach the industry.”

Does he have any criticisms of Passmore?

“He’s not a particularly snappy dresser,” Moonen said.

And, for chrissakes, chefs are getting tattoos of the Passmore Ranch brand, the number 41 with a circle around it. (It’s from the family cattle ranch in Oklahoma. His grandfather took over in 1941 and used a “41” brand. Michael added a circle to signify all the family involved. Grandfather and grandson tend toward simplicity.)

The list of tattooees includes Edward Martinez, the supremely talented pastry chef now at Tyler Florence’s El Paseo restaurant in Mill Valley, Calif.; Joey Elenterio, the Michelin-starred executive chef at Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco; and Tyler Bond, the sous chef at Enotria in Sacramento.

“It tells you how much everyone loves the guy,” said Enotria executive chef Pajo Bruich. “He always says, ’I work for the chefs.’ We never hear that from providers. And his enthusiasm for Sacramento and for food is contagious.”

And does Bruich have a tattoo?

“I have a feeling,” he said, “it’s only a matter of time.”

No plan, no problem

Passmore can’t exactly explain his success or his carefully thought-out plan.

“What plan?” he said. “Mostly, we were trying to keep our heads above water, and sorry about the pun. I keep saying, ’Sooner or later, we’ll find someone smart enough to run this place.’”

The “place” is not your standard fish farm. The office is a white, 10,000-square-foot former mansion Passmore bought from a neighbor. (His neighbor built it as his dream home. It’s a long story.) There are 30 surface acres—about 80 million gallons—of freshwater in seven ponds. They have a hatchery, are building a processing center to fillet all their fish on-site, there’s also an acre-plus organic garden for boutique produce, and the ranch has ducks, chickens, goats and a donkey named Dave. Dave likes to hang with the goats.

The fish, of course, are the centerpiece. Passmore Ranch has black and striped bass, trout, silver carp, catfish and sturgeon, which, really, is the fish that launched Passmore into rarefied air. He also just started selling fresh and aged caviar.

So, what is this son of Texas and a former Marine doing selling fish and caviar in Northern California? It gets back to the point: What plan?

Passmore, 41, is a sturdy guy with a slightly round, babyish face. It’s the kind of face that looks good in a cowboy hat. Even when he’s serious, Passmore has a perpetual look of amusement.

“That’s really confusion,” he said.

Passmore grew up in North Texas and joined the Marines out of high school. He got out in 1990. That’s when, he said, he got his business training from the University of Never Do This Again. More specifically, he started a car- and boat-repair business.

“I screwed it up pretty good,” he said. “Actually, I screwed it up really good.”

Passmore got a job in Dallas doing corporate background checks, but as a North Texas boy, Dallas was too “all that” for him. So he looked for another background-check job and found one in Elk Grove in 1999. The area was less showy than Dallas and seemed a better fit for him. Here, he met Vandy, and they married in 2001.

But Passmore is an outdoors guy. He bought his first 40 acres of grasslands and gentle hills near Sloughhouse in 2005, having no clue what he would do with them.

The land there is wide open and rolling, with lines of trees on low ridges and a sense the grass, sky and calm stretch on to infinity. It reminded Passmore of the Texas he loved.

Passmore Ranch fish is used by chefs nationwide, including Christopher Kostow (right), executive chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, one of only two California restaurants with three Michelin stars.

PHOTO BY Ryan Donahue

Still, he was back at: What plan? They moved into a large trailer while he built a house. Vandy, who had taught in Elk Grove, landed the fourth-grade gig at Cosumnes River Elementary School about a mile away. Michael prepared to enroll in Lincoln Law School of Sacramento.

Then, he met his neighbor, Ken Beer, who owns The Fishery in Galt, one of the best-regarded freshwater-fish farms in California. Beer became Passmore’s friend and mentor.

“My grandfather always said, ’Do what the successful guy near you is doing,’ so I thought, ’Let’s try fish farming,’” Passmore said. “Ken was so generous with help. He taught me everything.”

That included how to get fish to eat the feed on the water’s surface, not the bottom, to keep them cleaner tasting, which sets Passmore Ranch and a few others apart from some larger farms.

The original concept was one pond. Fish would be a side business for Michael Passmore, attorney at law.

“I figured I’d drive the tractor around in the evenings,” he said. “The next five ponds were because the earthmovers were here, and Vandy was out of town. I thought, ’We have room, why not six?’”

“I should know better than to leave him alone,” Vandy said.

By 2006, Passmore was selling fish to Asian markets. In 2009, he was in San Francisco on a Saturday morning and found the farmers market at the Ferry Building. He loved the energy, the scene, the relationships among farmers and buyers.

“Everyone knew everyone’s name and story,” he said. “I wanted to be part of that. I thought, ’I’m a farmer. Why can’t I go to farmers markets?’”

He began loading his fish truck with live bass, carp, catfish and sturgeon and showing up at major Northern California farmers markets, including the big Sunday-morning market under the Capitol City Freeway in Sacramento.

He was a hit, maybe just for the curiosity of this cheerful guy selling live fish. One hitch: State law said the fish couldn’t leave alive. He had to dispatch them.

“I was allowed to electrocute them,” Passmore said, “but I was pretty sure we didn’t want mess with electricity. We just conked them on the head.”

Passmore Ranch was surviving, but busing fish to farmers markets isn’t a get-rich scheme. It’s a barely-pay-the-bills scheme. Passmore put law school on hold after one year and worked on the business. Things changed in June 2010. Randall Selland wandered over to Passmore’s booth.

“Randall found us,” Passmore said. “I knew no one. I never thought of selling directly to chefs. He opened so many doors for us.”

“Michael likes to say that,” said Selland, owner of The Kitchen, Ella Dining Room & Bar, and patriarch of the Selland Family Restaurants. “He tries to give us credit for his success, but it was all him.”

“We thought it was the coolest thing when we found him at the farmers market. We started telling everyone about him, because he had such a passion, but he’s a success because he’s a good guy, and he works hard to help the chefs.”

“No, it was Randall,” Passmore said.

That’s how it goes with Passmore. He takes little credit for anything. He squirms when people compliment him publicly. The nicest thing he’ll say about himself is that his Marine training helps him take advantage of opportunities.

Selland was certainly an opportunity. He asked Passmore if he could deliver sturgeon to The Kitchen.

“I said, very nicely, ’You do realize I’m going to bring this rather large fish,’” Passmore said.

Yup, Selland said.

On July 2, 2010, Passmore made his first restaurant delivery.

“He’d pull up in back and have a 4-foot sturgeon flopping around,” Selland said. “Then he’d bang it on the head and haul it in.”

Passmore hit it off with Selland and Kelly McCown, then the executive chef at Ella (now at Goose & Gander in St. Helena). Selland and McCown introduced Passmore to chefs around the region. In late summer 2010, McCown hosted a chefs’ dinner at Ella. He invited Passmore, so he could introduce him to some of the best chefs in the region.

“I was nervous,” Passmore said. “I figured the least I could do was bring some beer.”

And so he brought a case of beer to Ella. And he made friends and took orders.

But over the next months, some chefs weren’t entirely thrilled with Passmore’s sturgeon. Passmore asked Selland, who loved the fish, what was wrong.

“I told him it’s not your fish,” Selland said. “They don’t know how to deal with your fish.”

Sturgeon skeleton is mostly cartilage, not bone. Chefs used to following the bones to fillet a fish were making a mess of it. Plus, it’s a huge fish with a lot of muscle. Unlike, say, trout, sturgeon needs to rest a week or more to go through rigor mortis.

“If you don’t age it,” said Moonen, the national authority on seafood, “it curls up and turns into a rubber ball when you cook it. It seems weird, but with sturgeon, fresh is inedible.”

Selland helped Passmore figure that out. Passmore Ranch started aging the sturgeon on ice, changing the ice regularly so the fish wouldn’t sit in its own juices. And instead of live sturgeon, he delivered fillets, cut specifically for each restaurant. All his fish can come live, filleted or freshly conked, as needed.

Billy Ngo at Kru does sushi. He wants most fish freshly conked.

“So much of sushi can be endangered,” Ngo said. “Michael’s given me a sustainable option. And his fish are really good.”

Passmore Ranch recently launched a new, wine-club styled home-delivery service to sell fish to home chefs.

PHOTO BY Ryan Donahue

Bruich wants his sturgeon aged seven to 10 days, Passmore learned.

“He asks questions, he listens, he adapts what he’s doing to what we need,” Bruich said. “He’s super humble. He has no problem saying, ’If you don’t like my product, tell me why and I’ll fix it,’ or, ’Come out and see what I’m doing.’ And he’ll tell me if he thinks we’ve done something wrong, too. Who does that?

“He’s redefining the relationship between purveyors and restaurants. Michael and I talk about his products, our businesses, the Sacramento scene, everything that matters to us. We look at what he and I have and say we need to demand this from all our purveyors.”

Aimal Formoli, another top Sacramento chef, said the same thing.

“He completely understands my business,” Formoli said. “He makes everything personal, but is still completely professional. He’s changing it for everyone else providing services. If Michael’s doing it, they should, too.”

‘We were a novelty’

Passmore’s business has grown on the strength of relationships. McCown moved back to Napa for Goose & Gander and introduced Passmore around the Valley. Bruich connected him to Kostow and Meadowood. Now, Passmore and Kostow are friends. Kostow even brought his crew to Passmore Ranch during Farm-to-Fork week to cook a meal benefiting Pleasant Grove High School’s Future Farmers of America.

“How cool is that?” Passmore said. “[Kostow] did that because he believes in what we’re doing in this region.”

Kostow also believes in what Passmore is doing. So does the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Sheila Bowman, a top manager there, is one of the nation’s most respected voices on sustainability. In 2011, she connected Passmore to Palo Alto-based Bon Appétit Management Company, which runs more than 500 restaurants at corporate buildings, colleges and more, all focused on sustainability and food that is, essentially, farm to fork.

Bon Appétit manages the cafeteria at VSP in Sacramento, among others, and brought Passmore fish in there. It also helped Passmore make more Bay Area connections. By 2011, he happily stopped doing the farmers markets.

“They were fun,” he said. “We were a novelty, but people really wanted fillets.”

Passmore connected to Cindy Pawlcyn—the Napa Valley star who owns Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and others—through the Aquarium, and Bowman recommended Passmore to Moonen when sea bass was moved onto a watch list, and he wanted an alternative.

“She told me, ’Here’s a guy running a great business, with real integrity about his fish, the land and the people he works with,’” Moonen said. “She was right.”

Moonen called Passmore. They chatted. Moonen asked if Passmore could ship a sample.

“Nope,” Passmore said. “I’ll bring it to you.”

Passmore packed some fish on ice in a waterproof case and headed for the airport. Billy Ngo came along. (“It’s fun traveling with Michael,” Ngo said. “And sometimes it helps him to have a chef along because I’ve worked with the fish.”)

It took some convincing at Sacramento International Airport, but eventually, the fish were loaded onto the flight. They all made it to Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

“Who wouldn’t be impressed by that effort?” Moonen said. “We hit it off. I cooked for them, and handed the samples to a chef auditioning for a position. I loved Michael’s fish.”

The auditioning chef got hired, too. Moonen said the good fish probably helped, but the new chef has worked out just fine since then.

“I’m giving Michael some credit for him,” Mooned said.

Moonen also said he looks for any chance to push Passmore.

“I want to broadcast what he’s doing. His success will mean more relationships like this one,” Moonen said. “There’s a reason he’s friends with a lot of chefs. It’s because chefs respect him.”

The Circle 41 tattoos are proof. That started this summer. Out of the blue, Edward Martinez sent Passmore an open Facebook message saying he’d get a Passmore brand tattoo if Passmore would pay for it.

“I said sure,” Passmore said. “Free advertising.”

Martinez was still at Enotria then, and sous chef Tyler Bond heard about it and joined the tattoo party. San Francisco chef Joey Elenterio was visiting Bond at Enotria, and he joined, too. So far, those are the only three, but, as Bruich said, other chefs see the tattoos as a mark of loyalty for a man they respect. There will be more, he says.

Back at Passmore Ranch, as Passmore drives the Kubota, the air smells fresh and clean, almost like he’s near the ocean. He gets a little uncomfortable hearing the compliments from Moonen and others.

“I like chefs,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of pretensions, and there’s a blunt edge I’m comfortable with. They’re not unkind, just straight-up and practical. I’m not a very extroverted person, and I think most chefs would prefer to be in the back of the house, too.”

Introvert though he may be, Passmore constantly goes out into Sacramento’s food scene, trying new restaurants, contributing to charity events, showing up for friends who are cooking, and generally staying in touch.

“He’s out more than any other purveyor,” Bruich said. “And when he comes in to Enotria, it’s a special night for us. Not because he’s some big VIP, but because we have a family member in the house.”

That sentiment is part of something new in Sacramento. Passmore is helping create an evolved sense of what “farm to fork” means in a region that’s claimed the notion as its DNA. “Farm to fork” is not just growing and eating fresh food, it’s also working together, farmers learning what chefs need, chefs learning what farmers do, both making food sustainable and approachable and part of a communal experience. No one would claim the region is there yet, but it’s hard to find a chef who doesn’t give some credit to the man who got noticed selling fish out of his truck.

As Passmore drives around his ranch, he talks about plans for the future, and, yes, now he has genuine plans, which includes finally moving out of the trailer. Uh-huh. Still finishing the house after eight years.

“I know,” Passmore said. “I just need six real weeks to work on it, and we’re in.”

“I’m fine with it,” Vandy Passmore said with just a hint of infinite patience. “Everything works in the trailer.”

His business just launched Passmore Ranch Provisions, which supplies home cooks with the same fish chefs get. It operates almost like a wine club—people can get fish deliveries and, if they want, Passmore Ranch vegetables, weekly to monthly.

Passmore wants to expand the vegetable gardens, which now grows chef-oriented produce like tomatoes, gherkins, cucumber flowers and more. He has plans for spices, vineyards, olive trees, plus rabbits and sheep.

The processing center is on schedule for spring 2014, and they’re building a high-end test kitchen so chefs can work out recipes and dishes. And Passmore wants to add to the egg-laying chicken population. Right now, they have about 30 hens.

“I’m thinking I’ll put up a sign by the ponds. It’ll look like the fish wrote it,” he said. “It’ll say, ’Eat Mor Chikin.’ Then, we’ll put one up by the chickens that says ’Eat Mor Fish.’”