Liwei Liao Has Changed How Restaurants Think About Fish

How Liwei Liao convinced top restaurateurs that dry-aged fish is the way to go.

Liwei Liao.

Fish is in Liwei Liao’s blood. “When we moved from Taiwan to New York, we lived three or four blocks away from Central Park, and that’s where I would always just go fish,” Liao tells Observer. His uncle had a sushi bar in White Plains, and Liao remembers eating lots of raw fish as a child. 

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Liao was only five years old when he would go fishing in the park, but he already had fishing experience with his father in Taiwan. About a year later, Liao’s family moved to Bayside, Queens, and the angling adventures all over the Long Island Sound began. His dad eventually bought a boat, which led to many fishing trips to Connecticut, too. What really shaped him, however, was what he consumed on long fishing trips, when he was about 10 years old.

“We were on party boats for extended periods of time,” he says. “You fish all day, and it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re hungry, let’s eat fish.’ And it always sucked. It was never any good eating it on the boat. You can imagine a bunch of classic Asian dudes thinking, ‘Oh yeah, this is the freshest thing, right on the water.’ But I remember that it was always messy and bloody. It was never the same as what we ate at home, because we took care of our fish when we got home.”

That was the life-changing lesson for Liao: Cleaning and conditioning fish makes a huge difference.

Uoichiba. Evan Robinson

Now, Liao runs a thriving seafood market, the Joint (which opened in 2018), and two sister Uoichiba hand-roll bars in Los Angeles. He sells fish to restaurants all over California, including high-volume operations like Boa Steakhouse and Granville, and supplies restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Texas. He sells giant Ōra King Tyee salmon to the Catbird Seat in Nashville. Nicco’s, the steakhouse at the Durango casino in Las Vegas, is one of Liao’s biggest branzino buyers. Wolfgang Puck uses Liao’s seafood at restaurants including Spago and Cut in Beverly Hills.

L.A.’s dry-aged fish king has convinced all these top operators that dry-aging fish purges impurities, clarifies flavors and improves texture. Liao, who’s also a successful cryptocurrency investor, opened the Joint in Sherman Oaks as a passion project.

“The running joke of my family was, ‘Hey, Liwei, you catch so much fish. You should just sell fish,’” Liao says. But after getting an engineering degree at UCLA, Liao started his career at flash-memory company ATP Electronics in Silicon Valley. 

“I was involved in global supply chain and buying strategy,” he says. “The amount of knowledge I learned for a hardware tech company was tremendous. It taught me how to buy at a global scale, how to leverage supply, how to be vertically integrated, what to outsource, what you should not outsource. What should you do yourself? How do you manipulate supply versus cost? I didn’t realize any of that would apply to me selling fish.”

Liwei Liao.

Today, he thinks about these issues all the time as he sources fish (like kinmedai that’s secured via an exclusive buyer on the floor of Tokyo’s Toyosu Market) globally. He uses his experience to make chefs and restaurant operators understand that using his fish, which might be more expensive per pound than other suppliers, decreases labor because it involves less prep.

“What I noticed was that the only differentiator for other wholesalers is the price list,” Liao says. “They just compete on price. So I went the complete opposite. We don’t have a price list. Everything is service-oriented, from managing your supply, to buying the fish, to processing.”

By now, Liao knows that aging smaller fish like branzino might take four to six days, while bigger fish like tuna can take 16 to 20 days. Restaurants don’t need to figure this out themselves.

A four-person selection at Uoichiba.

Liao has plans for more fish markets and hand-roll bars, but his biggest forthcoming venture is a dry-aging facility in Vernon, a city near downtown Los Angeles, which he says will increase their production six-fold.  “We’ll be able to rotate through 30,000 pounds of fish a week,” he explains. 

He’s already implemented direct-to-consumer online ordering for nationwide delivery of certain fish that work best for home cooks. He’s in discussions to sell fish to top-tier supermarkets in Texas, and he has his eye on supplying fish to luxury hotel chains. He’s turned “fresh is boring” into a mantra. And he still thinks about all the things he learned about fish as a child.

“Fresh is boring because it’s so predictable,” he says. “I know fish from the moment it leaves the water. All my life, I know exactly what to expect. Blood, slime, fishiness, rigor mortis, toughness—that’s all predictable. So once you know that, why wouldn’t you try to make it better?”

Liwei Liao.

In June 2024, the dry-aged fish trailblazer will bring his knives to Revelry, a new food festival at Wynn Las Vegas that will take place on the heels of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Liao will cut fish at the June 5 to 8 extravaganza, which also features culinary luminaries like Junghyun Park, Dominique Crenn and Daniel Humm. 

“What I’m looking forward to most is the golf tournament,” Liao says of a to-be-announced Revelry charity event where he’ll be swinging his 9-iron alongside multiple Michelin-starred chefs.

This is how Liao, who has sold dry-aged fish to powerhouses like Crenn, Wolfgang Puck, Enrique Olvera, Michael Cimarusti and 2024 James Beard Awards finalist Rogelio Garcia, rolls now. And his story is a reminder that sometimes the answer to what you should do with your life is right there, in the water you’re staring at as a child.

Liwei Liao Has Changed How Restaurants Think About Fish