Michael Passmore is the founder of Passmore Ranch, an ever-growing 86 acre ranch nestled in the rolling grasslands of Sloughhouse, California, shadowed by the Sierra mountain range. Passmore Ranch is known for its sustainably raised and sourced fish, and perhaps more so, for making of some of the world’s finest small batch caviar for his chefs. Passmore Ranch’s clientele includes the best chefs in the world, many of which have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, and the Michelin Guide.
Always innovative and active in the food, agriculture, and aquaculture communities, Michael is a past president of the California Aquaculture Association and an elected member of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency County Committee. Passmore Ranch fish have received a “Best Choice” rating from The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, its highest ranking possible for sustainable practices and positive environmental impact. Michael’s work has also been featured in numerous publications including Food & Wine and the San Francisco Chronicle.
While his life as a Fish Farmer and Caviar Maker is never quite done, balance is key, as mirrored by the flavor profiles of his prized caviar. Most evenings you’ll find Michael out on his porch overlooking the ranch’s waters with his wife Vandy, and a wine glass full of something good and red in his hand.
Passmore Ranch Story
Michael Passmore has a whopper of a fish tale. It’s not about the one that got away, but of how this scrappy, former Marine from Texas built a sustainable boutique fish farm in Sacramento County’s Delta so revered that it now supplies the nation’s most distinguished chefs.
Passmore Ranch, which sits on 86 acres on the edge of the Sierra foothills, is a premier aquaculture farm that raises white sturgeon, striped bass and catfish, as well as exceptional caviar – all of it tailored to the exact specifications of such esteemed establishments as The French Laundry in Yountville, The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, and Benu in San Francisco, all recipients of three Michelin stars. In total, it supplies upwards of 400 top restaurants on the West Coast, as well as Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas. That roster includes top rated restaurants in the wine country such as SingleThread in Healdsburg, Lazy Bear in San Francisco; Kru and The Kitchen in Sacramento; Taco Maria in Costa Mesa; Knife in Dallas; The Publican in Chicago, The Bruce Kalmen Hospitality Group in Los Angeles, and Rick Moonen Seafood in Las Vegas. In addition, Passmore Ranch also sources other types of fish such as steelhead trout from a select group of like-minded fishermen and fish farms to expand his offerings, in order to differentiate itself not only in the selection, but in the expertise and service it provides these discriminating chefs day in and out.
“It’s a process seeing what each chef wants, what they are trying to achieve, and seeing how we can help them do that,’’ Passmore says. “That’s our mission.’’
That means when Corey Lee of Benu desires especially tiny caviar eggs for their fruitiness, when Billy Ngo of Kru needs sturgeon skin to fry into light-as-air chicharrones, Passmore goes the extra mile to deliver exactly that.
You might think that Passmore started this venture because of his own fishing prowess. You would be wrong. “I’m a terrible fisherman in the wild,’’ he quips. “I joke now that’s why I did this – because now I know exactly where the fish are and I just go get them.’’
In fact, after moving to California, he was studying to be a lawyer when he decided in 2005 to build a freshwater fish farm on his property after growing intrigued by his neighbor’s success with a similar farm. “My Dad used to say, ‘Look left, look right, and do what the guy doing right is doing,’’ Passmore says.
He did just that, dropping out of law school after a dean convinced him that the world needed more fish farmers, not lawyers. It was anything but a sure bet, though, especially when Passmore ended up financing most of it himself. On a property that was all dirt with no electricity, no water and no structures, he removed 300,000 cubic yards of soil to create a lake for the fish. He bought an RV, where he and his wife ended up living for nearly 10 years, as he built the business.
At first, he peddled live fish at the Sacramento and San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers markets. He’d also deliver live fish to the occasional interested restaurant, only to have to pull out his own pocket knife to fillet it on the spot because too many cooks had no idea what to do. But then a chef friend, Kelly McCown of The Kitchen, suggested he target the products to the most accomplished of restaurants, where chefs would appreciate the care and meticulousness that went into it all.
Passmore heeded that advice and never looked back. His remains a boutique operation, with fewer than a dozen employees. The fish are raised in a series of lakes and tanks, with 80 million gallons of aquifer water recirculated as many as four times before evaporating or released as ground water. Only a small percentage of the fish feed is made from fish meal, which comes not from bycatch but from off cuts of processed fish that wouldn’t be consumed otherwise. Indeed, the ranch’s commitment to sound environmental practices earned it a “Best Choice’’ certification from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” program.
In 2019, Passmore’s operations will expand with a new 4,000-square-foot processing plant built on the property. It will feature a caviar production room, as well as a food production area for smoking fish, making fish sauce, terrines and other foods to utilize the entire fish.
Passmore Ranch is so respected by chefs that a few of them – including the Bay Area’s Joey Elenterio — have even tattooed themselves with the company logo, the Circle 41, which was the original cattle brand used by Passmore’s grandfather on his Oklahoma ranch.
Passmore considers that the ultimate honor, along with seeing his ranch’s name on so many prominent menus now. “I get a huge sense of pride,’’ he says. “It means I’m doing my job.’’