Teach a Chef to Fish: Sustainable Seafood on the Front Lines at the Boston Seafood Show

Seafood on display this past week at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

Sustainable seafood, along with locally grown ingredients, are two trends in the restaurant industry that are here to stay.

Which would be good news for fishermen and farmers – not to mention for the oceans, fish, and community ecosystems – if only our understanding of the science behind agriculture and, to a greater extent, aquaculture, was better.

“Ninety percent of diners want restaurants to serve only sustainable seafood,” Jacqueline Church said Tuesday morning during a panel called Teach a Chef to Fish at the International Seafood Show at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. “But nearly 75% do not know what species are close to extinction.”

That gap between desire and knowledge is a problem. And that makes it an opportunity, as Church sees it, especially in terms of education. Since two-thirds of the seafood Americans consume is consumed in a restaurant, Church sees chefs as the “front line” in an offensive approach to more educated diners.

Bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass are two examples of non-sustainable fish that are nonetheless in high demand. “I hear lots of chefs say their customers won’t let them take those fish off the menu,” said Andy Husbands, chef-owner of Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel in Boston. “But we’ve done it, and other restaurants we know [like Fairmont Battery Wharf, also in Boston] have done it and we’re doing fine. Frankly, if a customer demands bluefin tuna, I don’t need that customer.”

“’My customers demand that’ is shallow excuse to keep those fish on the menu,” said Barton Seaver, a Washington D.C.-based chef and host of a PBS series called Turning the Tide, which uses dinner to tell the story of our shared common resources. “Those chefs are selling themselves and the customers short. I’m a hospitality professional, it’s my job to figure out how to eradicate the word No. I didn’t say no to Chilean sea bass, I sold the customer on the solution,” meaning a more sustainable alternative like barramundi.

In addition to the conversation between chef and diner, however, is a lack of knowledge within the scientific community that would actually improve the likelihood of fishing in more environmentally-responsible ways. It was only recently understood, for example, that some popular species like Orange Roughy take up to 30 years to reproduce.

“That’s an example that highlights the need for science,” Church said, “because we nearly overfished it to extinction. Chefs liked the fish, they liked to work with it, and diners liked it but we didn’t understand its life cycle. We don’t have the science yet about how to properly manage it.”

Nor, said Seaver, do we have a cultural understanding of fish as food. “We use different words to identify cow and beef, and pork and pigs. But fish and fish? We haven’t gotten the cultural identity of what fish represents to us.”

The “Dirty Dozen” of non-sustainable seafood species:

  1. Shrimp
  2. Farmed salmon
  3. Bluefin tuna
  4. Eel
  5. Red snapper
  6. Orange roughy
  7. Octopus
  8. Patagonian toothfish
  9. Cod
  10. Shark
  11. Halibut (Atlantic)
  12. Grouper

Additional resources:

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

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2 Responses

  1. This article makes a great point about education and understanding – and I think the responsibility lies with the professionals – chefs and servers – in the industry.

    Chef Husbands’ approach of “I don’t need that customer” seems ridiculous and pompous. I hope that doesn’t trickle down into the overall dining (and service) experience at his restaurants!

    On the other hand, I think the Chef Seaver’s approach of selling a customer on the alternative – teaching them about the situation, and believing in his own ability to create a wonderful dish – is a fantastic example of a true hospitality professional. As a customer, I know what I want… but I also know that (hopefully) I don’t know as much as the chef. Thus, I am happy to learn something, and try a dish about which the chef feels confident.

    • Thank you for your feedback.

      My impression was that Chef Husbands is grateful for every one of his customers, though he also understands that some things about the industry — using sustainable seafood for one — need to change. I think he sees educating the customer as a responsibility of the chef and staff, but if a customer isn’t willing to be educated then yes, they can go elsewhere.

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