The Future of Seafood is Here (Trash Fish Dinner May 20)

Every environmentally aware chef can surely cite an “aha!” moment, when we first realized the awesome consequences of our daily buying decisions, which inevitably leads us down the road less traveled, that being the way in which we think first of our stewardship responsibilities over the land and sea, before profit. Most people don’t know this about chefs, but besides being (hopefully) creative, we’re numbers folks. We have to sweat the numbers – what we pay, what you pay, what it costs us to turn the food we buy into something that’s compelling to you, from what’s on your plate to the culinary and service skills that got it there, and the physical venue in which to serve it. Yet, the decision to travel down the path of sustainability isn’t a difficult one. In fact, once you’ve had the “aha” moment, it is the only choice.

Most of us that have been conscious of our environmental decisions for many years can cite multiple “aha” moments, and three of my most significant own recent “aha” moments have come via my association with Chef’s Collaborative and relate to sustainable seafood, from the Gulf Coast Shrimp industry to the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fishermen’s Shareholders Alliance and the importance of supporting good players in bad industries, to the plight of the Menhaden.

Most recently I’ve experienced an “aha” moment surrounding the concept of “trash fish,” and yet again the inspiration is Chef’s Collaborative. I first heard the term used a little bit differently – “garbage fish” many years back and the cook who used the term to refer to some monkfish (since over-fished and now recovering) got dressed down hard for referring to food as garbage. Yet, the term persists as many fish species are not regarded as marketable (even lobster, a long, long time ago was mostly used to feed the labor) even though they are packed with nutrition not to mention delicious. Personally I’d love to see humanity’s history and experience with the ocean inform us to the ends that we begin to value everything the ocean can give us, and not just a few “hot” species. Over the years we’ve seen once-abundant U.S. cod stocks plummet, and many other once-disregarded species such as Patagonian toothfish a.k.a. Chilean sea bass, redfish, monkfish, and skate rise to popularity and then suffer overfishing.

Fortunately, improved marine surveillance technology combined with the expertise and vigilance of non-governmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Monterrey Bay Aquarium, and Shedd Aquarium, these species of fish were able to be saved before they suffered the ultimate fate, and improved monitoring together with cooperative fishing communities has seen their fisheries become more sustainable, though the work is just beginning.

We can learn from our experience with lobster in particular, but also oysters, that what was once shunned by tastemakers can one day become the ultimate delicacy when a new tastemaker is making the calls. What can we learn from this? That one cook’s trash is another cook’s treasure. When we can look at all species of fish as desirable and marketable, we open up many possibilities for enjoyment, and also spread our growing appetite for fish over far more species, taking pressure off those that face special challenges, whether it’s a long reproductive cycle, slow growth rate, or overfishing due to consumer popularity.

Lobster, erstwhile "trash fish" fit only for the poor
Lobster, erstwhile “trash fish” fit only for the poor

May 20, with sponsors Monterrey Bay Aquarium and Shedd Aquarium, we are hosting a special “Trash Fish” dinner as a benefit for Chef’s Collaborative. I have been humbled by the group of chefs working to make this dinner happen:

Bruce Sherman, North Pond
Paul Kahan, Blackbird, Avec, Publican, Big Star
Erling Wu Bower, Avec
Sarah Stegner, Prairie Grass Cafe
George Bumbaris, Prairie Grass Cafe
Patrick Sheerin, Trenchermen
Michael Sheerin, Trenchermen
Paul Virant, Vie, Perennial Virant
Laura Piper, Trattoria No. 10
Paul Fehribach, Big Jones

Tickets can be purchased at Chef’s Collaborative’s web site here, with all revenues going to benefit Chef’s Collaborative’s work to increase environmental awareness in our industry. It’s a goal of Chef’s Collaborative to make sustainability second nature to chefs everywhere, and our oceans are as precious a resource as we have. Working together, we will set out seven courses of lesser-known, underutilized species you may never have seen on a menu before, much less tasted. We’ll show you that not only are these fish not trash, but they are delicious in their own right and worthy of discovery. Just as lobster was once seen as garbage to feed the help and is now enjoyed as one of the oceans’ greatest delights, you will see that fish such as bonita, triggerfish, speckled sea trout, and even Asian carp and smelt can sing like a siren.

If we are successful, this dinner will be the beginning of the end of the term “trash fish” and begin a new chapter in our relationship with the seas, in which we view every gift of the ocean for what they are – delicious and nutritious food upon which civilization can stand anew, in which species such as bluefin tuna, red snapper, and yellowtail can take a break from runaway demand as we learn to cook and enjoy our abundant stocks of fish such as the ones we are preparing for dinner.

Take a look again at that roster of chefs. I’m humbled that these proven badasses are eager to share this story with you, but I’m not surprised. These chefs care and time and again, they’ve put their precious time and resources on the line to make a difference. Please join us as we plot a new course for the future of seafood.