Food & Wine magazine sins against the monkfish

Lophius piscatorius from Wikimedia Commons

A monkfish (Wikimedia Commons)

In the January 2010 issue of Food & Wine magazine, former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni visits top-rated Le Bernardin (3 stars from Michelin, 4 stars from the New York Times) and acts like an ass to the sommelier as he eats his multicourse meal*. If you’re into restaurant drama, or food and drink pairings, you’ll probably find the article delightful. For me, it elicited only ho-hum emotions. That was, until I got to the recipe collection that chef Eric Ripert and pastry chef Michael Laiskonis** contributed to the story.

One of the recipes features monkfish, also known as angler fish, which has an “avoid” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the Shedd Aquarium (PDF). The reason for this rating is not so much the monkfish itself, but how it is caught. The Seafood Watch page says that “monkfish are usually caught using bottom trawls, a method that can damage seafloor habitat and often results in high bycatch. (“Bycatch” is the non-target species that are caught along with the target species.) Monkfish are also caught using gillnets, and this can result in the accidental catch and death of sea turtles and marine mammals.” (The Good Catch Manual from the Seafood Choices Alliance has a superb primer on fishing methods.)

In the New York City chapter of Taras Grescoe’s “Bottomfeeder,” a must-read book that I reviewed for Ethicurean in 2008, Grescoe talks with Eric Ripert about his seafood sourcing, and notes that Ripert was one of the first chefs to take swordfish and Chilean sea bass off of his menu. In the interview, Ripert says, “We still serve some fish that are on the list, but these ones we get from dayboats. It is difficult to know where your fish is coming from, of course, if you are not catching it yourself. But I have confidence in my purveyors. Rod Mitchell buys line-caught fish, fish from dayboats. I think there’s a big difference between a cod, for example, that is caught in one of those giant boats in the middle of the ocean, and one that has been caught by a local fisherman in a little boat.”

So it’s possible that the fish served to Bruni was caught in an acceptable fashion, with limited bycatch. But when a monkfish recipe appears in a mass-market magazine, all bets are off for sustainable sourcing. And it makes me wonder what Food & Wine was thinking when they approved Ripert’s monkfish recipe. Do they not consider the status of fish and seafood that appear in their magazine? Or was this a case of being dazzled by Le Bernardin’s galaxy of stars? Food & Wine is no stranger to the issue of sustainable seafood — their website features a slideshow on the topic — but their attention appears to have strayed, much to the detriment of the creatures that live in the monkfish’s habitat on the Atlantic sea floor.

Food & Wine could learn from another ostensibly enlightened publication that temporarily fell off the sustainable-fish wagon. A few months ago, the New York Times’ Mark Bittman published a recipe for red snapper with fruit salsa in his weekly column. Grist’s Tom Philpott called out Bittman for his use of the fish, which is highly endangered, rating an “avoid” from Seafood Watch unless they come from the NW Hawaiian islands. Philpott reminded Bittman and other food writers that they have higher calling than simply creating delicious recipes. To his credit, Bittman responded with a mea culpa and a thoughtful explanation of his recognition that the seafood situation can be agonizingly complex at times for food writers, as much of the “best choices” list includes farm-raised fish, fish that are difficult to obtain, or fish that are not well liked these days. In a later issue of the Times, Bittman took a step back to consider the big picture: fish farming,  endangered oceans, fishmeal, and the prospect of recovery for seafood stocks.

Magazines and newspapers have a lot of influence on what we cook and eat: they create trends, or help bring them to a halt; they act as cooking teachers, introduce us to new ingredients, and give us inspiration in the kitchen. When it comes to seafood, they can stick with the old ways, indiscriminately publishing recipes for fish without considering their populations or how they are caught or raised, or they can be part of the solution by writing about the best ways to use the seafood on the “best choices” list. At the very least, Food & Wine could start by amending the Web version of the recipe and printing a correction that acknowledges the monkfish’s Seafood Watch rating.

Editor’s note: A draft of this post was published by mistake and then quickly pulled, but not before RSS readers saw it. We are chagrined.

* The final savory course in the meal was an “upscale surf and turf of grilled escolar and Kobe beef with pungent anchovy-butter sauce.”  Escolar, you might remember, is a fish that can be challenging for some people’s digestive system and is sometimes mislabeled as “white tuna” at sushi restaurants, as one of my recent posts discussed.

** Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis and his crew run a fascinating blog called  Workbook in which they explore the creation of magnificent plated desserts, interesting ingredients, and technique. On his own, Laiskonis also writes Notes from the Kitchen, a project that contains more ponderous writing about art, time management, and of course kitchen life.

Monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) image is from Wikimedia Commons, originally published in the 1896 book Oceanic Ichthyology by G. Brown Goode and Tarleton H. Bean.

7 Responsesto “Food & Wine magazine sins against the monkfish”

  1. Cherie says:

    Well hell…how disappointing. I hope Food & Wine gets hailed with letters of complaint by its readers. Printing that sort of stuff is just ridiculously irresponsible. Shame on them.


  2. Great article. I hope food magazines take up the challenge and get more specific on the ‘where and how it’s caught’ of the fish and seafood in recipes. It’d also be great if they could list alternatives if the best or good choices are available.

  3. This is a shame. While there’s something to be said for respecting a chef’s creativity and vision, I think that both Food & Wine AND Le Bernardin are in an important position to advocate for sustainable and responsible dishes. I don’t doubt that Le B will continue to serve monkfish, but whether or not I support that choice, I wish they had highlighted a sustainable option. Being in the spotlight gives them a great opportunity to stand up for responsibly-caught fish choices. Sigh.

  4. The whole by-catch issue has made me very leery of eating ocean fish. It’s expensive as it is so I rarely do but even then I don’t like the idea of many pounds of other fish getting thrown away just so that fish on my plate is there as well as the whole bottom dredging. It is the opposite of sustainability.

    What to eat… what to eat…

    Grasshopper pie.

  5. Fairlington Blade says:

    Let’s take the proposal of this article to its logical conclusion. Namely, that the primary ingredients in all published recipes must be ethically sourced.

    There are very real concerns–I avoid Patagonia Toothfish for that reason and prefer to go for Rockfish (striped sea bass). However, given that the majority of chicken, pork and beef is produced in factory farms, one can make a very real case that virtually no recipe containing meat is ethical. And I don’t care to take my cooking tips from PETA.


  6. anniemade says:

    if you’re looking for a good source of ethically-sourced seafood, try port clyde fresh catch, at:
    they even have monkfish!

  7. The Ethicurian post on January 10 referenced Food & Wine magazine’s January 2010 issue and a story that featured a menu from New York City’s Le Bernardin. We at the magazine are extremely sensitive to sustainability issues; in fact, sustainability is very important to us and it’s a subject we cover regularly. Even though we were working with Eric Ripert, who has long led the charge of safeguarding the seas’ bounty, we should have checked more carefully and offered a more sustainable option to the monkfish fillet he called for. It’s always good to be reminded that you can always be more cautious, and we will continue to take this issue seriously, following the recommendations of Monterey Bay to the best of our ability.