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.
* 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.