Looking for Mr. Goodfish: Chefs aim to expand our seafood horizons

In the chapter on New York in Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, Taras Grescoe comes down hard on the Big Apple’s elite chefs:

Though the chefs I had met were buying from small businessmen who worked sustainably, their menus were still filled with overfished species....For every Bernardin and Esca, there were thousands of restaurants across the continent serving red-listed seafood. Their menus might have been influenced by the reviews they had read of New York's greatest restaurants; or their clients may have asked for the fish they had enjoyed on a visit to Manhattan. Though [Chef Eric] Ripert and his peers can afford to buy the scallops Rod Mitchell personally harvested, or the monkfish from the dayboat whose captain they have met, the chef at the bistro in Milwaukee, or a salmon house in Calgary, almost certainly does not have that kind of access. Yet thoughtlessly sourced monkfish, scallops and other species end up on menus across the continent — more often than not from industrial-scale fisheries that were wrecking the oceans. It was the very prestige of the world's leading chefs that legitimized the ongoing pillage. It was not necessarily the fault of New York's star seafood chefs. It was, however, their doing.

But just as elite restaurants can make red-list fish like monkfish the latest trend or establish them as standard seafood fare, they also have the power to change the bait, so to speak, and lure diners with more ocean-friendly seafood to set more sustainable trends.

Mr. Goodfish

A recent article in Time by Jeffrey T. Iverson looked at how European chefs are trying this approach through a campaign called Mr. Goodfish. Mr. Goodfish aims to use a positive approach to seafood sustainability, informing the public about lesser-known species and the seasonality of seafood (like fruits and vegetables, seafood can be intensely seasonal). In essence, it’s about promoting the “green list” to distributors, chefs, and diners.

One of the patrons of the campaign is Gaël Orieux, the chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Auguste in Paris. He sees the campaign as an opportunity to explore new culinary territory:  "In 15 years working in three-star restaurants, I cooked maybe six or seven species of fish. Sea bass, turbot, monk fish, red mullet, lobster, sole — it was always the same.  But as restaurant owners, we have the possibility — and responsibility — to encourage our clientele in new directions."

But it’s easier said than done in an economic sector with notoriously precarious finances. In a post at his personal blog, star chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Las Vegas laments that there is so much focus on what he calls the “Big Five”:  salmon, tuna, cod, snapper, and bass. (Ninety percent of Americans' seafood consumption is of just ten types of fish, with three — shrimp, canned tuna and salmon — comprising 55%, according to an article in San Francisco Magazine.) Moonen encourages everyone – chefs, distributors, eaters – to look at what he calls “Non Targeted Edible Wild Biomass” (NTEWB), but sees a chicken-and-egg situation: which comes first, the supply or the demand? Distributors can’t stock NTEWB if they won’t sell, chefs can’t cook NTEWB if they can’t buy it, and diners can’t eat what isn’t on the menu or at the seafood counter, and so on.

Moonen asks: “How can we prime the pump of supply and demand to shift things into a more fair balance of all that is happening under the sea??? How do we get a balanced inventory of super perishable stocks in the refrigerators of the world…?”

These questions that are tough to answer. Trends in the food world can be unpredictable. What causes one ingredient to rise from obscurity — like fresh sardines, a green-list fish that received glowing coverage from the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, and the San Jose Mercury News (archived at the author Aleta Watson’s website), as well as a recent how-to video from Mark Bittman at the New York Times* — while others never make it?

I see Mr. Goodfish and similar programs that promote more sustainable options as a key part of a long-term process of education and evolution for eaters, suppliers, and chefs. This process includes something for everyone and both short- and long-term goals: education, improved transparency, revamped policies, to name a few.  In the hands of accomplished chefs like Gaël Orieux and Rick Moonen, we can get delicious benefits too: new chances to explore unfamiliar flavors as we go looking for Mr. Goodfish.

* If you're a fan of classic films, the video is worth watching for the opening credits alone.

2 Responsesto “Looking for Mr. Goodfish: Chefs aim to expand our seafood horizons”

  1. Great post! We certainly see this playing out here in New England with the same mix of species regularly featured on menus. What about encouraging local consumption of herring? In New England, an average about 90,000 tons of Atlantic herring is brought to shore each year with at least 60% sold as bait (primarily to catch lobster) and the remainder exported overseas, presumably for human consumption. It would be great if we could create local/domestic demand for these fish, ideally supported by fishermen using traditional methods such as purse seine and weirs, rather than industrial midwater trawlers.

  2. I had not heard of the Herring Alliance. Thanks for letting us know about the group.

    Encouraging local direct consumption by humans (or even longer distance via canning or freezing) could be a good idea. There are some other initiatives that could be models. In Peru there have been attempts to promote direct consumption of the local anchovy (which is mostly converted into fish meal and oil to feed salmon and other livestock). Sardines have become much more popular in recent years -- in the SF Bay Area, fresh ones appear on menus in some of the hottest restaurants around. I've written a few posts on these subjects, including one about fish meal and subsidies.

    Getting back to herring, The New Yorker had a Talk of the Town piece by Oliver Sacks in 2009 about a big herring festival somehow connected to the Russ & Daughters store on Houston Street. Perhaps the Alliance can connect with them and make an appearance this summer.