Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Chef John Ash serves on the Board of Advisors of Seafood Watch, an educational initiative for sustainable seafood by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He recently hosted a panel discussion about seafood sustainability as a practice. Among the participants were Chef Bun Lai, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sustainability Leader of the Year, and Yousef Ghalaini, executive chef of New York’s sustainable seafood restaurant Imperial No. Nine.
Recently, nearly 30 thought leaders in the seafood, restaurant and sustainability worlds came together to have a conversation about how chefs can embrace seafood sustainability in a greater, more mainstream way.
“Thought for Food: A Discussion on Sustainable Seafood” was facilitated by James Beard award-winning chef and author John Ash, widely respected as a sustainability pioneer. Participants came from a variety of backgrounds: chefs, NGO leaders, journalists and other members of the food industry vanguard.
Today, consumers are more naturally curious about the provenance of their food and its method of production, and retailers have found a way to make these types of conversations part of the every day. More and more people want to know where their tomatoes were grown and who picked them. They also genuinely care about the quality of life of the cow that yielded that T-bone. But fewer customers think about the sustainability and origin of the seafood on the menu, other than perhaps where the fish were raised.
While some chefs are leading the charge and embracing sustainability at every level, others have been slower to come around on the subject.
As Scott Nichols, PhD of aquaculture innovator, Verlasso, said, “We can’t keep depleting our oceans. To continue to eat fish, we need to raise them in an ecologically responsible manner, benefitting both the consumer and the species - not just capture them. With a current worldwide population exceeding seven billion people - estimates for 2050 push that number to nine billion - effectively sourcing quality fish has come to the forefront of the international discussion on sustainability.”
As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported in 2008, “Fish provided more than 2.9 billion people with at least 15 percent of their average per capita animal protein intake.” That is a small percentage of people, consuming a whole lot of fish. Coupled with the fact that the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend doubling the consumption of seafood from 3.5 ounces to eight ounces per week, it is easy to conclude that aquaculture will play a key part in helping to feed a hungry world.
Salmon, that nutritional powerhouse that consumers go to for brain and heart health, was the species that opened the discussion on the importance of sustainable seafood. Until recently, chefs only had two sources of salmon they could put on their menus: wild-caught and farm-raised.
Salmon, like tuna, is just one type of large fish that depends on several levels of the food chain for survival. In essence, each fish needs to consume many smaller fish to thrive. As Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia states, “A pound of tuna represents roughly a hundred times the footprint of a pound of sardines.” And given our growing population, this is just not a reliable method for increased seafood demand.
Yousef Ghalaini, executive chef of New York’s Imperial No. Nine adds, “Those chefs who do opt to put wild salmon on their menus say that it is harder to prepare - being lower in fat - and some diners find the flavor too intense.”
Most farm-raised salmon, on the other hand, is raised in an environment where every life stage is controlled: quantity of eggs fertilized, number of fish per pen, diet and harvest.
The detractors to this method, however, are clear: Farm-raised salmon also demand high levels of feeder fish for their diet.
Nichols notes, “This ratio is termed ‘fish-in, fish-out’ and typically translates to four pounds of fish needed to produce just one pound of farm-raised salmon.” Adding to the sustainability conundrum, many of these feeder fish are considered consumable on their own, as opposed to being used as feed for salmon.
In recent years, environmental groups like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) FishWatch have brought increasing attention to both wild fisheries and traditional aquaculture, which has led to improvement in the industry. But, much remains to be done to make aquaculture healthy and sustainable. These are facts that every "Thought for Food" participant could agree upon, which led to the discussion of the third solution: harmoniously raised salmon, a new category that has emerged just this past year.
Verlasso, located in the cold waters of Patagonia, is the only company producing harmoniously raised salmon. With standards guided by the World Wildlife Fund’s sustainability goals, the company aims to change the way the world gets their salmon. Situated away from the threat of pollutants, industrial waste or other contaminants, Verlasso raises its salmon with a very low pen density of four fish per ton of water. This environment allows each fish to be identified and monitored carefully to ensure a healthy life.
The harmoniously raised salmon also have a unique diet that reduces the fish-in fish-out ratio by 75 percent. This innovative process replaces fish oil with yeast, rich in Omega-3s, making Verlasso salmon markedly more sustainable. The pens are also allowed to rest for months between production cycles, a process akin to farmers letting fields go fallow and ameliorate themselves from the rigors of production. The results have been significant.
“The quality is exceptional,” notes Chef Ghalaini, who recently started serving harmoniously raised fish. “This salmon is like nothing I’ve ever had access to before. The scales are tight, the gills are beautiful, the eyes are glassy – all indicators of a fish that has led a great life.”
At Imperial No. Nine, he serves Verlasso salmon two ways: raw, in a salmon and tuna tartare with Sriracha and Hawaiian-style poi, garnished with chives. Chef Ghalaini makes this from the belly of the salmon, which has both a flavor and texture that “really pops with a clean bite.” The salmon he serves hot is seared with a horseradish crust, plated on a bed of celery root purée and Brussels sprouts. “The bite of the horseradish is totally balanced by the unique sweetness of the salmon.”
The "Thought for Food" participants discussed another important point: it is one thing for the chef to advocate sustainability, but how do we convey this message to our customers?
As Chef Ash remarks, “That’s the $64,000 question. You have to do it so carefully and thoughtfully. Diners are really coming to restaurants to enjoy themselves. They do not want to be preached at...because you can turn people off. Chefs need to set the stage for it, but the waitstaff are the real touch point to the diners.”
Chef Ghalaini concurs, “We take the time to educate our servers about this fish. They have tasted it raw, and they have tasted it cooked. They have seen for themselves how different it is. And it is my responsibility, as a chef, to make sure that happens so they can tell the customers.”
Chef Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, was another "Thought for Food" participant. The recipient of the 2011 Seafood Ambassador Award from Monterey Bay Aquarium for his leadership in the Sustainable Seafood movement, his restaurant has been named one the country’s ten most sustainable restaurants.
Chef Lai echoes Chef Ghalaini’s sentiment that the entire restaurant team must be on board with the tenets of sustainability if that is an issue the chef cares about and strives to uphold.
He adds, “The food we chefs choose to use ultimately affects the health and happiness of not only our dining guests, but that of the producer, everyone involved in getting that product to us, the environment and the planet as a whole. As a food artist, that is how I base every decision in my restaurant. I only hire staff who are ideological and philosophical in what they do. They must realize that everything we do is connected in a larger way.”
With such a commitment to sustainability, Chef Lai is continuously looking for producers, partners and models to further the ideal all the way down to the customer. Among the several perspectives discussed, Chef Lai says, “I came out of the 'Thought for Food' discussion reconsidering farmed salmon. I have admired Chef Ash for a really long time, not just for the food he prepares, but for his philosophy and his principles. ...There is great progress happening in the world of sustainability so I think it’s important to keep one’s mind open to improvements in science and technology.”
As a chef who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and serves on the board of the Chefs Collaborative, Chef Ash has sustainability advice for those chefs just coming up through the ranks: “It’s the old saw about getting to know your purveyors. Get to know your farmer. As the great Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry once said, 'You gotta know where your food comes from and know the person behind where your food comes from.'”
Chef Lai takes it one step further and encourages those same chefs to embrace sustainability because he has seen how it makes him a better chef: “In ‘confining’ myself to the tenets of sustainability – in everything I do – I find I am more creative. I like how this passion inspires me to be better.”