Sustainable seafood: Treasures from trash

Chefs are boosting sustainability and profits with fish that used to be tossed back into the sea.

For the past four years, “sustainable seafood” has ranked as one of the top 10 trends on the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” chef survey. More popular sustainable species such as wild salmon, pollock and branzino frequently show up on menus, but some operators are looking to source lesser known but abundant seafood that often turns up in the by-catch. These “trash” fish may have names that could sound off-putting to consumers, such as lionfish, sheepshead or grunt, but innovative chefs are proving that their flavor and texture stand up to their upscale cousins—at a gentler price. And diners are biting.

Fishing under the radar

Species including triggerfish, jolthead porgy, golden tilefish and squirrelfish share menu space with better-known sustainable seafood (trout, shrimp, catfish and lobster) at Carolina Crossroads Restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C. “These under-the-radar fish are in the same place mahi mahi was a few years ago,” says Executive Chef James Clark. He also compares them to underutilized, less expensive beef cuts—culotte steaks and flat irons—that now are as accepted as rib-eyes and tenderloins.

Clark admits he has to put more effort into sourcing underutilized species and the supply is unpredictable. “Commercial fishermen go out to bring in high-priced, high-profit tilefish, swordfish and grouper, but these other species are a lot more economical for me to use,” he says. “I’m rotating them through my menu daily, depending on what I can get my hands on.” He works with several fishermen who will text him when they’re fishing for triggerfish, for example, or bringing back sustainable by-catch. Triggerfish season opened Jan. 1, and Clark began menuing it under his “Chef’s Nightly Creation: A dish inspired by North Carolina’s Raisers, Growers & Catchers.” The item is presented as a special and listed at “market price”—a figure that yields high margins for a lower cost protein. Average check at Carolina Crossroads is $48.

Education is key to winning over staff and customers. He first prepares the fish for servers to taste, describing their origins and characteristics, so they then can talk them up to customers. Analogies are a good sell. “The jolthead porgy, for example, has a sweet flavor like flounder and the texture of swordfish,” says Clark. He’s also held cooking classes for consumers, demonstrating what the fish look like and how he breaks them down.

Butchers of the sea

Butchering, in fact, is an essential skill when menuing trash fish, say chefs. “I look at these species like I look at offal,” says Jonathon Sawyer, chef-owner of The Greenhouse Tavern, Trentina, and Noodlecat in Cleveland. “Food cost is low but you need training and skill to get a good yield.” He cites one of his favorites, the buffalo fish, as a case in point. “It has a very complex skeleton and takes more labor to fillet. I start practicing with Greenhouse Tavern’s ‘fish butchers’ [prep cooks] when the fish comes in the door,” says Sawyer.

Other underutilized species that land in Sawyer’s kitchen include porgy, drum, striped mullet and grunt (a by-catch of swordfish), as well as white bass and yellow perch from nearby Lake Erie. Fillets of these fish usually can be swapped in to any dish that uses a similar white-fleshed species. Flexibility is a culinary requirement—it’s sometimes hard to predict what a purveyor will deliver.

On the menu, Sawyer often will call an item “Seared Market Fish” instead of naming the particular species and potentially scaring off guests. “We’ve also come up with nicknames for some of the fish,” he says. He recalls that monkfish was once referred to as “poor man’s lobster” to build its image; at The Greenhouse Tavern, porgy is referred to as “poor man’s sea bream.”

Sharing the love

Sheila Lucero, executive chef of Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, a group of five restaurants based in Boulder, Colo., entices customers with what she calls “underloved” species. Lucero started by menuing those with more familiar names, such as sardines, mackerel and anchovies, preparing them in ways “people can wrap their heads around.” The mackerel, for example, is grilled and served with fingerling potatoes, farm greens and garlic aioli. Then, she moved on to sea robin, lionfish and dogfish, introducing them first as appetizers and specials. “It’s important to make the preparation simple, approachable and recognizable,” she says.

Last month, Lucero organized a Trash Fish Social to acquaint consumers with these sustainable species. For $50, attendees were treated to an “evening celebrating the by-catch of our global waters,” featuring an array of small bites prepared from seafood including dogfish, red mullet, sardines, sand dabs and periwinkles—plus face time with Jax’s five chefs.

“There are tons of other species we can be eating, but people tend to gravitate toward the popular seafood with names that they recognize,” Lucero says, noting that some of these are dwindling in supply. “We educate our guests through social media, our menu, our servers and events. It’s working—they’re starting to dig underloved fish.” ­­

The lure for chains

The limited, unpredictable trash-fish supply makes it difficult for chains and small indies to source consistent product. But there are more plentiful underutilized fish, and these fast-casual and casual concepts are getting them on the menu.

Huntington Beach, Calif.
Fish & Chips, Grilled or fried California rockfish, house-cut fries; $9

Captain D’s
Nashville, Tenn.
Grilled White Fish and Shrimp Skewer, Fire-grilled pollack and shrimp on rice; $7.99

Truck Restaurant
Bedford, N.Y.
Fish Tacos, Grilled hake and fried local oysters, with Asian slaw, organic tortillas; $7.50 each

Legal Sea Foods
Boston, Mass.
Louisiana Catfish Matrimony, Sauteed with shrimp and andouille sausage, jasmine rice, seasonal vegetables; $17.95 


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