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How restaurants can sniff out fish fraud

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Question:

My fish vendor told me he had a good price on a small amount of Dover sole due to a catering client that cut an order down. I bought it and ran it as a special, very successfully. One difficult guest asked for “proof” that it’s really Dover sole. I told him I would send him a picture of the invoice from the vendor, and if he wasn’t happy I’d comp him. He actually held me to it and gave me his business card so I could follow up. But is there a better way?

– Chef, Atlantic City, N.J.

Answer:

Fraud in fish is a real problem, and, while he may not have been the most pleasant guest, he is right to be skeptical for a few reasons:

  1. True Dover sole is very expensive and, accordingly, a tempting target for fraudsters.
  2. Especially if you are buying or serving the sole filleted, it can resemble a number of lesser-priced fish such as flounder.
  3. Dover sole, despite the name, need not be from Dover, England, or even from Europe to be accurately and legally labeled Dover sole, creating additional confusion.

 

According to an extensive 2013 seafood fraud report by the conservation group Oceana, Dover sole on a U.S. menu can mean “the Pacific Dover sole, Microstomus pacificus, which hails from the West Coast of North America, and the European Dover sole (or common sole), Solea solea, which is found in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.” This latter sole is what is often referred to as “true Dover sole.” Chef’s Resources clarifies, “They are not the same fish, and although Pacific Dover is a good fish, true Dover is a great fish. …There is a big difference in flavor and texture between the two.”

Alex Hardy, chef-owner of At the Table BYOB in Wayne, Pa., proudly serves true Dover sole on his tasting menus, explaining, “[True Dover] sole is light and smooth. It doesn’t need too much to guide it, just an amazing sauce and a beautiful sear. …My fish guy tries to get me firsts.”

Hardy’s last point is a particularly important one. My advice is to build a great relationship with your fish vendor and ask them for as much information as you can get on the origin and sustainability of all seafood, asking them for what to look for to verify authenticity as well. As guests become more sophisticated, it isn’t overkill to have a Latin name, point of origin or sustainability information from a third party such as the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program in your toolbox if you need it.

Restaurants operate on a trust relationship between operator and guest: Guests trust you to feed them delicious, safe and satisfying food; you trust them to pay their bill, leave after a reasonable time, and let others know about their positive experience. Anything you can do to enhance that trust relationship is a good thing.

More on restaurants dealing with seafood authenticity here

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