From bait to plate

This past October, during the height of the season, chef Barton Seaver, a National Geographic fellow and leading advocate for sustainable fishing practices, purchased what he thought was Maryland blue crab from one of his favorite seafood suppliers.

Turns out, what Seaver thought was “beautiful giant lumps of crab meat” from Maryland was in fact from a crab of Asian descent, discovered after he had already prepared crab cakes, which Seaver notes, had a “lingering chemical acidity and muted flavor.”

Like Seaver, many chefs and seafood buyers are victims of fraud. While exact numbers are hard to come by, the advocacy group Oceana reports up to 70 percent of the most popular fish are mislabeled. Some of the more notable bait and switch examples include tilapia and tilefish impersonating red snapper, and escolar posing as white tuna. Amid all the ballyhoo on seafood fraud comes this truth: consumers—and the chefs that feed them—are helping to drive the practice.

“Predetermined demand from the consumer is forcing the system to make salmon —and tuna, shrimp, etc.—available year-round, on request,” says Seaver. The narrow scope of customer preference is one of the major contributors to fraud, he adds. There are more than 1,700 species of fish available for consumption, but only 10 account for 90 percent of the seafood we eat: shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, Alaskan pollock, tilapia, pangasius, catfish, crab, cod and clams.

“When a New England fisherman pulls in seven different species in his net, and we only want the cod, we are helping to contribute to mislabeling,” says Seaver. “The system won’t change until the consumer begins to celebrate, appreciate and participate in a diversified fishery economy.”

An ocean of possibilities

Celebrate the fact that you have haddock today and not cod; instead of disguising the fish, add value to telling people the truth. Then tell them to “come back tomorrow, because we may have cod,” Seaver advises.

Use variety as part of the story you can tell; as a reason why consumers patronize your restaurant. “As chefs, we need to broaden our horizons and use the confidence we have to enable the sale and value of some of these species,” he says. “What have you got that’s fresh, or the most interesting—porgy, red fish. Learn how to tell and sell your story. It’s a real opportunity for chefs.”

Richard Garcia, executive chef of Boston-based Congress 606, is doing just that, serving customers what is sometimes called trash fish—species like dogfish, sea robin, Acadian redfish and butterfish. Garcia, who heads up the Boston chapter of Chefs Collaborative, provides customers with info on the origin of each species he serves. Through a program he developed two years ago called Trace & Trust, a fish is given an ID that allows it to be traced from boat to plate.

To insure you are getting what you think you are, buy from distributors who are known and trusted, advises Beckie Zisser, ocean advocate for Oceana. “Ask your suppliers a lot of questions: what type of fish it is, where it was caught, even what gear was used in the catch. If the supplier doesn’t know the details, that is a good sign they don’t know what they are selling.”

Fishing for trash

Q&A with chef Richard Garcia of 606 Congress in Boston, on Trace & Trust

What led to your practice of cooking underutilized fish?
It started because I was interested in sourcing locally, but I didn’t want to go to a typical vendor. I wanted to go right to the source, so I started working with fisherman. Once I did that, I found out how difficult it was to get New England staples like cod. And why did I have to pay as much for cod as for a ribeye?

As I got more involved, I became an advocate for the missing element in sustainability—the fishermen themselves. So I started utilizing species to keep fishermen fishing. For 2013, the quotas are really low for mainstream fish. To keep fisherman in the water, I began to push underutilized species.

What has been the feedback?
The feedback has been great. It does require an extra push to get guests to try the fish. Most have never eaten sea robin, scup or dogfish. One of the things that has made them appreciate what we are doing is that they get lots of information—the species, the day the fish was caught, the fisherman’s name, the name of the boat, even the gear used. That additional layer of certification, transparency, has gotten people to experiment and try the seafood. Once they do, they are amazed.

Can anyone join Trace & Trust?
It is open to anyone—and to all chefs and purveyors. We have a strict code for our purveyors to follow—we require full transparency, not only into species they are catching, but really into their business. It helps them market their product more easily and tells us that they are serious in providing a sustainable and Trace & Trust product.

What do restaurateurs need to know about using underutilized fish?
They will have to learn to work with the fish—how to cook with it, how to store it, if it spoils quickly. We had to figure out a way to appeal to the masses. For example, sea robin are like scallops—they only eat shellfish, so their flesh is sweet.

These new species give restaurants the possibility of offering a better value to customers. Instead of paying $8 to $10 per pound for cod, you are paying $2 to $4 for underutilized fish. You can make more money, charge less. It’s a win-win for the industry.

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