At 7 am on a Tuesday, the sun is shining low on the horizon at Scituate Harbor, and Charles Draghi, chef/owner of Erbaluce, is meeting on the docks with Adam Fuller, head of sales at Snappy Lobster. Fuller, a former Boston chef, is now a purveyor of local lobster, scallops and fish, with a specialty in sustainable species. Snappy’s customers include many chefs like Draghi who covet fish and shellfish once considered worthless by-catch to be thrown back. This morning, Draghi is taking delivery not only of the ever-popular lobster, but other species Snappy finds in its traps: bergall, red bass, conger eel and whelks. “One of our boats is going out after the tinker mackerel run today,” Fuller says. “Nice,” Draghi replies. “You know I’ll want some of that.”
As he drives back to Boston, Draghi mulls over how to use today’s haul on Erbaluce’s daily-changing menu. Having recently fed a preparation of bergall to his servers at a post-service staff meal, he knows they are enthusiastic about it—and able to sell it effectively. “Bergall is a type of wrasse, a local fish that feeds mostly on crustaceans, so its flesh acquires an almost shrimp-like flavor,” Draghi explains. “Tonight, I’ll fillet it and give it a long saute with some skin and scales left on; the scales add a lovely whole-fish flavor and some Rice Krispies-like crunch. I’ll make a silky, almost mayo-like sauce of lobster coral and tomalley in white wine with saffron, fennel, tarragon and crushed pepper, whisked together with red wine vinegar, lemon, sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil flavored with roasted lobster shells. I’ll serve it with gigante beans, those big white limas, and some fresh dandelion leaves on the side.” Right before service, Draghi will prime his waitstaff with a few sound bites on the fish, and why the shellfish-based sauce pairs well with it. It will be one of the biggest sellers of the night, and the fact that bergall is a sustainable species, as good for the health of our local fisheries as it is tasty, will rarely come up in the customers’ questions about it.
Yet it’s hard to be a restaurant patron in 2014 and be unaware of the seafood sustainability movement. Menus and press releases routinely crow about how chefs are carefully sourcing fish and shellfish with the health of our environment in mind. Eighty percent of Americans say sustainability is a priority when they purchase food, and New Englanders have particularly compelling reasons to be attuned to the issue. Regulators have imposed quotas on catches to keep stocks of popular local species from being dangerously depleted. We’ve seen the Atlantic cod, sacred symbol of Boston and the commonwealth, get far scarcer and costlier as its once-teeming North Atlantic fisheries have collapsed, while the recent season for harvesting the delectable Northern shrimp from the Gulf of Maine was cancelled altogether. The more adventurous eaters among us have warmed to the introduction of novel choices: Even if we’re not sure what tautog is, if it’s local and our favorite chefs are cooking it, it’s got to be delicious, right?
But the question of whether you can order (or afford) your favorite local fish or crustacean is tied to more momentous issues, including increasing threats from climate change. Effects such as ocean warming and ocean acidification are wreaking havoc on intricately interdependent marine ecosystems in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand. This literal sea change has greatly raised the sustainability stakes: The issue is no longer simply about saving some scrod for your grandkids to enjoy, but ensuring the survival of all marine species and the fishing industries that depend on them.
Draghi and six other local chefs, all admired both for their skill in preparing seafood and their commitment to sustainability, shared their views from the trenches. They offered fascinating and diverse insights into how restaurateurs, distributors, regulators, aquaculturists, processors and fishermen are contributing to the movement—and what you as a consumer can do to help.
Samuel Monsour, Cassie Piuma, Michael Leviton, Michael Scelfo. Photo Credit: John Huet
Boston restaurants certainly don’t lack options for sustainable seafood: There’s a dazzling number of species with a variety of appealing flavors and textures. Samuel Monsour, who recently left jm Curley for new projects (including the current pop-up series “The Future of Junk Food”), prefers affordable day-boat fish caught via low-impact methods, including pollock, dogfish, haddock and bluefish, turning them into bar snacks like salted croquettes, smoked rillettes and mousseline-based fishcakes. Jeremy Sewall’s three restaurants—Lineage, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34—are doing well with tilefish, hake, weakfish and mackerel; he also takes advantage of the increasing availability of novel cuts like monkfish cheeks.
At Erbaluce, Draghi likewise goes nose-to-tailfin: “I love to use flounder and bass roes, salmon and striper bellies, fish cheeks and monkfish livers.” But he leads his sustainability pitch to customers with an appeal to their senses. “Of the 350-plus food fish species in New England waters, many of the most sustainable and least utilized are the most delicious,” Draghi says. “Razor clams are more delicate, sweeter and tastier than quahogs. Tautog, sheepshead, red drum, croaker, triggerfish, weakfish and hake are all much nicer on the plate than cod.”
Meanwhile, Michael Scelfo serves oily fish like young mackerel cooked on the plancha to his customers at Alden & Harlow; he also uses tilefish, dogfish and skate cheeks. At Hungry Mother, Barry Maiden features redfish, scup, wild blue catfish, tautog and sheepshead. And at Sarma, Cassie Piuma likes to use the underappreciated squid, once derided as bait, by preparing it as saganaki, a Greek stew with onions, fennel, tomato, ouzo and feta.
One surprising aspect of sustainability is that it encompasses not only protecting popular fish and emphasizing underused ones, but also shrinking the ranks of harmful species. While Michael Leviton’s customers at Lumière have taken to his preparation of porgy, and his smoked redfish at Area Four is a big seller, he also ardently promotes consumption of spiny dogfish, a suspect in declining cod populations. “Dogfish is cheap and delicious when processed properly, and has practically become an invasive species,” Leviton says. “If we’re going to successfully reduce its numbers, we’ll need more processing plants than the two New England currently has.” Similarly, Draghi is happy to use the invasive European green crab: “Cooking them helps out local fisheries, frees up space in traps for more lobsters and makes a beautiful soup, among other dishes. In this case, the virtue is in trying to eat them into regional extinction.”
But cautionary tales from recent history complicate efforts to find alternatives to overfished species. “We need to be wary of turning today’s unloved fish into tomorrow’s endangered species,” says Leviton, who currently serves as the board chair of Chefs Collaborative, a national pro-sustainability nonprofit. “Gilbert Le Coze [founding chef/owner of legendary Manhattan seafood palace Le Bernardin] pioneered the use of monkfish, creating a vogue for it in the early ’90s. The sudden spike in demand quickly got it red-listed, and it took monkfish stocks 20 years to recover. The popularity of once-shunned fish like skate and Chilean sea bass have caused similar problems in some fisheries. We need to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes with porgy, rose fish and the like.” That’s why Leviton and other sustainability advocates are calling for greater government funding for scientific research on the numbers and resilience of lesser-known species and former by-catch stocks, research commonly devoted to more popular species.
While the dining public seems increasingly open to trying new species, some customers still balk at options outside their comfort zone of cod, shrimp, salmon, lobster, oysters, scallops and swordfish. And unfamiliar names—or downright unattractive ones—can make sustainable choices a tough sell. Simply relabeling fish to something that sounds tastier or more familiar can expose a chef to charges of deception, of putting a cheap fish in a fancy wrapper to justify a higher price. A famous recent example is the criticism that Boston celebrity chef Ming Tsai endured for describing sablefish as butterfish. His defenders note that butterfish is one of many vernacular names for sablefish, but the Food and Drug Administration states that it isn’t a market name sanctioned for retail use.
One clear option for eliminating such ambiguity, the use of scientific names, isn’t necessarily attractive, either. Dogfish isn’t the sexiest label to begin with; who would order Squalus acanthias? Draghi has found one solution in the loveliness of the Italian language. “Erbaluce’s customers expect and welcome novel ingredients, so I mostly use the common names, however unfamiliar. The exceptions are when I don’t want my customers to confuse a great species with a similarly named but mediocre relative,” he explains. “The delicious long hake could be unfairly mistaken for the kind of dull hake species used for fish sticks, so I use its Italian name, nasello. The sheepshead is fantastic, but I don’t want it to be confused with cheaper cousins in the sea-bream family like scup, so it’s on my menu as mormora.”
A trick that Maiden uses to entice customers into trying lesser-known species is plating porgy in a seafood pan roast entree alongside shrimp and mussels. Piuma does a show-and-sell, using meze specials—small plates that are offered around the dining room on trays like dim sum—to showcase hake and pollock. Their visual and aromatic appeal often succeeds in prompting experimentation where mere menu descriptions might not. “Most of our customers are surprisingly open-minded and willing to try new things upon the suggestion of a well-informed server,” she adds. “We spend a lot of time educating our staff.”
Indeed, chefs across the board agree that staff training and tasting, as at Draghi’s staff meals, are essential. When servers can evocatively describe a dish’s flavor and texture, it flies out of the kitchen. Telling the story of where it came from, why and when the chef chose it is also important, Leviton says. “Americans are unfortunately divorced from the notion of how our food is raised, harvested and caught, and we’re inured to cheap, out-of-season food. If I want to sell sustainable seafood and justify its price, I have to highlight my relationships with the fishermen and divers who harvest it, explain why we’re offering this one fish from this particular boat and not another, and why now, but not in December.”
Not every chef is so explicit on provenance. “I personally have backed off from citing names and farms and fishermen. It’s more important to build trust with our audience,” Scelfo says. “I believe they can safely assume that I care enough about my sourcing. Of course, we have all of that info available, and our staff is proud and aware.”
Some restaurateurs are clearly doing their part, but what can the consumer do to help? “There’s a lot of great sustainability information in cookbooks these days,” Piuma says. “My favorites include Fish Forever by Paul Johnson, For Cod and Country by Barton Seaver and Good Fish by Becky Selengut. They’re all easy to read, informative and down-to-earth.”
Many chefs sing the praises of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide to sustainable seafood choices, downloadable as a smartphone app or printable to carry as a wallet card at seafoodwatch.org. “The Monterey Bay guide is terrific and scrupulously researched; it offers consumers very clear recommendations for sustainable choices, focusing on stock levels and the environmental impact of fishing methods,” Leviton says. “Ideally, you want customers to weigh other factors in their choices as well—for instance, how they might support their local fishing industry—but it’s a great starting point.” Maiden agrees about the need to leaven focus on environmental impact with support for local fishermen. “If we don’t support the local guys who are making an effort, they will eventually disappear and be supplanted by the kind of big conglomerates that have far less concern for sustainability.”
Sewall also offers a word of caution. “The pocket guides are great references, but not always easy to use,” he says. “Monterey says this about cod: Best Choice: Atlantic (imported hook-and-line); Good Alternative: Atlantic (Georges Bank troll/pole and imported); Avoid: Atlantic (Canada & U.S.). If you are sitting at a restaurant and see cod on the menu, how do you know for sure where it is from, or more importantly, how it was caught? The people selling it to you might not know for sure, and [the purveyors] they bought it from may not know either.”
Scelfo adds, “Customers simply need to order and buy the lesser-known fish we’re offering. The more we sell, the more we can drive awareness. You should also go to your local fish market and talk to mongers about what they are selling, what’s being caught, and buy those items as they’re in season.” Draghi likewise suggests going straight to the source: “It doesn’t take a trip to a fishing pier to meet fishermen anymore.” He points to Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) stands at farmers markets, adding, “Many fishing vessels have websites showing what they’re bringing in and how to get that fish in stores or delivered.”
Ultimately though, Monsour places the onus on chefs to source conscientiously, regardless of how engaged diners are on the issue. “It’s our job to offer selections that promote sustainable fishing practices, even for species as commonplace as salmon. Chefs usually think wild-caught salmon is superior, but not every customer is willing to pay the premium for Pacific king or sockeye.” Monsour suggests that if chefs instead offer farmed Atlantic salmon, which is farmed in myriad ways, some more sustainable than others, they have to ask tough questions about methodology, feed and so on. “At most, customers might ask where a fish is from and whether it’s farmed or wild. It’s more the chef’s responsibility to pay attention and to care. If you’re feeding thousands of people per week with consciously sourced products, that’s going to have a substantial sustainability impact.”
Seafood sustainability demands that chefs and consumers alike make difficult choices among sometimes-competing goals of affordability, consumer choice, restoration of depleted fisheries, the health effects of what we eat and support for the livelihoods of local fishermen. Leviton offers a sobering but hopeful view. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to assert that our food system has profound problems, and that we have an enormous amount of work to do. I’m looking forward to the day when more customers are actively mindful of all the pillars of sustainability: not just environmental impacts, but also economic and social justice for all participants in our food supply chain, and the health implications of what we choose to eat,” he says. “Thinking this way rarely yields simple black-and-white answers—supporting sustainability will always involve weighing multiple complex variables. But if we at least start taking baby steps, and help our friends and customers to toddle, too, that will make it easier for everyone to eventually get up the path.”