In Durham, North Carolina’s bustling downtown, locals and visitors alike can find the Counting House restaurant right in the city’s center on Main Street, located inside of the 21c Museum Hotel. Just three hours from the coast, Counting House incorporates fresh seafood dishes as a lead part of its menu. As the executive chef of Counting House, I can confidently say that our love for seafood extends beyond its taste and into its heritage—the ethos of sustainable seafood sourcing is at the core of everything we do. Customers might not realize it, but when they sit down at a restaurant and order their favorite pan seared catch, oyster spread or scallops dish, the way that seafood was grown, caught and delivered has a huge impact on the environment in more ways than one.
Generally, the definition of “sustainable seafood” is seafood that is either caught or farmed in ways that follow best practices to protect the environment and natural ocean habitats. A main cause of seafood strife is overfishing: the removal of a species of fish from a body of water at a rate that the species cannot replenish in time, to its detriment. Just as there are various opinions as to what constitutes true sustainability, it is also hard to give exact statistics about overfishing, as much is done illegally. Experts at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that one-third of the world’s fisheries are currently over-fished and that over half are fully-fished at their biological limits. Once overfished, it can take a population decades to recuperate, if at all. In addition to unsustainable fishing practices, marine life populations are also facing threats from environmental changes, ocean pollution and other human-caused habitat degradation. Some of this habitat harm comes from certain types of nets and methods used to fish, adding to environmental toll of a seafood dish.
Wiping out ecosystems to feed growing appetites is a danger to the health of our planet, and is something that every restaurant owner, operator and chef should consider when designing menus and choosing vendors. While diners are hungry for an array of seafood options, it’s the responsibility of the restaurant to ensure its menu stays sustainable, even if that means it is not always meeting demand. Having a fluid menu that can change with the best sustainable choices available is important for chefs looking to make a more eco-friendly change with their seafood dishes. Get creative in the kitchen. Look for species known as bycatch, the unwanted fish caught during commercial fishing for a different species, or trash fish, species thought of as having no value by many fisherman, whether caught as bycatch or not as all. For example, chefs on the West Coast could look for locally-caught Pacific Grenadier as a similar substitute for tilapia, but with more flavor and texture. The fish, which is a bycatch of black cod, is considered widely unattractive—but it’s what’s on the inside that counts when it comes to cooking sustainably.
Luckily, there is an abundance of resources available for chefs and restaurant operators to educate themselves on proper seafood sourcing. At 21c Museum Hotels, we partner with the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program to help make judgement calls about “good” and “bad” seafood. The Smart Catch program allows us vet vendors to make smarter, more sustainable choices. In the kitchen, we also reference tools like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which is a quick and easy way to find what types of marine life are a preferred choice and which to avoid based on the program’s assessments that identify the environmental performance of fisheries or aquaculture operations. If a species isn’t vetted and verified, we won’t create a menu item around it.
I also recommend for chefs to look at seasonal and local ingredients when designing seafood dishes. Create a relationship with your trusted supplier—a good local fishmonger might not always be the cheapest, but they can provide knowledgeable options for what is fresh and in-season. For example, getting tuna fresh from the coastline will be a more sustainable choice than flying in tuna from Japan. Not only are you ensuring transparency by sourcing locally, but you won’t be contributing to additional environmental hazards like gas and emissions from the planes and trucks that deliver the food.
It might seem like extra work for an already busy kitchen or an extra expense on thin margins, but implementing a sustainable seafood program does have additional benefits. A large majority of American consumers are willing to pay more for seafood that is certified as sustainably and responsibly sourced. Additionally, consumers agree that it is essential to protect the ocean’s resources for future generations. Because well-informed customers are willing to pay a premium for quality, sustainable seafood, restaurants must educate their staff and customers about their sourcing practices. Transparency leads to trust, which leads to a happy diner eating a meal that’s not only delicious, but good for the health of the planet, too.
Thomas Card is the Executive Chef at Counting House, the premier restaurant of Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel. With over 18 years of experience in the restaurant industry, chef Card has also worked at luxury hospitality leaders like Umstead Hotel and Spa and The Fearrington House Inn. Card is an integral part of Durham’s dynamic community of restaurants and takes pride in his work with local producers and ingredients from the region.