Sustainable seafood restrictions have turned unknown species into menu headliners
Diners are used to seeing dishes like grilled tuna, poached salmon and pan–roasted Chilean sea bass on menus. But offerings like kaku ceviche, sautéed barramundi and sablefish confit usually send patrons scrambling to their smartphones to do a quick Google search. Restaurants are starting to offer these previously unknown fish because they come from sustainable populations that aren’t overfished and in danger of becoming extinct.
“Most people know five species of fish, and most of them are threatened,” says Rick Moonen, chef-owner of RM Seafood in Las Vegas and a 20–year advocate of sustainable seafood. Barton Seaver, award–winning chef and author of For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking, believes that this ignorance of less–well–known, but more sustainable, options extends into the back of the house. “In Maryland alone, there are 90 species of fish commercially available,” he says. “But your average chef can probably only name 30 kinds of seafood available globally.”
When Seaver was growing up in Washington, D.C., he spent summers in the Chesapeake Bay harvesting bushels of large male blue crabs that gathered around dock pilings and piers. By the time he was in high school, the seascape had already been drastically altered. “You couldn’t find half a bushel of any kind of crabs anywhere,” he says. “That had a direct impact on my desire to promote sustainable seafood.”
After Seaver had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and had moved back to Washington to cook at well-regarded restaurants like Jaleo and Hook, he loved serving lesser–known locally sourced options, like mackerel and yellow perch. “Those are both Chesapeake Bay fish with healthy stocks,” Seaver says. “They’re relatively inexpensive, accessible, seasonal and local. Those factors combined allowed me as a chef to really sell a story that was compelling to a lot of consumers, even those that hadn’t heard of them.”
Plenty of delicious alternatives are out there for restaurant professionals like Seaver who are willing to look beyond the usual suspects. Mike Minor, executive chef at Border Grill Las Vegas, used to be well–known for his mako shark tacos dressed with cilantro pesto and wild dragon fruit salsa fresca. However, after the fish suffered population declines and registered high amounts of mercury, Minor turned his talents elsewhere. “You’ve got to push yourself to figure how to create that same flavor with a different species,” he says. “Being able to work with new kinds of fish and making them taste great proves that you’re a great chef.”