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Some Chefs Pull Catch of the Day From Menus

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suzanne Goin, the chef and owner of Lucques restaurant, loves the meaty texture of swordfish. One of her greatest pleasures is to serve it grilled on a plate with roasted radicchio and Italian heirloom greens, sprinkled with bread crumbs, currants and pine nuts.

“It was a super hit with the customers,” she said. “That’s why it was a heartbreaker to cut from the menu.”

She laments the loss of the hearty monkfish and the elegant, buttery black cod too--all struck from Lucques’ bill of fare because Goin fears their popularity is now a threat to their survival.

For the same reason, chefs like Goin at a number of fashionable restaurants around the country are no longer serving a variety of ocean fish. They say some species are being harvested in such quantities that they are in danger of extinction.

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Orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, Pacific red snapper, shark and some types of shrimp have all made these restaurateurs’ version of the endangered species list.

The chefs, long focused on delighting the palates of their customers, now also see themselves as stewards of the food supply. They want to influence the tastes and expectations of the dining public--for ecological, not gastronomic, reasons.

As part of this burgeoning movement, a group of about 40 chefs and seafood wholesalers gathered one morning last week in the demonstration kitchen at Sur La Table, a culinary store in Santa Monica. The event was sponsored by the Chefs Collaborative, whose 1,000 members are turning their attention to fish after years of promoting fresh, locally grown meat and produce.

At Sur La Table, the first order of business was a salmon taste test.

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Each person was handed a plate with several pieces of salmon.

Three pieces on each plate were from wild salmon caught in waters off Alaska. Two of the pieces were--gasp!--frozen. One piece came from salmon grown on a fish farm.

The participants sampled each piece, calling out their reactions as instructed by Peter Hoffman, chef and owner of Savoy in New York and president of the Chefs Collaborative.

“Light.” “Flaky.” “Delicate.”

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One particularly grumpy fellow poked suspiciously at his portion of fish. He sniffed each piece and then turned up his nose at all of it, announcing that there was spoilage somewhere on his plate.

“What is the message you are trying to give us?” he demanded.

Ignoring the question for the moment, Hoffman asked for a show of hands to vote for the favorite fish on the plate. The voting was mixed, but not one hand was raised for the farm-raised salmon.

The point is, he said, that farm-raised salmon dominates the market. It’s often cheaper than wild salmon, more readily available and wrongly assumed to be a sound environmental alternative.

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“We can pick seafood that’s environmentally sustainable and that tastes good too,” Hoffman said. He explained that wild Alaskan salmon not only tastes better than farm salmon but also does less damage to the environment.

Salmon farms face growing criticism because they have spread diseases, pollution and parasites that harm natural marine life in waters around them.

Taking their cues from conservation groups, these chefs hope that by influencing eating habits, they can help curtail harmful fishing and fish farming practices that are steadily depleting the world’s largest source of protein.

Clearly, the chefs can make a difference given that 67% of U.S. seafood dollars are spent in restaurants or on catering services.

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For their part, environmentalists are especially keen on alliances with the high end of the eating business.

“The white tablecloth restaurants are the leaders, the trend-setters; the chefs are the gatekeepers,” said Mike Sutton, director of marine conservation at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. “Others will follow.”

The Packard Foundation is pumping $6 million a year into what’s called the sustainable seafood movement. That movement has spawned boycotts and helped groups from the National Audubon Society to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to the Chefs Collaborative develop lists of popular seafood that is still plentiful along with species that are in decline.

“Caviar Emptor, Let the Connoisseur Beware,” is one such campaign. It urges an international ban on beluga caviar--fish eggs with cachet--to save a species of sturgeon on the brink of extinction in Russia’s Caspian Sea.

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Other initiatives discourage the consumption of farmed shrimp and salmon.

Shrimp farms are targeted because they have laid waste to mangrove forests in Southeast Asia.

Moreover, ecologists worry that the farms of carnivorous salmon and shrimp drain more protein from the ocean than they create. It takes 3.1 pounds of ground-up wild fish to produce one pound of farm salmon, for instance.

Such concerns have placed farm-raised shrimp and Atlantic salmon in the category of seafood to avoid on lists compiled by the National Audubon Society and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

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At Sur La Table, Hoffman acknowledged that the competing--and shifting--lists can be daunting.

“When I first looked at the bad fish,” he said, referring to species he was being advised not to serve, “it was the stuff on our menu. When I looked at the good fish, I looked at stuff that I don’t know how to cook or people don’t want to eat.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, Hoffman said. But it underscored an important point. Restaurateurs must not think they have to chuck their entire menu and start from scratch with seafood they have never served before.

They should strike a balance, Hoffman said. They need to take care of their customers, their bottom line. But they also can ask questions about the fish they buy--how and where it is caught--and make their own judgments.

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“What can you do,” he said, “to make sure that the seafood is not just here today, but for your children and your grandchildren?”

Marine conservationists have long been railing against wasteful practices such as shoveling overboard 10 pounds of dead or dying “bycatch” for every pound of shrimp caught in nets. They protest against dredging and bottom trawling, which they liken to clear-cutting the ocean floor in the pursuit of scallops, sole and other fish.

For their part, fishing and seafood industry groups denounce the conservation campaigns. They regard the seafood advisory lists as extreme measures that confuse consumers, alienate fishermen and present an overly gloomy assessment of fish populations.

“A lot of these people who got into making these lists know nothing about fish stocks,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assn. “They put more money into artwork to make them beautiful than into research.”

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Grader convinced Monterey Bay Aquarium officials, for instance, that some types of California’s salmon are thriving because their stocks are augmented by hatcheries. So the aquarium moved California salmon from a yellow “caution” zone to a green “best choices” on its Seafood Watch list.

Most of the fights have not caught the attention of the average American seafood eater.

“So many of our domestic populations of fish have been severely depleted, and yet you can go to the market and get whatever you want--because of the global nature of this industry,” said Vikki Spruill, director of SeaWeb, an ocean conservation organization.

Conservationists tend to tackle overfishing issues by arguing about biodiversity or treating fish as wildlife. They consider their success with the tuna fleet as a model of how to influence fishing practices.

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A stowaway on a fishing boat in the 1980s shot dramatic videotape footage of dolphins dying in tuna nets. Worried about consumer backlash from a nation that fell in love with TV star Flipper, StarKist and other companies in 1990 switched to dolphin-safe tuna fishing. As a result, the number of dolphins dying in nets has dropped from 300,000 a year to 3,000.

But can environmentalist drum up the same degree of sympathy for the Patagonian toothfish, the common name of Chilean sea bass?

Spruill thinks not. Most people don’t think of fish as wildlife needing rescue, she said. “Most people think of fish in a buttery lemon sauce.”

That’s where the chefs come in.

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About 700 of them signed on to “Give Swordfish a Break,” a 1998 boycott over concerns that too many Atlantic swordfish were being caught, particularly too many juveniles that never had a chance to spawn.

SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council declared victory last year, ending the boycott when the government lowered catch limits and closed swordfish nursery areas.

Still, swordfish remains on the to-be-avoided category of most seafood advisory lists, although fishermen say Pacific swordfish stocks are perfectly healthy.

But how can a chef, or other consumer, tell where a fish is caught?

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Some distributors or wholesalers don’t know, or won’t say, said Julee Harmon, a wholesaler who supplies fish to high-end restaurants in Los Angeles. Her company, Ocean Jewels, has made a point of environmentally responsible fish sales.

Suzanne Goin relies on Ocean Jewels to help her figure out what’s good and environmentally sound.

She doesn’t preach to customers who come to Lucques to relax and have a good meal. When they ask about swordfish, she says it is overfished and she’s not working with it until the situation changes.

“There are limitations,” Goin told a group of chefs. “You want to make sure you aren’t living in a fantasy world and running a perfectly sustainable seafood restaurant that nobody would want to eat in.”

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