Selling chefs on local seafood, one boat trip at a time

Selling chefs on local seafood, one boat trip at a time
A crewman aboard the Department of Natural Resources boat the Robert Lee prepares a pump hose that is used under pressure to wash seeded oyster shells into the tidal river as part of the Oyster Recovery Partnership project. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun)

Chef Wilbur G. Cox Jr. spent a day on a boat with a state bureaucrat who wanted him to put more local seafood on his menu. The excursion has prompted Cox to do that — and more.

"My next [tattoo] sleeve is going to be based all on Maryland seafood," said Wilbur G. Cox Jr., executive sous chef at B&O American Brasserie in Baltimore. "I will get a crab, an Old Bay can, maybe a yellow perch."

Inspiring tattoos might not be that hard in this era of highly inked chefs. The Maryland fisheries official on the boat saved his arm-twisting for a tougher sell: persuading area chefs, despite a down economy and thin restaurant profit margins, to use Chesapeake-region seafood instead of cheaper stuff from around the country and overseas.

"It's not just about price anymore," said Steve Vilnit, who does commercial fisheries outreach and marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "There's a story that goes with it. And for them to see the story and experience it — they can put a face to their seafood."

The effort seems to be paying off.

Vilnit has taken nearly 80 chefs out on tributaries leading to the Chesapeake Bay, showing them where crabs are harvested and picked, where oyster beds are being restored, where abundant yellow perch and invasive blue catfish are caught. A number of them, from Washington celebrity chef Todd Gray of Equinox, Watershed and Muse at the Corcoran to a little-known culinary arts instructor at Anne Arundel Community College, say they have started buying more Maryland seafood as a result.

Even chefs who already had a commitment to local seafood say the experience of seeing it caught and processed has deepened their appreciation for it.

"If I see a chef who's not using it [Maryland crab], I berate them: 'You have to use it. It's your responsibility,'" said Chad Wells, executive chef of Alewife in Baltimore. "We have one of the greatest products in the world right here, and if you're using some other country's crab meat, and crab meat from another area, it's not as good and they should be doing their part to support Maryland."

On a tour Vilnit led in late June, chefs visited the J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. crab-picking house in Cambridge. A chef asked what the company does with the empty shells. He learned they're boiled to extract their flavor, which is then sold to companies looking to boost the taste of imported crab.

"I'd love to get those shells and make some stock," said Michael Stavlas of Hellas Restaurant and Lounge in Millersville. "We do a Maryland crab soup, and that would be an incredible base for the soup."

He has since started buying the shells to do just that.

"The trip has definitely had an impact on our seafood purchasing," Stavlas said. "We have begun working with more wholesalers that carry a wider variety of local seafood and have urged our primary purveyors to assist us in attaining more local seafood."

Wells was steeped in local-and-sustainable food philosophy well before the June outing, but he still learned ways to get more Maryland seafood onto his customers' plates. He already had obscure-but-plentiful yellow perch and croaker on his menu. He has been serving invasive blue catfish and been trying to get his hands on enough snakeheads, another invasive species, to make that a regular feature.

He's been so devoted to Maryland crab meat that he's taken crab cakes off his menu when fresh meat is not available. Canned, pasteurized meat from Venezuela and Indonesia is available year-round. But that is prepared with chemical additives and is a different, "tasteless" variety of crab, Wells said.

On the tour, Wells learned that J.M. Clayton cans pasteurized crab, without additives. He tasted it alongside Clayton's fresh crab meat and was impressed.

"I didn't know you could get pasteurized in Maryland," said Wells. When the fresh meat is not in season, he plans to use J.M. Clayton's canned crab and keep crab cakes on the menu.

The tours may have stirred up more demand in local seafood than can be satisfied at the moment.

"We've actually been trying to buy some of that crab since the trip," said Joe Edwardsen, chef-owner of Joe Squared in Baltimore. "But it hasn't been available."

The idea of marketing Maryland seafood by boat came to Vilnit last winter, when he took Whole Foods' Mid-Atlantic seafood buyer out fishing for yellow perch, an abundant but underutilized species that can be commercially fished in Maryland just two weeks in February.

"He had never used it before," Vilnit said.

The grocery chain wound up buying 500 to 1,000 pounds a day while it was available, making it the biggest buyer of the fish.

"They put banners up behind the counter, educated staff about it, and really made it a marketing thing," Vilnit said.

Vilnit, who joined the DNR nine months ago after 12 years in the wholesale fish business, figured the best way to sell people on local seafood was to get them on the water and let them see what goes into catching it. So after his yellow perch success, Vilnit decided to reach out to chefs from Maryland, Washington, Virginia and Delaware.

"A lot of chefs get seafood at the back door and don't know how it got there," he said. "Coming from the sales world, if you wanted anybody to buy something, you've got to get them to try it. If you want to get them to really buy into it, they have to experience the fishery for themselves."

Now that Vilnit has sold some chefs on local fish, it's up to the chefs to sell their customers on it. That's not always easy, even at a place like B&O, where chef Cox said diners tend to be so sophisticated that "sweetbreads fly out the door."

When yellow perch was in season last winter, Cox fried the fish whole.

"The yellow perch dish was amazing," he said. "I took out the roe, smoked it, blended it with butter, and made a sauce with it. It was served with caramelized cauliflower, Sultana raisins and almonds."

At $15, the dish was priced to sell. But it did not.

"It was so fresh, it still had rigor mortis, but we only sold, like, three of them," he said

Blue catfish, an Asian invasive that some biologists would like to see fished into local extinction, presented a different problem for Cox: People don't usually associate catfish with high-end dining.

"Our [entree] price points are $21 to $34," he said. "Long John Silver's has fried catfish."

But he is hopeful that diners will eventually try new fish, especially as they learn that they're helping local fishermen and the environment when they do.

"It is our job as chefs to introduce people to the things that surround them," he said. "Even if they don't try it, at least they hear about it."