During the last three years of my career as a chef and
restaurant owner, I have undertaken a Melvillian quest to find an answer to an
unanswerable question. This blog tracks
the pursuit of that question, which is this:
Should I buy fish from our local boats, or should I buy fish that is
most plentiful and sustainable? The goal
of this pursuit is that my children’s children will never have to ask the
question posed in this blog’s title.
In May of 2009, three fishing boats from Ogunquit and Wells,
Maine landed some beautiful bluefin tuna.
That afternoon, the fishermen—none of whom had a license to sell tuna--brought
their catch directly to several restaurants in town, whose chefs each purchased
a portion of the fish to serve in their restaurants. Shortly thereafter, a local fisheries officer
from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) slapped a fine on
each fisherman and chef involved in the bootlegged tuna transaction. The fines levied on fishers and restaurants totaled
over $100,000. Pretty much every chef I knew at that point,
myself included, pooped his pants a little when word got out, not because any
of us had done anything worthy of a fine, but just that it could happen at all.
According to an article on Seacoast Online, at least one of
the fined Ogunquit chefs said he was unaware of the permit laws. The article reports that “He said he didn’t
understand why federal agents targeted businesses in town, adding he thought he
was doing a ‘nice local service’ for patrons by offering local, fresh fish from
Fast forward a few months to a similar, albeit more
innocuous, conundrum in my restaurant.
While I was away on a trip, my sous chef purchased locally landed
bluefin tuna from a legitimate fishmonger and ran it as a special on a Saturday
night. The special was posted on a
then-nascent Facebook, as we have been doing since the marketing meteor of
social media first crashed on our doorstep.
Within twenty-four hours, one person’s post on our Facebook page
expressing outrage about our choice to offer “endangered” bluefin tuna led to a
barrage of defensive responses from our loyal fan-base. Chef Evan and Black Trumpet are as
conscientious as they come! the defenders cried. But my heart was filled with doubt.
A week later, I found myself at a Chefs Collaborative
sustainable seafood initiative at a highly regarded restaurant in
Cambridge. I pleaded my case to a
roomful of chefs about the conundrum we chefs face trying to do the right thing
for our local economy but also for our greater ecology. My confession met with nods and grimaces from
some of today’s most respected chefs in the Greater Boston area. Since then I have attended sustainable
seafood symposia from Italy to Seattle, including many right here in our
fragile Seacoast foodshed. In Italy, at
Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference, I was particularly moved by a fisherman
from a small island nation in Oceania who could not afford to eat the fish he
caught, which fetched top dollar in Japan and Europe, so when he fed his family
fish, it was usually inexpensive, cellophane-wrapped farmed salmon from
Europe. More stark images of a fractured
food supply chain to come. Stay tuned…
I still don’t know the right thing to do, but I feel like
I’ve been inching toward a sound philosophy ever since the bluefin debacle.
There is a statistic that gets bandied about whenever I find
myself around sustainable seafood cognoscenti that at once depresses and
motivates me. In New Hampshire, the
state with by far the smallest shoreline, over ninety percent of all fish
consumed comes from overseas. Meanwhile,
our few New Hampshire fishing vessels, who are struggling to meet ever-changing
regulations while facing severely depleted wild stocks, are shipping over ninety percent of their
catch outside of New Hampshire. And our
distribution system, unfortunately, is hardly exceptional in today’s
world. In fact, the more I look into our
global seafood distribution system, the more I am shocked by my findings. Check out Point Judith squid from Rhode
Island, for example, and you will find that massive blocks of “dirty” squid are
frozen at sea and shipped to China, where it is processed (basically just
cleaned), refrozen, and shipped back here to New England. When you eat fried calamari at 99.9% of
restaurants, that is what you are eating.
As a child living on Cape Cod, I remember being appalled to find that
the Ocean Spray cranberry juice I was forced to drink resulted from our local
cranberry crop going to Wisconsin to be made into juice before it returned to
us for our consumption. Suffice to say,
the squid thing really makes the cranberry thing look like small fry.
At Black Trumpet, when squid is on our menu, we buy
so-called “dirty squid” from local boats (who catch it, interestingly, to use
as bait for other, more lucrative catches) and then clean it ourselves. The product is difficult to work with, messy,
time consuming, and—in some cases—more expensive. Its shelf-life is shorter than the processed
squid, and there is considerable waste from the cleaning process. So, why would anyone go to such
extremes? What’s the point? The point is, simply, that fresher food has
more flavor, and supporting small local fisheries makes infinitely more sense
than buying from anonymous overseas megafleets. In this country, we have moved
in the direction of efficiency, convenience and (perceived) value to such an
extent that most chefs—even plenty of renowned ones—don’t know what a whole
squid or even a whole fish looks like.
Although the tides are turning, whether out of heightened awareness or
out of necessity, the current disconnect between food source and end-consumer
is nothing shy of appalling.
I have spoken with many chefs who point to ethnic
communities around the country who buy their fish from sketchy, unlicensed
sources who often pull up in the alley behind the restaurant in unmarked trucks
and—yes, of course—white vans. Fish
bootlegging is fairly commonplace but hard to enforce, sort of like the federal
eschewal of marijuana laws in states where it is legal. Once, on a trip to Greece, my wife and I ate
in a charming taverna at the base of a dock where fishing boats came and went
by the minute, or so it seemed. When we
sat down at a table, a boat was unloading its bounty into the kitchen behind
us. Fish were still wiggling. The restaurant enforced a strict policy that
each patron should meet the fish they were going to enjoy before it was cooked
for them. There was no menu—just the
fish itself on parade. A direct
connection from sea to consumer with no red tape? This doesn’t have to be a faraway
fantasy. It has been a way of life for
most of the world for most of human history.
New Hampshire Law states that a fisherman must have a license
to sell directly to a restaurant. The
fish must be sold whole and gutted. It
is up to the chef and her crew to fillet the fish. Most restaurants operate on a scale (no pun
intended) that prohibits fish processing on location. If fishermen don’t want to buy licenses in
the first place, then there will be no local fish except for what is
distributed by the very few retail fishmongers.
A direct connection between the source of the seafood and
the place where it is served is an important step toward ensuring that our
community eat its own catch instead of falling into the absurd status quo that
punishes fishermen AND chefs for working together, while ensuring that our
already-restricted ocean harvest (popularly regarded as the most precious wild
food source remaining on earth) be shipped to the ends of the Earth instead of
to our own tables.
Our fisheries are being depleted, and along with them our
fishermen. Recently, at the Chefs
Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit in Seattle, a scholarly fisheries
advocate named Barton Seaver stated evocatively that—of the so-called
“red-listed” species of fish in America, the most endangered is the fisherman.
Like the chefs in Ogunquit in 2009, I have broken the
law. I have bought fish, recently, from
boats who did not have a license to sell it to me. I didn’t know that at the time, and when I
found out, I stopped buying fish from that source. But am guilty of breaking the law nonetheless.
The difference is, I was buying the ignominious and maligned spiny dogfish, a
skinny shark known best for its tendency to tangle gillnets and eat other
“choice” fish. Although it is delicious
when properly cooked, dogfish is an abundant food source that no one here in
New Hampshire particularly wants to eat; almost 100 percent of it is shipped to
England for fish and chips. There are no
agency watchdogs or NOAA dragnets (ha!) lurking under the town pier in wait to
slap fines on dogfishermen, because no one cares about the lowly dogfish.
I believe that one of my responsibilities as a chef is to
capitalize on the seasonality of all
ingredients, including seafood. When
dogfish season ended, I took dogfish off my menu. When pollock season ends, I will take pollock
off my menu. I am committed to building
trust through direct connections to the sources of food on my menu. I know that most of my guests at Black
Trumpet share that trust and appreciate that it takes extra effort to source
the freshest, most responsible ingredients available. Please, can we please work together to make
it possible for restaurants like mine to work closely with our local fishing
fleets? Thank you.
By writing this blog, I realize that I am inviting scrutiny,
possibly even a fine. But my intention
is only to invite conversation and awareness of a broken food supply chain that
we--through the power of our democracy—have the ability to correct before our
seafood stocks—and those that harvest them—become a story we tell our
If you aren’t going to have grandchildren and don’t care about
the future of the planet, go ahead and eat halibut, bluefin tuna, cod and
haddock to your heart’s content. If you
want to be a part of saving the world, then diversify your diet. Instead of haddock, try hake or pollock. Instead of tuna, eat bluefish and
mackerel. Instead of farmed salmon, eat
locally farmed steelhead trout. Learn
how to prepare and cook fish you don’t think you know how to handle. Your education as a cook may inform
generations that will follow you.
But most of all, I beseech of everyone who reads this to
share with everyone they know that demanding local, sustainable products for
your tables will lead to the health of our bodies, our economies, and our