“Is this sustainable?”
Restaurant chefs are faced with the question regularly, especially when it comes to seafood. But as most of them are learning, there is no easy answer.
Depending on what’s on the plate (salmon, sea bass, tuna or lobster), the answer might be yes—with the justification that it’s caught or farmed in a way that maintains healthy fish stocks; that it keeps the ocean floor intact; and that harvesting it results in limited bycatch. All three, if true, would be valid answers, at least on the surface. But look deeper into any single species and the chef might be falling into murky territory.
Take Atlantic bluefin tuna, for example. Right now, this local species is one to “avoid” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. This list uses what the aquarium calls “science-based, peer reviewed and ecosystem-based criteria” and many restaurant chefs rely on it, or others like it, to determine what to put on their menus. Bluefin has been on the list for several years and in November 2010 the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that campaigns to protect endangered species, initiated a “bluefin boycott,” asking chefs to pledge to avoid serving the species and diners to pledge to avoid restaurants that serve it.
But if a chef were to talk to a small day boat fisherman working out of Plymouth or New Bedford last summer, he might reconsider the boycott. Fisherman working in and around those waters found the tuna to be considerably abundant, so much so that guys were hitting their season quota in just three or four days.
Buyers were heeding the watch lists and avoiding bluefin altogether so the fishermen found that the wholesale demand had dried up. Yet the tuna fishery in Massachusetts is closely regulated so while landing a tuna might not have been considered morally correct, it was (and is) still very much legal. In light of the boycott and a dying market, would a fisherman throw the tuna back? Why, when landing a large one might bring him a large profit—a profit that would help his business, feed his family and put money into the local economy?
Looking at it that way, the chef’s choice is easy: he’s buying tuna from a local fisherman who caught the product legally and within regulations and in turn, he’s showcasing a quality fish on his menu, which he likely got for a great deal because the market has pushed prices down. He realizes that he can turn a nice profit on the plate with that bluefin tuna—and what’s more, despite the boycott, people are going to order and eat it. So what if he’s going against a watch list and an industry ban: Can the chef afford not to put that bluefin on the menu?
The answer is probably no. Restaurants all over Boston, no matter the size, shape or concept of the restaurant, will tell you that they have, in fact, put bluefin and other species like it on their menu—and that customers continue to order it.
It is, undoubtedly a complex web of issues that chefs struggle with every day. And because there are as many types of restaurants as there are fish in the sea, each chef will handle the situation differently. In the end, each chef needs to create his or her own definition of sustainability. Is it about the restaurant’s bottom line? Is it about the fisherman’s livelihood and buying local? Or, is it maintaining the population of a species?
It’s about all of the above, and more.
The good news is that in Boston, many chefs weigh their buying decisions carefully. They study watch lists, they discuss options with their distributor, they ask questions of local fishermen. Sometimes, they make compromises. Other times, they draw a hard line and refuse to cross it. Either way, putting sustainable seafood options on their menu is a job that chefs have started taking very, very seriously.
Chef Michael Leviton, who owns Lumiere in Newton as well as the newly opened Area Four in Cambridge, is well known for focusing on sustainable practices across his menu. (This spring, he was named the director of the board of overseers at Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainability education.) When it comes to seafood, he defines sustainability through three different domains: environmental (a species that is caught or farmed using low-impact methods but also doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles); economic (micro in terms of “can he afford that fish?” and “can he put it on the plate for an amount his customers will pay?”; macro in terms of the economics of our state and regional fishing industry); and social diversity (maintaining a 400-year-old industry). He also adheres to a strictly local policy by only using seafood from waters between the Chesapeake Bay and northern Canada and prides himself on knowing the name of every boat his fish comes off of, which he gets directly from purveyors.
“I drew the line at a certain point,” Leviton says about his seafood choices. he long ago cut salmon from his menu altogether due to the environmental impact of shipping fish from thousands of miles away. “So as long as there are other alternatives that are equally good I don’t think it’s an issue,” he says. “The first rule of running a sustainable restaurant is to keep your doors open. I am no good to the sustainable agenda if I don’t have my pulpit,” he adds.
Leviton’s practices might seem extreme but they resonate with other like-minded chefs. Steve Johnson, chef-owner of Rendezvous in Central Square, maintains a similar philosophy: Sourcing locally actually helps narrow his seafood buying decisions.
“It’s made it easier for me to develop a very focused approach, which is that almost all of the species we serve are north Atlantic,” he says. His priorities start with healthy fish stocks, so migratory species that are carefully regulated such as striped bass and blue fish, are served in season while a species like squid, caught off of Point Judith, Rhode Island, are on the menu year-round.
But Johnson admits that certain factors have to fall to the bottom of the hierarchy. Catch methods, for example, are less of a concern for him. While he’s aware that squid and scallops caught with nets may have an impact on the ocean floor, he justifies purchasing them, saying, “I have to believe that someone is working to improve the technologies so that we can have fewer issues environmentally.”
In general, small restaurants that can update their menus frequently seem to have an easier time with local options. Fish Market, a tiny sushi restaurant in Allston, forgoes exotic species from Japan in order to utilize local species. Chef and co-owner Kin Chan says about 70% to 80% of his menu is locally sourced. “There are plenty of options here: mackerel, sea bass, fluke, sea urchin,” he says. “I’d rather get it here than something that’s been on a ship from Japan for two weeks. It’s very important to me.”
On the other end of the spectrum, larger seafood restaurants like Summer Shack have as many as five locations and serve several hundred diners a day.
Summer Shack owner Jasper White says their seafood orders are tremendous. But White, who advocates strongly for the Boston harbor advocacy group Save the harbor/Save the Bay still puts sustainability at the top of his priority list—and in his eyes, sustainability does not come down to watch lists. “I question everyone. I question the integrity of some of those groups. I don’t think they have much concern for the humans involved,” he says. After opening his first Summer Shack in Cambridge, he became so frustrated with the regular seafood supply chain that he launched his own wholesale company. Run by former commercial fisherman Max Harvey, Summer Shack’s wholesale arm supplies all of White’s restaurants along with a few other select accounts. Because of Harvey’s fishing background, he chooses to get information directly from the men and women who are out on the water every day. From his vantage point, he says he’s seeing good change: “There’s been a lot of work done to rebuild certain stocks.”
Determining where to look for trustworthy information takes practice, most chefs say. While some use watch lists as a guide, others dig deeper. Leviton speaks to his distributors—Kim Marden of Captain Marden’s Seafood in Wellesley and Ingrid Bengis, a seafood purveyor out of Stonington, Maine—almost daily to learn what’s coming off the boats. Others go directly to the fishermen themselves.
“I get as much of my information as I can from the people who are harvesting, growing and catching the fish,” says chef Jeremy Sewall, a partner in Kenmore Square’s Island Creek oyster Bar who not only works closely with oyster farmer Skip Bennett of Island Creek Oysters but also with his own cousin, Mark Sewall, a lobsterman up in Maine. Those direct relationships have given him connections to other commercial fishermen who are helping him grasp what should or should not go onto his menu. So not only is he getting information directly from the source, he’s also asking questions of his purveyors and others in the industry in order to get a well rounded look at what is happening on the water. In some cases, he finds that he’s the one educating his purveyors—a role that more and more chefs find themselves in these days.
All of that information gathering gives Sewall the unique advantage of being able to read the market daily. “You’re seeing different species become more popular out of necessity rather than creativity,” he says. he brings up the examples of fluke and sea trout, which are both delicious fish that have been scattered on menus for a long time but have recently become more popular now that some mainstream species (Atlantic halibut, cod) are showing up on watch lists. “one fish is taking the pressure off another, which means fishermen have had to go to alternative species to fill the void of things they just can’t offer like they used to,” says Sewall.
In Gloucester, restaurant owner Mark McDonough is located close enough to the docks that he can literally have conversations with fishermen every day. And he does. his restaurant latitude 43 buys directly from the smaller, family-run day boats that come in and out of Gloucester harbor because, he says, “we believe that if we buy local, we’re safe.”
Chris Parsons, the chef-owner of Parsons table in Winchester chooses to take it even one step further: he discusses many of his seafood buying decision with two marine biologist friends from Rhode Island. “They opened my eyes to the larger story,” Parsons says, explaining that they’ve given him in-depth background information on what goes into salmon farming. That knowledge has helped him shape a plan for buying from farms that use low-impact methods. “I’m not an expert,” he admits. “I could read some articles online and base my decisions on a little bit of research but that won’t give me the full picture. Working with these guys really helps me cut to the chase.”
Making responsible choices is just part of the equation. Most chefs will admit that ultimately what they serve comes down to price. “There will always be critics that say farm-raised salmon is bad. And yes, I think wild king salmon is the top of the line in terms of a well-managed species but it is ungodly expensive,” says Jeremy Sewall. “It’s hard to put a piece of fish on the menu at $44 per plate. Your guests aren’t going to feel like they can come in every day and order it.” Instead, he says, the farmed salmon he uses, farmed salmon from the Faroe Islands, “has a minimal impact on the environment and they’re pretty responsibly raised.” And he only charges $26 for it.
For other chefs and restaurants, dollars and cents equals out to more than just the final tab. Karen Masterson, a co-owner of Nourish restaurant in Lexington, considers the cost to the fishermen themselves. This spring, she started working with Cape Ann Fresh Catch (CAFC), a community-supported fishery, on a pilot program that incorporates restaurants into the community-supported model; Cape Ann now delivers weekly shipments of fish directly from Gloucester day boats to her restaurant kitchen. (CAFC is looking to launch the program at other restaurants, including Dog Café in Gloucester, this summer.) The setup is risky in that Masterson never knows what she might get (whole yellowtail flounder one week, cod filets the next). But once she receives the shipment, her kitchen staff comes up with specials and that’s what she serves through the weekend.
While it is undoubtedly more expensive than working with a traditional wholesaler, she’s chosen this route because CAFC provides a direct conduit to the fishermen. So instead of spending money with a third party week after week, she’s paying slightly more to receive fish directly from the boat—and her dollars are going right back to the fishermen. “It’s a truer cost of our food. From my perspective, that’s a more just purchase,” she says.
Even while chefs struggle with making sustainable decisions, they do it knowing their efforts are part of a larger movement. For Steve Johnson, that means keeping his dollars in the local economy. “People in our own community, in Gloucester, are suffering. In this small way, I know I can keep my money here,” he says.
Michael Leviton sees a larger impact. “Part of doing what I do is the hope that there is this eventual trickle-down in sustainability,” says Leviton. “That it just becomes the way we do things so that everyone can afford it.”
GRILLED MACKEREL WITH SPICY CUCUMBER SALAD
courtesy of Steve Johnson
Rendezvous, Central Square, Cambridge
BLUEFISH WITH ROASTED PEPPER, TOMATO & ONION
COMPOTE, NIÇOISE OLIVE VINAIGRETTE & BASIL OIL
courtesy of Michael Leviton
Lumiere, West Newton and Area Four, Boston
LOBSTER AND AVOCADO HORS D’OEUVRE
courtesy of Jeremy Sewall
Lineage, Brookline; Island Creek Oyster Bar and Eastern Standard, Boston
Erin Byers Murray is a Boston-area freelance writer who focuses on food and sustainability. Her first memoir, Shucked, about the year-and-a-half she spent working on the flats with the team at Island Creek Oysters, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in October. Erin can be reached at murray. firstname.lastname@example.org.