This morning the Boston Globe ran part one of a two-part exposé on fish fraud (Diners Order One Fish, Get Another), including this video. This issue is not new, and not limited to Boston. As an iconic coastal city, Boston has long been associated with good, fresh seafood. Are consumers getting what they pay for? It seems in many cases, the answer is no.
With the growing awareness of food safety issues, traceability is a word on the lips of many diners. Sourcing local food, including local fish here in New England, is very important as well.
In a British hospitality survey of 2,000 diners 90% said they wanted to be served only sustainable seafood when they dine out.
But, nearly three-quarters said they themselves did not know which species were near extinction.
I tell chefs this is upside for them. Diners want your help and want to rely on your expertise to help them make better choices. Like it or not, this piece in the Globe piece puts chefs and servers squarely in the cross-hairs as a probably unintended, but no less real, consequence will have diners asking point-blank "How do I know this cod is really cod?"
Bad information can confuse and numerous names fish go by can obfuscate. Chef Ming Tsai has been a leader in advocating for transparency in allergy information. He's a trusted chef in many ways. The Globe piece might be read to infer bad motive to his use of the name "butterfish" for sablefish. In fact, sablefish is often called by various names, including Butterfish. It is not a fish that is overfished nor threatened by overfishing. This naming issue is sometimes dishonest and often not. I trust Ming Tsai and I know sablefish is one I often recommend. Readers here will know that "Orange Roughy" was originally called Slimehead and Chilean Seabass is not a bass at all but Patagonian Toothfish.Tsai's use of the name Butterfish for Sablefish is a far cry from selling Vietnamese Catfish in place of Grouper.
I applaud the Globe piece for bringing to light some of the myriad issues restaurateurs face when trying to source and sell seafood. The St Petersburg Times ran a story on Florida Grouper fraud in 2006 and the New York Times ran a piece in 2008 and another earlier this year on fish fraud uncovered in numerous ways. We must all strive for accuracy and be vigilant about transparency to advance the cause for consumers.
Who Else Suffers?
Who else is hurt by the ongoing fraud and lack of transparency in the field? Fishermen. Our local fishermen have struggled between the challenges of regulations (shifting, sometimes unfair, sometimes just burdensome even if fair) and competition by large trawling factories, by foreign imports like catfish.
When fishermen lose their way of life, the very coastal cities that draw painters, poets, and important tourist dollars change. We are in very real danger of having our fishing ports become museum artifacts and theme park memorials to a lifestyle that once defined New England.
Who else suffers? Local economies. Tourism will not take the place of fishing for the families of cities like Gloucester.
The unscrupulous purveyors and middlemen who mark up fish and mislabel cheap imports as more expensive species.
Restaurateurs who turn a blind eye to the "deal" they're getting, never demanding traceability are responsible for perpetuating this "wink, wink" sort of business practice. If they demanded traceability the unscrupulous purveyors would have to change their ways. As one person said in the Florida Grouper Scandal, if you're buying a Mercedes for 10K you can't be surprised to learn it's not really a Mercedes.
The politicians pandering for local votes by politicizing the issue to their own benefit are not helping matters either.
From Vancouver to New Brunswick, New Orleans to Alaska, I have spoken with fishermen and those they support. I am stunned at how often the questions I get are about the vitriol of the dialog here. It's not about the actual issues, it's the lack of open dialog that mystifies people. We must move beyond blaming the regulators, demonizing conservationists, and pointing fingers all around.
Moving Toward Solutions - Teach a Chef to Fish Workshop
For five years I have run an online event called Teach a Man to Fish. It's a virtual potluck where bloggers, food writers, cookbook authors, home cooks and restaurateurs share recipes, info, tips, resources and questions about the very real challenges, and joys, of cooking with sustainable seafood. Two years ago, I began running workshops for chefs alerting them to the growing consumer demand and awareness. In the Teach a Chef to Fish workshops (attended by Jose Duarte, Andy Husbands, Matt Jennings and Myers + Chang, among others), I share a framework for understanding these complex issues. I also point to resources geared specifically for the professional kitchen.
There are many ways for chefs and restaurants to bolster their knowledge, their training and their sourcing options. I package it in a workshop that delivers an approach to these issues in a one hour discussion.
"In an hour, Jacqueline took the dizzying library of information that exists concerning sustainability and eco-responsibility, and she distilled it down to a meaningful and consumable truth: think, care, and do your level best to be a careful and vigilant purveyor of seafood. Better, to be a more careful and gentle human being. And rather than leaving the seminar punch drunk, we were energized to learn more and to help realize a better future for not only the diners of tomorrow but their children, as well."
Joanne Chang and Christopher Myers, Myers + Chang, Flour Bakery & Cafe
Please contact me to schedule one for your restaurant. At LDGourmet [a] gmail [dot] com.
Good place to start: two New Cookbooks
Becky Selengut's Good Fish
and Barton Seaver's For Cod & Country are two I highly recommend.
And a Non-cookbook Book
Mark Kurlansky's A World Without Fish is a sort of graphic novel approach to teaching the basics. Good for kids of all ages.
Fish Fraud in the News
Cooking with Kids
This is the fifth year of my sustainable seafood focus and I'm turning my attention to cooking with kids. Creating the next generation of sustainable seafood advocates and conscious cooks is something that we need to be focusing on before we end up a world without fish. A distinct possibility.
We'll kick off another round of the TM2F virtual potluck and teach-in, shortly. For now, peruse last year's wrap up (this year, I included resources in the wrap up rather than breaking it out separately) and get your cookbooks and thinking caps on. Here's my Sustainable Seafood resource guide from a prior year.
Don't forget we have a wealth of resources here including, Australis Barramundi (healthy farmed fish), the New England Aquarium, the Herring Alliance, the Chefs Collaborative and more.
And always vote with your dollars by dining at restaurants like Turner Fisheries, who openly feature sustainable seafood and willingly discuss choices they're making and why.