Seven Questions For...Michael Leviton, Chef/Owner Lumiere Restaurant, Newton and newly appointed National Board Chair Chefs Collaborative
I saw the twinkle in Michael's eye when we spoke at Lamb Jam about local lamb (We were both a bit surprised at so much NZ lamb. Like we don't have farmers in New England?) Hearing his thoughtful comments at the Chefs Collaborative National Summit, confirmed that he is deeply committed to thinking about and living these values. Listening to his comments on sustainability, especially sustainable seafood, I knew it would be a fun discussion if I could snag a little of his time. Between power outtages, kid pickup/dropoffs and well, whatever else is involved in running the acclaimed and newly expanded restaurant, we actually did find a few minutes to talk.
Congratulations to Michael for his new appointment as the Chefs Collaborative National Board Chair. I'm sure we'll see great things from that organization in the coming months.
Seven Questions for ...
Me: How did you first become aware that your food choices make a difference?
ML: When I started cooking Northern California in late the late 80s I was blown away by the bounty there. My first job was a breakfast and lunch joint, a couple of days a week we did our own shopping. So we'd go to the farmers' markets and I'd get to see what was going into the better restaurants. Something like 80 varieties of tomatoes, 35 varieties of raspberries. It was almost otherworldly, I began to realize great food comes from great ingredients.
We are always about getting the best possible product. The closer to the farm we get, the shorter the distance, the better. Now we're learning about but it’s also and the more that you know more informed decisions it’s breed how raised, slaughtered more than just local.
Me: Congratulations on the the new position with the Chefs Collaborative. What are the CC goals and do you have personal projects you’d like too champion?
ML: The goals there - our mission statement as we read it at the Summit will remain the same. I'd like for sustainability to be second nature for all chefs. Anything we can do to mover toward that is great. It's easier in some ways to do if you're like me, a small chef-owned restaurant. I know that.
But there are groups making changes in the field. Like BAMCo - if we get others to make those smaller changes, we'll have more impact in some ways. So getting big players to make small changes is great. From Mom and Pop shops to multi-nationals we need to get everyone on that journey, taking the first steps. It is a constantly moving target but our job is to get them excited to start, just to focus on "today I want to make better decisions than yesterday"
Me: The CC published their seafood report and the jointly developed Green Chefs/Blue Ocean training what can we expect under your board?
ML: Green Chefs/Blue Ocean is really important and the seafood question became important to me when I came back here in '96 and saw the tension between wallet cards and local fisheries. I didn’t really become more deeply involved until I started to think about supporting our local food shed, local fishermen and thinking, it cannot be that lobster and shellfish are the only local seafood we can use.
So, I try to default to local and organic. I also believe you have to choose seafood with some judgment. It may look bad on a wallet card but if it's from Cape Hook fishermen or Port Clyde where these guys are really taking great steps to fish in more sustainable ways, then I'm okay with that.
Me: What advice do you have for people just beginning to figure out sustainable seafood?
ML: Do your homework. That’s the basic answer. Buy local. Good to default there, and easy. Even that is not always the best answer, if they’re tearing up ocean floor that's not good, but as a chef you want the best product you can get. You want to balance it with sustainability and sometimes the better product is a more sustainable choice. Like some of the hook fishermen or CSFs that use lower by catch equipment. A lot of times the fish you get is less damaged, less stressed. It's all about doing the homework. Give it a lot of thought, and you sleep a little better if you can feel the part of solution.
Me: What do you hear from customers?
ML: Yes, some are, a certain percentage come in well-informed and asking for sustainable choices. But people are so confused want black and white answers. They may not be doing the homework to make informed decisions. Customers want to know that you’ve made the connections and used good logic and they want to trust that your heart is in the right place.
I want to communicate that to the customers, to tell you the boat (traceability), how it’s caught, where. We want to give that information, create the
Me: As a restaurateur do you feel you can influence the suppliers/purveyors?
ML: To a certain extent. Some that I w/hom have close distinct relationship I can say "good" or "please do this." But you know, getting chicken right is more than just "free range." We now know we have to learn about the breed, the husbandry, the diet, the time of slaughter, etc. Some suppliers I do have those relationships with.
Me: Can I ask you about farmed fish? What are your thoughts?
ML: The shorter the distance between food and table, the better. The basic idea with aquaculture is that it's not absolute. We must have some farmed fish, so the question becomes a balancing of a bunch of "evils" There's some greenwashing going on with some farmed fish right now. The truth is the oceans are limited now in terms of what we can do or get from it. Some of the easier farm raised fish are tilapia and catfish. They can be farmed with a veg diet so their is no net protein loss. Arctic char is not a bad option and after wild salmon I'd go there rather than to farmed salmon.
Dan Barber's TED talk was fantastic that La Palma Spain fish. It is great but it's a system that cannot grow. Only one person doing it.
In school I studied theoretical, moral development at Berkeley and all action choices are based on how you weigh components from three domains ecologic, economic and social. These are a framework for this field too, 1) ecological - is it sustainable, is it a well-managed fishery, what are shipping impacts; 2) economic - can people do this/ buy this/ what are market forces; 3) social diversity - does this keep a variety of people employed?
Had this conversation with Kim Marden at the Summit: she's tenacious, Eric's premium: he still needs to get the price, it costs more and it's worth more. But on any given day, it may not be competitive. But we're trying to make this work. There are more chefs like us Ana, Barry, Tony and me. We need to keep this front and center, sometimes it's easier if you're a chef/owner so you're not really having to answer to a corporate entity.
Me: Will you share a favorite sustainable seafood recipe?
ML: Yes! Will follow up by email.