Culinary Waves: by Chef Mary Beth Lawton Johnson
I recently had a night off and went to a very fancy seafood restaurant to experience cuisine that centered around sustainably sourced seafood with emphasis on using the entire fish. Using the entire fish means using the head in soup and making stock from the bones. How often do we feature that on our menus — the idea of making every bit count and knowing nothing will be wasted? It’s refreshing.
Most of the time we pluck our fish straight from the ocean, when the tender takes everyone out fishing for the day. Perhaps we buy it fresh from local sources. There are some yachts, though, that buy seafood only from known purveyors, shipping it in from ports thousands of miles away. It may be considered sustainably sourced where it is obtained, but not once it reaches the yacht. To help us offset our carbon footprint as chefs, we need to find fresh local seafood wherever we happen to be, not have it shipped in. After all, the yacht is there to experience the culture, the scenery, the cuisine, the people — why not look for what’s fresh and plentiful right where we are?
When looking for local seafood, find out where other chefs shop and look the stores up online, or call them if language is not a barrier. Do they buy straight from the large fish markets in their country or do they have specialty purveyors or do they source it themselves? Make sure it’s sustainably sourced. That means it is sourced in a way that allows the species to sustain its numbers, by taking only what is needed and not depleting the supply. It may also mean that the harvest is wild-caught by reputable people, and not a rape and pillage of the sea like I have seen Chinese fishing vessels do in the waters off Costa Rica in the only two years they were allowed to be there.
Here are some labels that seafood consumers should be aware of:
Natural: The term is thrown around in grocery stores and high-end shops like Fresh Market. Natural means nothing artificial is used, right? Not exactly. Serving a charter broker a “natural” chicken breast on quinoa pilaf doesn’t mean it’s organic. It may mean no antibiotics were used, but there is no guarantee. We have to ask who, what, why and what exactly do they mean by “natural” when buying these products.
Ocean pen-raised: This simply means they have set up barriers — similar to a pen on land, but in the ocean — so they can grow a species out in the deep blue but call it “wild” harvested. To me, that is cheating.
Wild-caught: This means it was caught in its natural habitat by dragging nets or casting long lines, which catch everything around it as well. So it is caught in the wild — but the problem is, so is everything else. Wild-caught seafood is more expensive and the taste is different.
Farm-raised: This just makes my stomach turn. I think of fish farms in places where the soil and water is contaminated by heavy rains carrying chemical runoff from golf courses and the like. Or tilapia, which is farmed all over the world — including in developing countries where there is no access to clean water or sanitary facilities. Plus, farmed fish is raised on feed that is not as nutritious as what it would eat in the wild, so additives like coloring and plumping agents are used to make it look more natural or healthier, or even younger. How can you tell a fish is old? The eyes are dull, the scales are slimy and it smells.
Remember, by the time fish gets to a retail grocery store, a long time has passed since it was harvested. The one thing that can get someone sick in a hurry is time and/or temperature abuse, and you risk that by buying seafood in a store where you don’t know how many hands have handled it, if it was left on a truck too long in the heat, or if it was put in the case after being held out for hours. It’s better to just walk down to the local seafront market and buy it fresh.
Please, as a chef, always verify where your seafood originated so everyone can enjoy a lovely meal. Your guests will thank you — and so will responsible, sustainable seafood purveyors.
Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years. Comments are welcome below.