This post comes to us care of Chefs Collaborative board member Evan Mallett, chef and owner of Black Trumpet Bistro. The post was originally published on his own blog.
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 Perkins Cove.”
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. Read on! 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.
FLIRTING WITH THE LAW
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 grandchildren.
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 foodshed.