Monkfish is a big, ugly fish. Nestled down into the ice among sea-robins, striped bass, oysters, and conch sits a whole monkfish, a less lucky prey hanging from its gaping, many teethed mouth, it kind of looks like a giant, killer tadpole or toad. This is dinner.
Thursday, October 13th Leigh, our Program Director, and I were fortunate enough to attend the “Nose to Tail Fin Dinner” Hosted by 606 Congress in the Boston Renaissance along with Chefs Collaborative, the Boston Chapter of Slow Food, and Bostonchefs.com. The whole monkfish, and all the other sea life, was there to let diners see just what whole-fresh fish looks like, as we passed into the private dining room for seven courses of perfectly prepared ocean bounty.
The sea-robin in the display surprised me. Growing up fishing in southern New England, sea-robin had always been a trash fish, a throw-away while trying to snag flounder. But as the nights menu proved, changing long-standing traditions about the way we approach seafood consumption yield impressive, important, and delicious results.
As we progressed from “Live Green Sea Urchin” from New Brunswick, through Gloucester “Deep Fried Cod Tongue and Cheek” and onto, Rhode Island “Sous Vide Long Fin Squid.” Chef, and Chefs Collaborative Local leader for Boston, Rich Garcia paused to take the time to explain to us the intricacies not so much of the cooking techniques, as the ways in which these fish were caught and the relationship between the plate and the ocean, and chefs and fishermen.
Perhaps this relationship was best represented with the squid, which came complemented not just with pork belly and squash gnocchi, but a small business sized card bearing a QR barcode, a way to track where the fish was caught and by whom. The Trace and Trust technology spreading around the East Coast from Rhode Island, that we’ve often touted here.
But for me the dish that most nicely captures the evening was the “Monkfish Carpaccio.” Don’t let the fish’s appearance fool you; it is delectable. Here the fish was rolled, sliced paper thin, and served raw with its own crispy gills and skin, and a ponzu made from its liver, pushing the boundaries of what most people would think of for a seafood dinner.
It pushed the boundaries in other ways too. Monkfish is still a Red-Listed seafood by most accounts, including the venerable Monterey Bay Aquarium. As Rich pointed out, by working with the fisherman and taking the time to ask questions about his products, he knows that the particular fishery he works with has a sustainable population of monkfish. What’s more, these relationships give piece of mind that the techniques of the fisherman don’t produce the terrible seafloor damage and by-catch of large-scale, conventional fishermen.
What the monkfish and all of the dishes reflect is that while lists and guidelines make for great frameworks, we need to be more proactive. For years now, and in growing numbers, chefs have worked with farmers to source sustainable produce and, more and more, meat, practices, we need to promote and embrace in every facet of sourcing. Ask the questions; find out where your seafood is coming from and how it’s caught. Stop being a buyer and seller of food and start being a link in the complex relationship of community from start, in the ocean, field or pasture, to finish in the diner’s mouth.