Navigating the waters of sustainable seafood is a task that is difficult even for the most educated of chefs. Frequently-changing bits of information, “trust me” versus trustworthy purveyors, and multiple sources are only a few of the challenges that chef face in their seafood sourcing decisions. Matt Jennings, Executive Chef and Co-owner of Farmstead, La Laiterie and Farmstead Downcity, talked to us about what he considers important when sourcing seafood for his restaurants. He also shares a beautiful and simple recipe for Striped Bass crudo.
Chefs Collaborative: What challenges do chefs face in sourcing sustainable seafood?
Matt Jennings: Where to begin? The challenges are very extensive. I think that one of the biggest issues is being able to find sustainable seafood that both satisfies the chef’s desire to cook something interesting and the customer’s desire to eat something interesting. If you’ve done sardines once, you’ve done them 1000 times. How do you keep things exciting all the time? The biggest challenge we have is keeping things fresh and new and interesting, for chefs and for customers. We can’t have too many repeat offenders on the menu unless they are hallmarks of our cuisine. When using sustainable seafood, we have to respect a more limited repertoire, but at the same time, there are different ways you can treat ingredients and therefore more opportunity for creativity.
C.C.: What factors do you take into consideration when sourcing fish?
M.J.: Sustainable first, local second. The sustainable angle is more important than the local angle for us. It’s a top priority. Local is its own beast because it’s impossible to source everything you buy locally. If I had to choose, I would rather have menus be seasonal and sustainable. Seasonality is huge – a lot of the time you’re already purchasing sustainably and don’t even know it. If you’re a Rhode Island chef and you’re buying local Striper, you’re already halfway there. But if we find great by-catch from the Mediterranean, we utilize it.
I’ve also made it an ongoing responsibility of my kitchen. On the days I’m not there, my Chef de Cuisine, Ben, and my cooks know that the bottom line is that we only serve sustainable fish. It is great to see my guys carry the torch. Together, we have sought out new sustainable seafood resources across the country. Seeing the next generation of young cooks ‘heed the call’ of cooking sustainably, is invigorating and reminds me on a daily basis, why I do what I do.
C.C.: What kind of tools would help chefs make better purchasing decisions?
M.J.: We’ve come a long way from where we were. I’m a Twitter junkie. It’s nice to see people call each other out on Twitter for using unsustainable seafood. We are able to keep each other honest that way – if you talk the talk, you better walk the walk. Sourcing seafood can be challenging because you feel like you need to be on the Monterey Bay Aquarium website all the time and keeping your hand on the pulse of the industry. You need to work with great vendors, and develop a close relationship with them. It’s all about trust. Our vendors know our angle. They don’t come to us unless they have something sustainable that fits the bill. We’ve already done the legwork to establish ourselves as a restaurant serving sustainable seafood. We no longer have to talk to them to tell them what we want, which saves a lot of time and frustration. My fish guys are now acclimated to doing business with us. We might be a small account, but we are the type of account that a reputable vendor wants to have. It makes a statement about their caliber of customer. Likewise, when we find a fish vendor that is willing to go the extra mile for us, we are committed to them. I’ve had the same fish guys for over six years now. Our ordering is now less about asking them ‘what is sustainable’ and more about us inquiring about what kind of fish they have that fits into the sustainable boundaries. We might say “We are looking for something fatty, that can be grilled” or “larger fish that can be served whole”. That sets up a conversation with our vendors about ideas. That’s one of the best parts of being a chef. These type of relationships.
C.C.: How do you educate your customers on sustainable seafood?
M.J.: We did a special sustainable seafood dinner two years ago for New Year’s Eve. Everybody got a packet from Monterey Bay, with a seafood watch list and other information on sustainable seafood. It was great. The people who attended were from both sides of the fence – some supported sustainable seafood, others didn’t know what sustainable meant. At that dinner, it was customers educating customers.
On a daily basis, we offer a daily fish selection, which is always sustainable. Ben is responsible for always finding sustainable fish – fresh and local, if possible. Our customers know to expect it. Even if they’ve been in two weeks in a row, they’ll have something they’ve never had before.
C.C.: Could you tell us a bit more about the recipe you’re sharing with us?
M.J: I’ve decided to keep it simple this time around. This time of year, we love serving raw seafood, so here I have provided a simple recipe for striped bass crudo. Here, the bass is complemented by the sweet fennel and slight heat from the Maras pepper. ‘Crudo’ simply means raw- this is basically an Italian version of sashimi- and when carefully prepared, it is one of the best ways to eat striped bass. In this country, this style of preparation has kind of been trendy since 2005 or so, but it has never and will never, go out of style for us. Preparing fish this way is so fresh, vibrant and, well…’summery’. The Spanish and Italians have been cooking this way for centuries. Goes to show- if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. What I love about crudo, is that this is ingredient driven technique- using the freshest and best ingredients available, and letting the food shine. That is what we are all about.
Rhode Island Striped Bass Crudo, Fennel Vinaigrette, Maras Pepper, Flowers & Tiny Herbs
For the vinaigrette:
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, picked
2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped (brunoise) fresh fennel bulb
2 tablespoons chopped fresh fennel fronds
1 tablespoon Maras pepper (available at specialty or middle eastern grocery shops)
Whisk lemon juice, shallots, thyme, lemon zest, and honey in medium non-reactive bowl, to blend. Slowly drizzle in olive oil, while whisking, then fennel and finally the fennel fronds.
Season to taste with kosher salt and cracked white pepper. This can be done a day ahead if necessary.
Take a fresh and heavy fillet of stripped bass and slice as thinly as possible on the bias. Use a very sharp knife! You should be left with beautiful, paper thin slices of bass, and you should have about 24-30 thin slices.
On six plates, shingle four or five thin slices of striped bass on each plate. Gently stir the vinaigrette with a spoon, and carefuly spoon the vinaigrette over the fish. If you have access to small herbs or edible flowers, garnish the plates with these now. Lastly, sprinkle some maldon or other very coarse sea salt over each serving.
As a variation, you can always add a small bed of succulent, young salad greens underneath each portion of fish. This makes for a great opening course, paired with a glass of prosecco or other sparkling wine.