This post comes to us from talkingfish.org, a project of the Conservation Law Foundation and other sustainable seafood partners around New England. Matt Jennings is Executive Chef, Co-owner and Master Cheesemonger of Farmstead & La Laiterie in Providence, Rhode Island.
TalkingFish.org: You are known for your commitment to local and sustainable food. Tell us about your philosophy regarding seafood.
Matt Jennings: Quite honestly, I think my philosophy is tied to simple, and what I consider ‘practical,’ ethos. Buy locally-caught whole fish, from dependable sources I know personally, and trust wholeheartedly. I believe that every ingredient that comes through my kitchen has a face behind it- in the case of seafood, fishermen and women who work tirelessly and selflessly to provide fish and shellfish straight from Rhode Island and Massachusetts waters directly to my door.
I work extensively with Trace and Trust – a new program in New England providing traceable, high-quality fish from family businesses that don’t cut corners and go the extra mile to develop relationships with their chefs. This type of seafood is always better and we trust that the fish we bring into the restaurant is from a dependable, sustainable source. Our patrons expect- and deserve- the very best local fish I can provide to them. That is our duty as a restaurant. Period.
TF: What seafood questions do you get most often from your customers?
MJ: Most frequently, my customers are interested in sustainable fisheries and practices, and request information about their seafood’s heritage, manner of harvest and catch location. Thankfully, we are able to provide this information, 100% of the time.
TF: How do you balance offering something fresh and local against having customer favorites always on hand?
MJ: We have been able to educate our customer base, and teach them/persuade them that their ‘favorites’ are whatever products are freshest that week and that I can procure.
There is no ‘balance’. We go out of our way to source the best local seafood we can, and our customers now expect this when they dine with me.
No compromising. Ever.
TF: You might be aware that a new management system went into effect a year and a half ago for bottom dwelling species like cod, haddock, flounder and pollock – New England best sellers. Over the past year and a half, have you noticed any changes that have affected your business? E.g. In how much seafood is available, price fluctuations, diversity of species, size of fish?
Availability changes all the time. As a chef, I have learned over the past number of years to be flexible. I always put myself and my restaurant at the mercy of the fishermen, and know that whatever they bring in the back door will be of the highest quality, and in turn, the best option for my restaurant. As prices in the market fluctuate, so do my menu prices. This is part of the equation. However, species diversification can always be tricky- we’d rather source out the finest, freshest and locally-caught fish than sacrifice those standards for more variety. If that means having black bass on the menu for a month straight, so be it.
TF: Would you like to share a recipe featuring a New England seafood item?
Roasted New England Monkfish with Saffron, Fennel & Apple Relish
2 3/4 to 3 pounds monkfish fillets (about 5), well-trimmed
4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 1/2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon (packed) crushed saffron threads
For the relish:
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped fresh fennel bulbs (about 2 large)
2 cups chopped fresh apple (peeled) about 2 large)
3 3/4 cups chopped onions
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, crushed
3 1/2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
3/4 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock
3/4 teaspoon (packed) crushed saffron threads
Make the relish up to 1 day ahead:
Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add fennel, onions and fennel seeds; cook until fennel and onions tender, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Add garlic; stir 2 minutes. Add add apple cider vinegar, honey, stock and saffron; simmer until thick, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring often, before using.)
Complete the dish:
Using small sharp knife, trim all membrane and gray portions from monkfish fillets. Combine oil, garlic and saffron in large bowl. Add fish and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate, turning occasionally, at least 3 hours and up to 1 day.
Preheat oven to 450°F. Arrange fish, with marinade still clinging, on rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until fish feels firm to touch and is cooked through, about 15 minutes. Rest for five minutes. Slice fish on diagonal into 1/2-inch-thick medallions. Spoon Fennel-Apple relish over the fillets.