Bringing Fish Back to the Table

On National Food Day, we should call attention to seafood and work to educate both chefs and consumers about where the 17 pounds of fish they eat every year is actually coming from


Restaurant names attract customers by evoking a sense of place or type of cuisine. It's no wonder that restaurants in coastal cities make a claim to the sea even though, outside of Alaska, few chefs actually serve seafood from the waters that provide their picturesque views.

Regional favorites have met a similar fate. Visiting a neighborhood restaurant located within a day's drive of abundant catfish farms, I asked the chef if the catfish on his menu was really catfish. "Swai," he said, "from China." Asian-farmed swai is also a common answer when I ask if the cod on New England restaurant menus is really cod. Nope. Swai isn't a bad fish. It just has no flavor.

Hopefully the anonymity of fish on our plates -- and our tolerance for that anonymity -- will soon end. Enthusiasts are celebrating National Food Day today, whose essential claim is that "real food" -- unprocessed, fresh, and seasonal foods in place of a national cuisine that has become defined by microwaveable entrees and packaged snacks -- is healthful for people and the soil.

Though Food Day doesn't dismiss seafood, it doesn't call attention to it either. This seems like a missed opportunity to educate chefs and consumers about where their fish comes from. If we don't, we'll continue to lose small-scale fishermen while missing out on the more obscure but delicious and sustainable fish varieties. Unlike farmers, who have begun to find a voice and a following, fishermen (with the exception of nascent community-supported fishery projects) have little opportunity to connect with the chefs who buy the fish they catch.

In the world of produce, we are building and expanding dedicated systems for aggregating and distributing farm products to chefs who previously didn't think twice about where their fresh produce came from. Since farmers watch the weather systems even more closely than suburban senior citizens, they can tell a chef what's going to be available the next day. Not so with small-scale fishermen. They often can't tell a chef what they're bringing in, how much, or exactly when. Hoped-for four-pounders can be much smaller, requiring menus to change on a dime to accommodate the reality of what the sea provides. Most chefs aren't prepared to do this -- in large part because they haven't taught their customers to embrace seasonality in fish. Customers want what they are accustomed to.

Small-scale fishermen have lost out in a landscape organized around familiarity. Most of the 17 pounds of seafood each American eats annually are one of four types: shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, and white fish. With menus written for predictability rather than seasonality, it's no surprise that a majority of the seafood we eat is now farmed (and filleted or pre-marinated for your cooking convenience) and little of it comes from U.S. waterways.

Eric Foster, executive chef for Bon Appétit Management Company (my employer) in Cary, North Carolina, is a champion of our recently launched "Fish to Fork" program, which incentivizes chefs for seeking out environmentally responsible wild and farmed species from non-industrial, seasonal producers and fishermen. (The program is like a community-supported fishery program, but instead of serving multiple small customers, the fishermen can deliver 50 or 100 pounds to the one location.) Eric will buy whatever the fishermen bring him. If a 'steak cut' isn't possible, he deploys a culinary solution. Many preparations lend themselves to small, irregular cuts. Think fish tacos, or tapas, soups, and ceviche. The benefit of this approach is that a chef can teach cooks with less-developed knife skills how to fillet any fish, and the emphasis is on flavor, not the shape of a fillet. In Eric's view, a chef who can't figure out what to do with a delivery of fresh fish, no matter what the quantity or size, is in the wrong field.

Besides the culinary benefits of reintroducing flavorful species from small-scale (often called artisanal) fisheries, and the not-insignificant social benefits of putting money in traditional trades like fishing and processing on dock, evidence suggests there are considerable environmental benefits too.

It's going to be a while before shoppers can go to supermarket counters, ask what's fresh, and choose among a few "just in" species, which was common practice in fish stores only a half-century ago. But if we've become successful at calling attention to grass-finished beef and 40 varieties of eggplant in only five years, then we may still have some fishermen around to supply striped mullet and golden tilefish so we can enjoy the many choices our oceans can supply.

Image: HLPhoto/Shutterstock.