As mounting issues surround seafood traceability and overfishing, sourcing sustainably caught fish and responsibly farmed shellfish is more important (and challenging) than ever for restaurateurs.
— Lesley Balla
The way chef Michael Cimarusti sees it, everyone should be eating vermillion rockfish. Caught in the waters around Santa Barbara, the fish with bright red skin and flaky, flavorful flesh is a great sustainable and wild-caught alternative to farmed branzino, one of the most popular seafood options on menu today. But rockfish isn’t something many customers of his Los Angeles restaurants or fish market are familiar with.
“They’re super delicious, inexpensive, probably less so than branzino, and fully sustainable,” the chef said. “It’s just a pretty little wild fish eating good things and not sadly sitting swimming in a pen eating grains and soy. It’s a win-win. And it’s domestic and keeps American fisherman on the water, another big win.”
Knowing where his fish comes from, and who harvested it and how, has always been a point of pride for Cimarusti at his restaurants, whether it’s at the award-winning Providence, Connie & Ted’s , Il Pesce at Eataly L.A., or Cape Seafood & Provisions. He prefers wild fish over farmed, and tries to keep it as seasonal and local as possible. That’s why he partnered with Dock to Dish, a California-based company that helps put more locally caught seafood in the hands of chefs around the Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco areas.
Dock to Dish fishermen use catch methods like hook and line and traps to haul in things like white sea bass and gorgeous yellowtail; smaller fish like anchovies and mackerel; or lesser known species like sheepshead. In turn, chefs on the receiving end don’t always get what they want, but instead get what was caught. But that can mean a big pay off for the bottom line, says Cimarusti. By buying underutilized species direct from the source means the prices are kept lower for the restaurant, which is passed on to the consumer.
“The closer you are to the point of harvest, the less people involved in the process, the cheaper the products are,” he explained. “Seafood shouldn’t be cheap. But I think our prices are competitive with others around Los Angeles.”
(For context, the U.S. imported more than 6 billion pounds of seafood valued at more than $21.5 billion in 2017, and exported about $6 billion.)
A Greater Good
The way things are going with our oceans — climate change, pollution and overfishing of many species are just a few major concerns — restaurants around the country are grappling with how to properly source and sell seafood. And with limited regulations, muddied supply chains, the potential for unscrupulous fishing and labor practices, and the cost of shipping a highly perishable product around the world, navigating the waters of the billion dollar industry is harder now more than ever.
A recent report by the Associated Press brought many of these issues to light, focusing mostly on Sea to Table, a national distributor that investigators say fell short of its widely publicized guarantees. Chefs around the country, including Chicago’s Rick Bayless, relied on the company’s promises of selling wild and responsibly caught seafood that could be traced directly to U.S. docks. The investigation found some of Sea to Table’s products coming from the other side of the world and not Montauk harbor as labeled, and sometimes from fisherman accused of labor and environmental abuses.
Restaurateur Michael Chernow carefully considered these challenges when he opened the first Seamore’s, his growing seafood concept in New York City. With five locations and a sixth on the way, his goal to serve only wild and sustainably caught fish, including lesser known species mostly from the waters around the Eastern seaboard, isn’t an easy choice. But as a passionate fisherman since childhood, with an eye towards conservation, it was the only way for him.
“I told people I was going to serve porgy and dogfish, and they thought I was totally crazy,” said the chef. “But it’s a common sense thing. We’re in New York, we border the Atlantic Ocean, home to some of the world’s best fisheries. Why fly in fish from all over the world?”
Chernow gets most of his product from Greenpoint Fish & Lobster, a wholesale distributor based in Brooklyn. Working directly with the fishermen, the distributor obtains only domestic, wild-caught and underutilized species, and sells direct to chefs around New York City. “They tell us the vessel, the captain, where it was landed,” Chernow said of the company. “They call us and say this is what we’ve got today. That’s the way it should be.”
Because Atlantic salmon and cod have been overfished, Chernow won’t serve those at Seamore’s. He doesn’t serve halibut or tuna unless it’s locally available, and wild shrimp is rare. He will source albacore tuna from the Pacific Northwest when it’s in season, and wild pink shrimp from Florida when available. Occasionally he “works with a guy” who buys direct from fishermen in Montauk; in the summer, he’ll get things like day boat scallops, bluefish and tautog (aka blackfish).
Putting the fish on the menu is one thing, teaching the staff about what they’re serving is another — it does take effort and resources. Front of house staff gets primed at pre-shift meetings, where the origins are discussed, and specials cards are placed on every table outlining that day’s catch. “It’s a lot to retain,” Chernow explained. “We’re not perfect, but we try to get all of the information out there.”
As for farm-raised fish, Chernow thinks aquaculture will ultimately help sustain healthy populations of some species, but there are only a small percentage of farms doing it well. Cimarusti believes properly farmed fish and shellfish are a viable option — all of the oysters, mussels and clams found on his menus come from carefully vetted aquaculturists from both the East and West Coasts. In essence, he added, you have to put in the work to know what you’re buying and from whom.
“Having a face-to-face relationship with your vendors, and developing a relationship over time, is invaluable,” Cimarusti added. “A vendor would prefer to stay on your good side. If they’re being transparent about things, it certainly helps to that end. It doesn’t make a fish any more valuable to tell people lies about its origin.”
Sugarish co-founder CEO Jerry Greenberg agrees that sort of person-to-person knowledge is key, especially to the popular sushi chain’s business model. Known for using higher quality fish for its budget-friendly “trust me” menus at 10 locations in Los Angeles and one in New York City, Greenberg, along with partners, chef Kazunori Nozawa and son Tom Nozawa, has traveled the world to meet fishermen, boats and brokers. “We’re not trying to sell sustainability to our guests, but it is important to us in the long run,” he added. “It’s simply our obligation to do the homework and find the best products that we can for our restaurants.”
Controversy hit sushi restaurants pretty hard over the years, especially when it comes to labeling fish on the menus. Sugarfish was just one of many restaurants called out for mislabeling after investigations in Los Angeles, but Greenberg said the team is making every effort possible to be transparent about what species the chain serves.
“There are cultural, language and regional differences when it comes to labeling,” he added. “Put that on top of a layered supply chain, and it’s very difficult to find out where some fish come from. We put a lot of effort into traceability. You have to rely on relationships.”
For landlocked chefs without direct access to coastal waters, or resources to travel the world to meet people in person, Cimarusti and Chernow both suggest studying the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website or app. If you know where a particular fish should be harvested, if you know what’s in season or not, that’s a good starting point. Learn about what’s available from reputable vendors, look to alternative options, and ask a lot of questions of wholesalers and buyers.
“There’s so much noise and politics involved in this,” Greenberg added. “We all want our fish to go into our future, and if it’s not sustainable it’s not an option. Either we all treat the ocean’s resources with respect or there won’t be any in the future.”
Lesley Balla is a food, drink and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in regional, national, and online publications including Angeleno, Zagat.com, The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly, Eater, Tasting Table and many more. When she’s not discovering the best eats around town, you can find her walking and hiking with her husband somewhere in the San Gabriel mountains, eating oysters and picking berries in the Pacific Northwest, and strolling whatever farmers market is nearby. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LesleyLA.