Executive chef Barton Seaver and his team at Hook Restaurant embodied seafood sustainability for the restaurant industry. Hook was a 100 percent sustainable, fish-focused restaurant opened by Seaver in spring 2007. In that short time, Seaver and his staff at Hook won a reputation for creative sustainability by embracing new, responsibly sourced fish species and by utilizing the restaurant as a forum for educating diners on sustainability.
Barton Seaver has dedicated his career to reconnecting people with the natural world and with each other through dinner. He explores these themes through healthful, planet-friendly recipes in his first book “For Cod & Country” and as host of both the Web series “Cook-Wise” and the three-part Ovation TV series “In Search of Food.” A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and executive chef at some of the most celebrated restaurants in his native Washington, D.C., Seaver is known for his devotion to quality, culinary innovation and sustainability. He was named Esquire magazine’s Chef of the Year in 2009. He is a Seafood Choices Seafood Champion and a Fellow with both the National Geographic Society and the Blue Ocean Institute.
What is it that we are trying to sustain? I think it is ourselves.
Many people equate sustainable seafood with sacrifice. There is a sense that sustainability requires giving up our favorite fish dishes, paying extra money for products certified under special labels, patronizing pricey health food stores and high-end restaurants known for their commitment to social responsibility. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these things, I wholeheartedly disagree with the premise that sustainability requires a restriction of options. I believe it’s quite the opposite.
To me, sustainable seafood is synonymous with opportunity. It’s opportunity to try new foods, expand palettes, improve health and learn about the world. It’s opportunity for chefs and restaurants to carve out niches in the market, create exciting menus, serve unique dishes and educate customers. And it’s opportunity for us all to take part in the restoration of depleted fisheries and damaged ocean ecosystems by shifting consumption toward less impactful species—something I like to call “restorative seafood.”
The guiding hand of natural selection is actually the hand of the cook. As a chef in Washington, D.C., my business was selling seafood. When some of my favorite products became increasingly expensive owing to their scarcity, I decided to make changes. I needed to be part of the solution if I was going to continue serving the fish I loved. It quickly became clear that my role as a chef wasn’t to pile on the guilt but rather to nudge patrons in a healthful, more environmentally sound direction. I led them there with useful and interesting information accompanied by pleasurable tastes, diverse seafood and vegetables so good they actually stole the show.
To a dining public raised on sea bass, scallops, shrimp and swordfish, the fact that there were other options changed the game. The people who arrived at my restaurant wanted to be challenged, and to be transported. We didn’t just expertly cook seafood; we used seafood to entertain. Every dish had a story to tell—from the seasonality of the fish and vegetables, to where and how they were harvested, to the communities that relied on that continued abundance. The key was to make sure those stories resonated with my customers so they kept coming back for more. It was also my opportunity to continually seek out novel species that met my criteria for sustainability such as pink salmon and black fin tuna.
There were more than 15 varieties of fish on my menu at any given time. We flew them in from all around the world to keep up with demand from knowledgeable regulars. We had brotula from Africa, rainbow runner, trevally or whatever else was caught that day from Tobago. We had obscurities like barramundi, sea robin and tautog. We brought in the favorites, too: local heroes such as bluefish, arctic char, weakfish, sardines and mackerel. And while the fish was certainly important, it was just a part of the meal.
Turning sustainability into a satisfying culinary adventure meant turning vegetables into the star. Our protein portions were small, but also tasty and fulfilling. At first this was tough because a seafood restaurant usually brings to mind lobster bibs and giant hunks of fillet. Instead, I was serving vegetable-centric plates in a protein-centric setting. We bought great produce from a variety of sources, some of it California, some of it from Chile, most of it local and seasonal. We updated the menu with each new fish arrival, so changing the vegetable accompaniment to match only made sense.
Ultimately, it was the vegetables that made our meals stand out. As much as guests came for the fish, they came for the beet salad with its multicolored cubes punctuated by crunchy smoked pecans and Greek yogurt whipped with tarragon and olive oil. They came for the crisp potato cake accented with slices of moist zucchini served atop basil walnut pesto so brilliantly green that it seemed to glow on the plate.
Chefs have the ability to effect powerful change through their menu decisions alone. Look at the influences Julia Child, Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver have had on the public’s sensibilities. We must get restaurant-goers to spring for meals that celebrate protein without making it the sole focus.
Guiding my guests took time, but it worked. They discovered the enormous value in a meal that was full of variety, flavors and textures. The rewards were bigger, further-reaching. What I learned is that if we change the seafood we serve and the way we serve it, then we have a shot at solving the ocean crisis. With restorative seafood, achieving true sustainability is not only doable, it’s delicious—and it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all.
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