Lots to Learn

Food blog Chubby Hubby features a thought-provoking (if abbreviated) interview today with celeb chef Michael Mina, who discusses diver scallops, micro-veggies, and finding inspiration from farmers. Mina, a big local-and-seasonal guy, says that no Americans (not even chow-crazed Northern Californians) are as obsessive about their produce as folks in Tokyo, where he recently visited. But, he says, Californians are getting there: The attention that winemakers pay to the quality of their grapes is filtering into the consciousness of non-vintners, too.

I’d add that it’s not just California. There really is a United States of Arugula, full of farmers’ market-philic citizens (and winemakers may or may not have had a hand in that). But what about seafood, like those diver scallops Mina mentions? As it happens, I attended a panel discussion last night on the state of sustainable seafood production, and it made me realize just how little all of us—chefs and reg’lar old consumers alike—really know about fish as compared with our meats, dairy, grains, and greens.

Diver scallops, according to seafood distributor Bobby DeMasco of upscale online fish market Wild Edibles, are often actually caught in dragnets, not by divers at all. He explained that many of the most prolific scallop beds are 300 feet underwater, far too deep for a diver to venture. It would be impossible to supply enough diver scallops to all the restaurants that claim to have them on their menus because such a small percentage of the yearly scallop catch is diver caught. DeMasco also said the mislabeling could occur at any step in the supply chain (with fishermen, distributors, or chefs) because all of them have a stake in marketing their seafood as sustainable.

This is certainly not to say that Mina’s diver-caught beauties aren’t legit; the most surefire protection against fraud, panel members said, is to find and develop relationships with trustworthy seafood purveyors who know exactly where their supply is coming from, and Mina (like many top chefs today) is all about those relationships. But divers are only the beginning; there’s the issue of line-caught versus trawl-caught bass, the relative merits of trapping, trolling, and farming, and the question of whether your supposedly wild salmon is actually packed with harmful PCBs. As if that weren’t enough, those little seafood wallet cards often give differing and even conflicting advice. And of course chefs often have to bend to consumer demand, offering “sexier” types of fish than the downmarket but sustainable species like tilapia and catfish.

It’s enough to induce fish-counter paralysis. A handy primer released by the eco-food nonprofit group Chef’s Collaborative helps somewhat in making sense of the quagmire, and Paul Greenberg, my fave fish guy, wrote a thoughtful and instructive op-ed piece (requires registration) last week.

And at least I can rest assured that the favorite fish of my childhood is now 99 percent more sustainable!

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