Sourcing Challenges

As demand rises, so do seafood prices.

A weakened dollar, high commodity costs and increased global demand for seafood are combining to push up prices this season. Fernando Navas, corporate chef for the six-location SushiSamba, names “price” as his number one sourcing challenge. “Prices have gone up 50 percent for sushi fish, such as tuna, hamachi [yellowtail] and salmon,” he says. Navas explains that the Japanese market is a prime driver of seafood prices, even when the fish is not sourced from Japan. Right now, the yen is stronger than the dollar. Plus, burgeoning countries like China and India and strong economies in other nations are increasing the competition for a limited seafood supply—and the devalued American dollar is losing out.

Navas cites “place of origin” as another challenge. “Fish don’t come with a tag attached, naming the country or waters where they originated. And the purveyors don’t always know where the fish is coming from,” he claims. With sustainability very important to Navas and his patrons, pinpointing the source is a priority. He’s worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and CleanFish to identify reputable suppliers.

Sustainability swims mainstream

Sourcing sustainable seafood is no longer limited to high-end chefs and eco-conscious restaurants. McDonald’s recently announced that it will source 100 percent Marine Stewardship Council-certified seafood for all of its European restaurants by October, 2011. But you don’t need the deep pockets and clout of a McDonald’s or the selectivity of The French Laundry to source sustainably. The five-unit Newport Beach, California-based Bluewater Grill is partnering with the Aquarium of the Pacific to reach total-menu compliance by the end of 2011. Currently, 90 percent of the chain’s seafood selections are sustainably caught or farmed. Prices for entrees range from $10 to $25. In addition, Bluewater Grill customers have access to a Fish Origins Chart showing the specific farmed or wild source of everything on the menu.

“Sourcing sustainable seafood can fit into any restaurant’s budget,” says Claudia Hogue, foodservice director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “Operators should look for suppliers who work with well-managed state fisheries that don’t necessarily offer third-party certification.” Paying for third-party certification [like the Marine Stewardship Council’s logo fee] can jack up the price.

Ed Rhodes, VP of sustainability for Phillips Foods, which sources for its restaurants and the foodservice market, advises looking further than MSC certification. “You can be missing 85 percent of the fisheries in the world that may not have been rated but are well managed,” he says. For farmed seafood, often an economical choice, check to see if there’s a Fishery Improvement Project in place; that means the fishery is moving toward sustainability. FishSource.org lists the fisheries with accurate updates.

To save money, Hogue suggests looking at more abundant sustainable species such as wild pink salmon, cod and pollock, and sourcing frozen seafood as well as fresh. Rhodes recommends sourcing from well-managed fisheries in Asia and Latin America, where less-expensive species like tilapia, catfish and basa are being farmed under more sustainable practices than in the past. Farmed clams, mussels and blue crab claw meat can also be good buys.

Q & A with Owen Tilley: Corporate Chef, Fishery Products International

Q. What are operators looking for in value-added seafood?

A. There’s a continuing trend toward cleaner, less breaded, minimally seasoned fish. Breading is perceived as less healthy; it’s often associated with frying. We developed functional glazes as an alternative coating system in our new FireRoasters line of flame-roasted cod, tilapia and salmon fillets. The glazes don’t melt at room temperature, making the seafood easy to handle when it’s thawed. Smaller portions—4-oz. instead of 5—is another trend. This size is more versatile; it can go on a sandwich or in an appetizer, like a slider.

Q. What flavor profiles are resonating with customers?

A. We’re focusing on Southeast Asian flavors built on authentic ingredients, such as coconut milk and lemongrass. Two FireRoaster products—Asian Barbecue Salmon and Thai Basil Tilapia—draw on Vietnamese and Thai cuisines. Another direction we’re taking is Americana; Smoky Applewood Salmon is a contemporary twist on classic American cooking. We also developed products with Indian flavors that are ready to go when the time is right.

Q. What are some of the challenges operators face in cooking seafood?

A. Equipment is always a challenge. Some restaurants have only a Fryolator and a flat top, so they need seafood that will work on that equipment. Plus, fish has the perception of being riskier to cook. We need products that take out the guesswork.