Fishing for Answers

Sustainable seafood rises to the fore as environmental groups crank up efforts to influence what’s menued. Operators, in turn, flex their creativity in meeting customers’ wish for fish.

The wave of the future has become the wave of today as more consumers recognize the importance of sustainability and the need for better practices. They’re demanding that food be not only healthful for their bodies but also for the environment. They’re seeking assurance that the seafood on the plate today won’t become extinct tomorrow.

They want to know that the fisheries—perhaps thousands of miles in length and width—are not being over-fished, which occurs when a population of fish is caught faster than it can replenish itself. And they want to know that farm-raised fish are being grown in an eco-friendly way.

But how’s a time-challenged operator to know what to buy to satisfy these concerns?

Fortunately, there are many conservation groups, academic institutions, zoos and aquariums that are partners in the Washington-based Seafood Choices Alliance (www.seafoodchoices.com). All have Web sites you can visit for information on ocean friendly seafood.

In fact, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a Seafood Choices Alliance member, provides wallet-size cards indicating what’s safe and what’s not, as well as viable (i.e., sustainable) alternatives raised in your area of the country.

Also, an invaluable publication (142 pages, spiral-bound) is available from Seafood Choices Alliance. “Sourcing Seafood: A Professional’s Guide to Procuring Ocean-Friendly Fish and Shellfish” presents at least two illustrated pages of information for each of 40 fish—from abalone and catfish through tilapia (U.S. farmed) and tuna—as well as conservation notes, seasonality information, buying tips and more.

In addition, some operators make the most of local species—no matter if they’re situated in a coastal area or an inland one native to any one of hundreds of freshwater fish.

In-organic: On balance, experts advise that you know your suppliers: visit them in person, visit their Web sites, ask questions about their operations and make them aware of your desire to receive only sustainable product. There is one piece of information in particular, gleaned from the Seafood Choices Alliance publication, that operators should be aware of: there are no aquaculture-specific standards in the U.S. at the present time.

The guide says: some fish producers (including several shrimp farmers in the U.S.) “may obtain organic certification and market their products as organic as long as they comply with USDA’s general organic livestock rules ...salmon, raised on feed that includes non-organic ingredients such as fish meal made from wild-caught fish and preserved with synthetic chemicals do not meet the definition of organic.”

Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the Greenwood Village, CO-based management company, is doing its part in serving only environmentally sustainable fish. All of its national park accounts are ISO 14001 certified. ISO 14001 is an international Environmental Management System (EMS) standard published by the International Organ­ization for Standardization (ISO).

“The goal of ISO 14001 is to support environmental protection and pollution prevention,” notes Tim Stein, Xanterra’s corporate director of food and beverage. “It’s widely used in Europe and Japan, but the certification is relatively new in the U.S. We’re the first to have chain of custody in place, primarily now for wild Alaskan salmon.”

Tracking the route: As Stein explains it, the state of Alaska manages the sustainable fishery. That is, officials identify an area where these fish live—where the ecosystem supports them. And they must maintain the ecosystem encompassing perhaps 2,000 miles upstream from the ocean that the salmon travel to spawn.

“We’re in our third year with the chain of custody program for wild Alaskan salmon,” Stein says. “We’re serving it at seven of our parks including the North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, Crater Lake, Death Valley National Park and Bryce and Zion National Parks. We’re also associate partners with Monterey Bay Aquarium and Seafood Watch and use its protocol to assist us in our seafood choices.”

Currently the contractor will not serve Chilean sea bass, shark, Atlantic swordfish and bluefin tuna since their survival is threatened by overfishing, or they are caught or farmed in ways that damage the environment.

Xanterra locations are also using some U.S. farm-raised shrimp considered to be sustainable and will soon begin offering pollock from the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island pollock fishery off the coast of Alaska that was recently certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (www.msc.org). MSC is an international organization that sets the standard for how ocean-based wild fisheries are judged to be sustainable.

Bon Appetit Management Company is the first contractor to join Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just a year ago it was the underwriter for the documentary, Farming the Seas. At that time it made a commitment to buy only wild salmon, in season, as long as it complies with Seafood Watch standards. Now Bon Appetit is working with New York-based Environmental Defense on two projects to develop sustainable standards for seafood, having previously worked with the group to develop its purchasing policy regarding the use of antibiotics in chickens.

According to Maisie Ganzler, spokeswoman for the Palo Alto, CA-based contractor, the first is an aquaculture project “to develop a system where we would feel comfortable buying farm-raised salmon. A large aquaculture company is also involved. It probably will be three to four years down the road (until we have product) since it takes that long to grow the salmon,” she says.

The second project is similar in nature but pertains to shrimp. Presently, the contractor buys only ISO 14000-certified shrimp.

“Our chefs are given the mandate to buy only wild salmon and to follow the Seafood Watch cards,” Ganzler reports. “We have them done for all our five regions (indicating regional preferences), as well as a national card. The card indicates ‘best choice,’ ‘good alternatives,’ or ‘avoid.’ We still allow our chefs the flexibility to use their own recipes and flavor profiles that match their region and their customer base.”

At Plantronics, a Bon Appetit account in Santa Cruz, CA, executive chef Jeff Campagna—who is also a fisherman—bases his menus on what’s sustainable, available and, of course, what’s popular among his approximately 250 daily lunchtime customers. He finds that salmon, halibut and trout usually fill the bill. “You can do anything you want with it and I usually do one salmon dish a week,” Campagna says.

“I might wrap a fillet topped with sautéed spinach in three sheets of phyllo dough and bake it for about 20 minutes until the phyllo is nice and brown. Then we serve it with mashed potatoes whipped with feta cheese, plus a simple Greek salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion and olives. We’ll sell about 40 to 45 portions priced at $6.50, including the potatoes and salad.”

Wasabe-crusted halibut is always a sell-out among Plantronics employees. To prepare, halibut is seared on one side, then chilled down. Meanwhile, a wasabe paste—prepared from wasabe powder to which Campagna adds hot tea or hot water—is smeared lightly over the seared side and the fillet is lightly breaded with panko (Japanese crumbs). Baked for about 10 to 15 minutes, it’s served with shiitake mushroom vinaigrette and sushi rice.

Keeping it simple: To prepare trout, Campagna mixes pre-cooked bay shrimp with mayonnaise, bread crumbs, herbs and lemon zest. Then he stuffs the whole eight-ounce trout (one portion) with this mixture and serves with a rice accompaniment.

“Working with our purveyor, I order two-to-three days in advance based on the sheet they send me of what’s available,” Campagna points out. “I specify it be wild (i.e., the salmon) and with Bon Appetit, they know that’s the only variety we’ll use. Some product is farm-raised such as clams, mussels, catfish and trout. Some is frozen, some fresh, depending upon availability, but if fresh is available, it’s preferred. Our customers are aware of what we’re doing since we have a poster in the café that explains the Seafood Watch program.”

At the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, food in Mitsitam, the museum’s café, is as authentic as Restaurant Associate’s executive chef Richard Hetzler—working with museum consultants and representatives of Native American grower co-ops—can make it. Even though Hetzler and his staff are serving from 2,000 to 3,000 visitors daily, he finds that menuing sustainable seafood isn’t difficult.

“I think it’s something everyone needs to be aware of and practicing,” he says. “You need to focus on what’s seasonal and what’s going on with availability. The easiest way to get this information is to talk to your purveyor. If you’re dealing with a reputable company, they’ll give you upfront answers—not depleting natural resources is in their best interest.”

Indigenous influence: Pacific wild salmon is one of the most impressive —and popular—seafood items Hetzler menus. He roasts a whole side of salmon, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, coated with wild berry glaze then “presented” on a cedar plank.

“Our menu is based on five different Native American regions, so this dish is at the Northwest station,” he says. “Cedar is abundant on the Northwest coast, and chances are (natives, centuries ago) would have had some cedar in the fire over which they prepared a whole roasted salmon. Here, we’re serving a fillet off the side. A whole King salmon is about 12 to 15 pounds—a side is seven to 10 pounds, so you get about 10 to 12 portions per large side. We sell each for $8.95.”

To prepare the wild berry glaze, Hetzler cooks down blueberries, raspberries, black berries and lingon berries by half until slightly thickened, then brushes them on the salmon when it’s about three-quarters cooked.

“Total cooking of the side is about 12 to 15 minutes in a 400°F oven, then it’s held above an actual fire—on the cedar plank—for presentation and to keep it warm,” he says. “We do about 10 to 12 sides on an average day with about 25 sides per Saturday and Sunday. We bring in about 50 whole fish per week that I get fresh from a Native American-owned operation in Washington State. They send it packed in ice about three times a week and we break it down ourselves.”

For the spring-summer menu, Hetzler is buying farm-raised oysters from a Native American company in Martha’s Vineyard, MA. “We’ll do oyster fritters by folding them in fritter batter, deep-frying them, then serve them as a side dish accompaniment or as an appetizer. A four-oyster portion at the Northern Woodlands station sells for about $7.95.”

A Representative effort: Although there’s no specific policy regarding the preferred use of sustainable seafood within Guest Services accounts, Duane Keller, CEC, executive chef at Potowmack Landing Restaurant—owned and operated by Guest Services on national park land in Washington —knows his purveyors and aims to keep his seafood purchases seasonal and his cooking techniques simple.

He also writes the menus for the House of Representatives Members Dining Room and for the cafes within the Corcoran Museum of Art and the Hillwood Museum and Garden. Salmon, snapper and Florida grouper are typically included on his menus, but he occasionally orders mahi mahi or opah (also known as moon fish) flown in overnight from Honolulu.

“In the Members Dining Room, we’ll often menu poached whole farm raised salmon set out in a chafing dish on the buffet,” Keller says. “When wild Alaskan salmon is available, we’ll buy it, but the season is only two or three months. I could get it at other times, but it’s very pricey. So to make a buck, I’ve always run wild Alaskan salmon April through June or July when I can buy it for under five dollars per pound.”

Rock fans: One of Keller’s locally available favorites is rockfish from Chesapeake Bay or elsewhere if it’s affordable. Taking a whole one-and-three-quarter to two-pound scaled, head-on fish, he cross-cut scores it down to the bone, then dredges it in buttermilk and seasoned flour. “I turn that fish into a tight crescent moon shape —making a serious right turn—then fry the whole fish in a fry basket until it’s crispy,” he says. “Cooking it ‘on the bone’—like cooking chicken on the bone—gives it flavor and moisture.”

Occasionally he’ll serve whole crispy Chesapeake rockfish with rosemary-garlic stewed tomatoes and stone-ground grits. The fish sits in a bowl with the other ingredients placed within the cavity of the bowl.

Admitting that fried chicken still outsells grilled salmon four to one, Brent Ruggles, corporate executive chef at 300-bed St. Paul and 155-bed Zale-Lipshy University Hospitals in Dallas, sees that “as the population ages, they’re looking for healthier foods and they’re starting to look for seafood more and more.”

He says sustainable issues are on his “radar,” so he purchases primarily farm-raised product plus a bit of fresh wild “so we can get pricing that’s steady throughout the year. Being a hospital, we can’t get too crazy about the seafood we offer.”

Seafood is generally menued in both hospital cafeterias once a week, but it’s on three times a week on the two-week patient cycle. Patient selections include lemon basil cod, grilled shrimp, grilled red snapper, pan seared catfish, pan-seared tilapia and grilled salmon.

A thick grilled salmon fillet is the biggest seafood seller in each of the cafeterias, with almost 100 portions sold at $6.25 when menued once every other week.

“We season it with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, then it’s grilled for char marks and finished in the oven,” Ruggles points out. “It’s served with homemade pico de gallo—the acid from the tomatoes plays well against the oiliness of the salmon.”

Student activists: Today, University of Colorado-Boulder is not specifying sustainability in its seafood bids, but executive chef Kerry Paterson knows that a certain faction of students would grumble if he menued something not sustainable. “We stopped ordering Chilean sea bass altogether and looked for substitutes,” he explains. “We were looking for a whole, round fish so we used an East Coast bass. It wasn’t quite the same but we used it on a holiday buffet. First we marinate it in a Moroccan charmoula, then, with the bone on one side, we score it, cut into smaller pieces, then roast or cook on the grill, skin side up.

Paterson aims to menu seafood about six times a week especially on Fridays for lunch and/or dinner. Purchasing prepared products such as breaded scallops, breaded catfish fingers and beer battered or potato-crusted hoki from his native New Zealand provides cost-effective, easy-prep variety for the menu.

Clive Wanstall is a chef instructor at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore. He teaches the second-year program, which covers sustainability, to 20 to 25 students per semester of the approximately 80 students enrolled in the culinary program. His students operate an open-to-the-public dining room serving about 30 to 40 guests each day.

“Our focus is on working with specific vendors and one provides only sustainably available seafood,” Wainstall explains. “We rely entirely on the ethics and integrity of our vendor. When there’s a run, we buy fresh fish, but otherwise it’s mostly frozen. There’s sometimes a conflict between sustainability and the curriculum, plus seasonality is a challenge since we’re closed during the summer.”

A modest proposal: Meanwhile, Greg Winslow, CEC, department coordinator for foodservices at Lane—and an erstwhile commercial fisherman in Alaska—manages seven venues as well as the culinary students who integrate into his department to meet their course requirements. He limits menuing seafood to about once a week at one foodcourt station. Baked snapper, a five-to-six ounce fillet served with lemon caper sauce, is especially popular, he reports, with about 150 portions served each time it’s menued.

The Ross School is a private fifth through 12th grade facility in East Hampton, N.Y. As part of its “regional, organic, seasonal, sustainable” mission statement, the school’s foodservice, through its café, aims to provide “fresh, local, unprocessed, delicious, mostly organic food”—and send “a clear message that we value not only what we put into our children’s heads each day, but also what we put into their bodies.”

Serving approximately 400 café customers daily (about half are faculty and staff), executive chef Beth Collins teaches sustainability to 10th graders, all of whom have to cook with her staff for one semester. She also tries to menu sustainable fare. When it comes to seafood—even though the school is based on Long Island, almost within view of the Atlantic Ocean—Collins isn’t optimistic. “It’s questionable how sustainable we can be—the world is challenged,” she contends.

Less is more: Taking a pro-active stance, she’s opted to use less, serving seafood only once a week, alternating an entrée with crab cakes. “The Catfish Institute in the U.S. is a good monitor and we switch between serving catfish and wild Alaskan salmon,” she explains. “I also work with a small local purveyor. I think it’s important for people to look at regional fisheries management. Fluke and flounder are locally caught and the stocks are managed—that is, the limits to the catch are pretty strict. But it’s hard to tell because fish travel.”

In the interest of conservation as well as cost-effective menuing, when Collins prepares fish cakes—often served with an Asian citrus sauce made from scratch—she utilizes the trim she’s saved and frozen from every fish she’s used recently. “Then I order as much as I need to fill in—usually about 30 pounds,” she explains. “I grind it and add breadcrumbs, onion and celery—or ginger and scallions for the Asian version. We serve it with ponzu, an Asian citrus sauce of soy, lemon or lime (or a combo of both), a bit of sesame, ginger and garlic. The sauce is served on the side.”