Wednesday, April 12, 2017

SENA17: Chefs & the Business of Seafood

Chefs are on the front line of the promotion of seafood consumption. As I mentioned last Friday, Barton Seaver advised chefs that they should not ask for specific species but should ask for what is fresh. In addition, they should "sell the dish, not the seafood." At the recent Seafood Expo North America (SENA), I attended a seminar where several chefs offered their own take on the issue of seafood sustainability.

The Keynote conference session I attended at SENA was "Delicious & Profitable: Chefs Discuss The Business of Seafood" which was intended to discuss the following: "Everyday, chefs across North America make the important decision of which seafood products to buy and those choices have a strong impact on the business of seafood. They are faced with the challenge of offering new and innovative dishes, enticing younger consumers to the table while navigating the intricate waters of responsible sourcing. Ultimately, what chefs decide to put on their menus set consumer buying trends and influence consumer behavior at retail. In a quest to find the seafood options that make business sense while inspiring mouthwatering creations their clients crave, our panel of influential chefs will discuss the drivers behind their purchasing decisions and what the seafood industry can do to help them increase the amount of seafood served as well as insight into how chefs influence consumer trends."

The Moderator was Polly Legendre,  a Chef and a Board member of Aquaculture Without Frontiers, an independent non-profit organization that promotes and supports responsible and sustainable aquaculture in the alleviation of poverty. There were also four expert speakers, including: Chef Ned Bell, the Ocean Wise executive chef of the Vancouver Aquarium; Chef Jeff Black, who owns six restaurants and a bar in Washington D.C.; Chef Richard Garcia, a sustainable seafood proponent and the culinary director for a national chain of restaurants and hotels; and Chef Rick Moonen, a restaurateur and long-time sustainable seafood advocate.

Polly Legendre started off the discussion noting the important statistic that approximately two-thirds of seafood expenditures by consumers are at restaurants. Consumers are much less likely to cook seafood at home so it is vital that restaurants help to promote sustainability. Restaurants also stand in a strong position to persuade consumers to eat more seafood in general, to eat more diverse species, and to embrace sustainability. However, not all chefs are interested in such matters so we need to support and highlight those chefs who embrace these concepts.

Ned Bell then began the discussion, noting how seafood is the last wild protein on the planet yet the cowboy, corralling his cattle, is seen as possessing sex appeal while the fisherman is vilified. This is wrong and we need to see a cultural change in how fishermen are viewed by our society. Ned also stated that the chef possesses much power and that if you enjoy what they feed you, then you are more apt to listen to their message. Thus, it is of primary importance that a chef cooks well, presenting delicious seafood dishes. Once you have impressed your customers, then you will find them more amenable to embracing sustainability issues.

In addition, Ned stated that he would like to see less "squares" of seafood on a plate, and view the dish in its entirety, as a composition. It is all about how you present seafood dishes to your customers. Chefs should also use the whole fish, which is definitely a way to extend the value of seafood, which is often less expensive when purchased whole. And as some seafood can be pricey, just eat smaller portions. Americans often eat too large portions of everything they eat, and smaller dishes would benefit them in multiple ways.

Rick Moonen, who is always a compelling speaker, started off stating how he always preaches that consumers should embrace a diversity of seafood species. That is a sentiment I wrote about on Monday and which numerous other sustainable seafood proponents have promoted. Rick also likes to promote the next fishery which has improved significantly, celebrating the victory of that fishery in helping the species rebound. In addition, he believes consumers should eat lower on the food chain, the small fish which sometimes are seen more as bait.

He also believes we need to support U.S. fisheries, noting that there is a significant system in place to ensure that the seafood harvested locally is sustainable. It is vital that consumers learn and understand that this system is in place, and that it works. We also need to be honest with consumers and attain their confidence in that system. Currently, too many consumers have a fear of seafood and that must be defeated and eliminated. We must find ways to counter their fears.

Rick stated that "we don't tell enough stories" about seafood and that we also "don't celebrate our victories." Consumers are more willing to listen to stories than statistics. The media writes too many negative articles about seafood and that must change too. The media needs to write more positive stories about seafood, to convince people that it is safe and beneficial to eat seafood. Rick also mentioned that it is easier to have a successful shellfish story than one dealing with fin fish. I agree with Rick on these issues, that we do need to promote seafood more, especially highlighting the various success stories out there.

Jeff Black also agreed that chefs need to promote seafood diversity, serving less common species on their menus. Chefs shouldn't just showcase a single species, but promote a whole ecosystem. However, that isn't always easy and Jeff noted how he previously opened a more esoteric restaurant which didn't work so well. In response, Jeff scaled back the menu and eventually got more customers. At that point, he began slowly adding in the more esoteric items, and it worked much better in that manner. That is a good lesson for other chefs who might be struggling with a more esoteric concept. It might be easier to ease into it rather than jump in with both feet.

Rich Garcia indicated that it is extremely difficult for him to institute a seafood sustainability policy across all of the hundreds of restaurants under his control. They order millions of pounds of salmon, tuna and shrimp, and about 80% of their customers are business travelers. He does what he can, trying to create some sustainable restaurants within the larger chain. Rich is also one of those chefs who doesn't like the term sustainability, feeling it has been diluted too much, and he prefers to use "responsible." It is also important, that in the end, chefs are still running a business.

It is important to Rich that the discussion should start focusing more on the sustainability of people, those businesses that rely upon seafood production, from fishermen to processors. The discussion often seems to discuss those people last, concentrating primarily on the fish. However, sustainability needs to include the totality and not just concentrate on one single factor.

Commenting on Polly's opening statement, Rich noted how so few people cook seafood and home and that the industry hasn't done a good job of teaching people how to cook seafood at home. That really needs to change and people need to learn that cooking seafood at home is much easier than they believe.

For more info, check out some of my prior posts on cooking seafood at home: SENA15: How To Cook SeafoodHow To Cook Seafood, Vol.1How To Cook Seafood, Vol.2, and How To Cook Seafood, Vol.3,

What are your favorite restaurants for seafood?

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