Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rant: A Response To "Another Blacklisted Seafood Dinner in Boston?"

Two restaurants, nine months apart, host seafood dinners using some fish that are listed as Avoid on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Because of these dinners, one restaurant is demonized by some seafood sustainability proponents while no one criticizes the other restaurant. There is a major disconnect there, a strange incongruity in the treatment of these restaurants. I am seeking the reasons for that disconnect but have yet to uncover the rationale.

In yesterday's Rant, I raised some issues with the upcoming Head to Tail Fin Dinner being held by Chef Richard Garcias of 606 Congress. I had emailed Chef Garcias about the issues, and though I did not receive an email reply, I did speak with 606 Congress on Twitter and Chef Garcias also posted a detailed response on his blog, Chef's Daily Food Bank.

First, Chef Garcias claims that they are not hosting a "blacklisted" seafood dinner, though he does not dispute that the Seafood Watch has Cod (which was also served at the Legal Sea Foods dinner) and Monkfish are on the Avoid list. It is clearly the intent of Chef Garcias to serve only sustainable seafood but a couple of his choices are not without controversy. And in the original publicity for the dinner, no mention was made concerning this controversy. So why didn't sustainable seafood proponents raise this issue?  Are they just not paying attention? Or has the Seafood Watch program lost its relevance?

Second, Chef Garcias claims that the Seafood Watch fails to mention some aspects of the monkfish issue. He relies more on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which offers a different opinion than Seafood Watch, stating that monkfish are sustainable. He also said that the restaurant works directly with fisherman, scientists and environmental teams in determining the sustainability of seafood. Chef Garcias stated: "But there are so many factors that play into why a species may be blacklisted by one organization and considered to be a good choice by others." His thoughts echo much that was previously stated by Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods. I also am largely in agreement with these basic thoughts, and have previously voiced my own concerns about a blind adherence to these seafood lists.

Third, Chef Garcias provided detailed sustainability information on all of the seafood used in the dinner. Though it is admirable that he has presented this information, I have some concerns about his details about the monkfish. It states, in part, that: "Although deepwater gill nets and trawlers can have some negative environmental impact, gear restrictions and by catch laws have made this a fishery that is moving in the right direction." What bothers me is that Chef Garcias acknowledges the fishing may be causing some environmental damage, although it is on the road of improvement. One of the main concerns of the Seafood Watch with monkfish was the environmental damage caused by trawling. So, it seems inaccurate to say that monkfish is currently 100% sustainable, but rather it would be more proper to state the industry has gotten much better and will continue to improve.

I like much of what Chef Garcias said in his response to me, and much also echoes what I have previously stated and written about on the topic of seafood sustainability. It also is very similar to what Roger Berkowitz previously presented. Yet I still lack an answer as to why the sustainable seafood community did not publicly step forward to question the use of cod and monkfish in the Head to Tail Fin Dinner.  They were quick to pounce on Legal Sea Foods for the same issue, so why did they do nothing now?

The main difference appears to be that Legal Sea Foods chose to be openly provocative while 606 Congress chose to be more under the radar. So was Legal an easy and obvious target, while 606 Congress was more subtle and required some effort to discern? Or is Legal considered a proper target because it is seen as more corporate? It is wrong to treat these restaurants differently when they essentially did the same thing, using seafood that is listed as Avoid on the Seafood Watch list.

So I still seek some answers to my questions from the sustainable seafood community.

But thanks very much to Chef Garcias for his responses.


lynneguica said...

great to hear from the chef. minor note - it's Chef Garcia not Garcias. Singular.

Frederick Wright said...

Leaving aside the controversy for a moment, I thought that the Legal Seafood menu was a lot more engaging and 'tasty' sounding than the one from 606 Congress. Just my opinion. I happen to love monkfish and rarely see it on menus anymore but CODA in Boston has it braised in red wine!

JacquelineC said...

I want to be clear that I DO NOT TWEET his newsletter the CHEFS DAILY FOOD BANK. Twitter has somehow conflated that and I cannot get it fixed.

Second, I applaud that Chef Garcia is trying to grapple with these issues. We've gone back and forth and unfortunately, I have to disagree with his reliance on fishermen's oft repeated statement "I can see it so it CAN'T be in danger."

A person's or a group's observation cannot stand in the place of years of data tracking patterns and overall health of a fishery and a given species in that fishery. All are data points but it is no more reliable to go on the word of the fisherman alone, than it is to rely only on NOAA or Seafood Watch or any other single source.

You can see the fish when you go out w/the fishermen? They say they see plenty so therefore it's not overfished? What if you're seeing the last ten percent of the fish stock and the other 90% are gone?

Bad logic.

Chef Rich Garcia said...

I'm not arguing with anyone, and I never said that I have one source, I have spent many years studying, researching and learning about sustainability and specifically seafood sustainability. I don't claim that the system is perfect, I don't claim that the seafood issues are fixed ( far from it) I don't claim that the seafood I use is ONLY from a list. I support fisherman, fisheries management, and local suppliers. I support those doing the right thing. The Monkfish fishery is not perfect, I never said that now did I? But the monkfish we are sourcing is being purchased from Sea 2 Table, a seafood distributed who focuses on sustainable seafood. If we don't support the fisherman and fisheries doing the right thing then the fisherman will not be able to keep fishing and we will never see the end results of all the hard work they are doing to right it. I am not serving any seafood that is considered endangered, I don't dispute that monk is on seafood watch red list, but SCIENCE ( Mrs. Church) has clearly proven monk and gulf of Maine cod are NOT overfished. So I guess I am the one still confused. I would love to have all those who want to discuss further to come to the dinner and talk face to face in front of many people who I'm sure have the same questions. And to The Passionate Foodie, Legals ( my former employer by the way) clearly wanted to use all blacklisted seafood, and I applaud them for what they did and why they did it. But I say again, we are not hosting a blacklisted seafood dinner, I can direct you to my post to discuss every species again. I'm done with the web talk but please feel free to call me, come by the restaurant or join us on October 13. I know I'll learn something, maybe you will too.

Chef Rich Garcia said...

And thank you as well sir, this is all great discussion and it's great to know that people like you and I can debate a real issue and hopefully learn from each other. Would love to have coffee with you sometime.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Chef garcia:
Thanks again for participating in this discussion. I understand you do not believe you are holding a blacklisted seafood dinner, though I know others would disagree. It is a matter of semantics and differing definitions. I am most concerned why the seafood sustainability contingent had not stepped forward already to question your use of cod and monkfish, as they had done with Legal.

Even if monkfish is no longer endangered, there are other sustainable issues involved, such as bycatch and habitat destruction. As you did admit those issues exist with your purveyors, I would be interested in learning their future plans to reduce such issues.

I probably won't make it to the dinner but we can meet for coffee some time to talk more about matters.

Chef Rich Garcia said...

Mr. Auffrey, I have built a reputation around my susutainability practices including a Rising Star Chefs Sustainability Award, I am currently the Chefs Collbaorative Local Leader, I have worked directly with organizations like the Gulf Of Maine Research Institute, EDF Ocean program, The New England Aquairum and more. I thik most of the sustiabaility groups are comfortable knowing that my desiscions are just and I would never do something that was against what I preach daily.
I do admit that the enviormnetal impact SOME boats can cause (especially when fishing for Monk) is not perfect. But I assure you that the suppliers of my Monk (Sea 2Table) are very much involved with making sure they are working with boats doing everything they can to reduce the ecological impact.
The Cod is all caught using artisan methods mostly hook and line in areas where the science has proven we are not overfishing.
I have proven that I am a leader in sustainability and responsible sourcing and sometimes get annoyed when people are nit picking my desicions without talking to me first. The sustainability groups I work with know me, know my work and have no reason to question, and if they did they would get the answer that they know is right.

Why are people not beating up those who do nothing at all, those restaurants who are serving Sturgeon Caviar, Chilean Seabass(except MSC certified), wild blue fin tuna, Atlantic Halibut. There are many out there yet I and other eco concious, responsible chefs get beat up for doing our homework, making desicions based on science, relationships and ethics. Look forward to that coffee!

Richard Auffrey said...

Chef Garcia:
I don't question that you have a very good reputation with some seafood sustainability proponents. But I am sure there are others who know little or nothing about you, so I got curious why such people did not question your use of monkfish, especially after all the uproar over the Legal dinner.

I do think that restaurants which claim to be sustainable may sometimes be viewed more critically, to ensure they are "walking the walk" and not just "talking the talk." Such restaurants are at the forefront, and critics want them to succeed, but also know how some use it merely as a marketing gimmick. I guess kind of a tough love method. :)

The non-sustainable restaurants do take some flack as well, but maybe more can be done.

I will be out of the country next week, but when I return, we can try to schedule a time to share a coffee.

Sterling Novels said...

Love this blog (and I'm not saying that because you read my books!); baskets of grapes, bits on champagne: I just want a glass right now...take care...J

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Joseph! And I am enjoying your latest book, History Thief.