Chefs Serve Up Fish Conservation

  • Rick Bayless, a co-founder of Chefs Collaborative, is working to persuade other chefs to think about the environment when they make their decisions about food.

Some restauranteurs are looking at the effect they’re having on the world’s ecology, and as a result their chefs are changing their menus and their recipes so that there’s less pressure on some kinds of fish species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Some restaurateurs are looking at the effect they’re having on the world’s ecology. And as a result their chefs are changing their menus and their recipes so that there’s less pressure on some kinds of fish species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

It’s the middle of the week and there’s already more than an hour wait to get a table at this trendy Chicago restaurant. The Frontera Grill is the domain of executive chef and owner Rick Bayless. Bayless is known for several things: a television show on public TV, redefining Mexican cuisine, and co-founding a group that’s concerned about the impact chefs’ decisions have on the environment. The group Chefs Collaborative is especially concerned about what it calls “ecologically responsible seafood procurement.” It’s calling on chefs to learn about which fish species are over-fished, to ask questions of fish providers about the size and quantity of the catch, and to think about what they can do about taking pressure off of depleted fish supplies. The problem is that many of the world’s more popular fish species have been in such high demand; they’re being fished nearly out of existence.

Chef Bayless says restaurants and their chefs play a major role in fish consumption. By making a particular type of fish popular to eat, chefs also help decide what people eat at home or demand from other restaurants. So a chef can make a difference. Bayless says instead of using a popular fish that’s seen its numbers decline due to over-fishing, the chef can substitute another kind of fish, or if necessary take it off the menu.

“I would say that we have taken off – we used to do Chilean sea bass; we no longer do it. We used to do a lot of blue fin tuna; we don’t do hardly any of that anymore. We rarely serve snapper because that’s become a pretty heavily fished species. There’s a lot of things we don’t do that we used to because we realize that diversity is going to be the answer to not over-fishing.”

But the effort to get chefs to think about the ecological consequences of their decisions isn’t embraced by everyone. Many chefs take pride in serving only the very best regardless of the financial or environmental cost. So, some chefs are not willing to take a popular fish off the menu. Bayless says they’ll keep using an over-fished species even though they know the fish’s population is being depleted.

“There’s some great chefs in this country that have more or less made their reputations on dishes that involve Chilean sea bass. And they’re going to be the last ones to change because they think of these dishes as their signatures, so a lot of those guys will shy away from these kinds of discussions.”

And if the chefs demand a fish at any price, there will always be some commercial fishers who will provide it if they can.

Peter Jarvis operates Triar Seafood in Hollywood, Florida. He supplies fish to chefs across the nation. Jarvis says some of his chefs are concerned about over-fishing. They know that certain ocean fish have dropped in numbers and have dropped in size in the past. But sometimes their information is out-dated. Back in the 1980s the Reagan administration pushed the international boundary waters out to 200 miles off the coast.
Then federal agencies closed or restricted fishing for certain species. Some of those populations have rebounded. So, Jarvis says it’s important that chefs talk to their providers rather than make decisions on old information. But Jarvis says it’s a different story farther out in international waters, and along the coasts of other nations. There, he says, little is done to check over-harvesting.

“We don’t seem to have a very good handle on the over-fishing situation outside of our own borders. You know, you go two-hundred miles off into international waters and it’s all renegades out there with very large vessels that are just pillaging the waters.”

And some chefs resort to buying fish from those sources or from countries with weak conservation laws. Even more bothersome to Jarvis are huge trawlers taking tons of fish for fish sticks and fast food fish sandwiches. But Jarvis says the more sophisticated consumer, the kind who frequents upscale restaurants, seems to be willing to put up with some changes on the menu. Chefs tell him that many of their patrons are willing to be flexible.

At the Frontera Grill, the patrons we talked to seemed to agree. We asked Lyn Schroth how she would feel if her favorite restaurant dropped a dish from the menu because that fish was being over-harvested.

“I’d be very happy with them because I wouldn’t want to eat anything that – you know, I’m a big animal lover, okay? And, most the time I don’t know what’s endangered and what’s not. And, the restaurant takes it off the menu, I’m proud of them.”

While restaurant patrons might be willing to make changes for the sake of the environment, getting the message to chefs is harder. Chef Rick Bayless says the culinary schools aren’t talking about the source of foods or the pressure on stocks in the ocean or on the ground with their student chefs.

“I think that’s the biggest disservice this country is making to the next generation of chefs. They’re teaching young chefs mostly to say ‘I’m demanding the best quality,’ but they should be demanding the products that are going to ensure that we have a future. And, they’re not doing that. They’re not teaching them that kind of stuff, about how to be responsible.”

But, Bayless says that some of the young chefs are learning that responsibility on their own through professional organizations such as the Chefs Collaborative and talking with fellow-chefs who are concerned about the environment. And Bayless adds they’re also learning from consumers who put pressure on the restaurants to think about the ecological impact of what they put on the menu.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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