Photo: Marcus Nilsson
Barton Seaver is only half kidding when he throws up his hands and says the way to save the oceans is to eat more broccoli.
The seafood chef and save-the-fish advocate drops the broccoli provocation on a conservation-minded crowd that has come, in part, to hear Seaver's green-blue message, but also most emphatically to chow down on his wood-grilled barramundi.
The occasion is to celebrate The End of the Line, British environmental journalist Charles Clover's seminal documentary on overfishing, based on Clover's earlier book of the same name. The Brit has crossed the Atlantic for the screening/dinner at Washington, D.C.'s Blue Ridge restaurant—and to launch a new Web site, Fish2Fork.com, which rates eateries on the greenness of their seafood offerings. (Not surprisingly, Blue Ridge earns high marks.)
In short order Seaver will head down to the kitchen and cook up dinner. The barramundi will be drizzled with cilantro-garlic pesto and served with heaps of vegetables, including crispy, wood-grilled broccoli with garlicky toasted pecans and lemon zest that will turn out to be the runaway hit of the evening. (Restrained portions of animal protein shored by greens, grains, and nuts is Seaver's mantra.)
This event is a worlds-in-collision experience for Seaver: He passionately and actively campaigns to save the fish, but at the same time, he's quickly becoming one of America's best-known seafood chefs. (He was anointed Chef of the Year last fall by Esquire.) It's not always easy wearing both hats.
"Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing here. I see myself as mainly a cook, but I was given a megaphone and am willing to use it," he says of his crusader persona. "It's intellectually engaging and a way to connect with a surprising number of people." Surprising because more and more diners are beginning to care what fish they're eating and where it came from. They sense that the seas, boundless on their surface but hidden below, are in peril—that broccoli may be the only choice if decisions to conserve aren't urgently made.
Seaver thrives on a high-octane lifestyle. At the moment, he's juggling a cookbook (to be published in 2011) while shoring up sponsors for a PBS series about environmentally conscious fishing. He helped develop an online guide and mobile phone app for Blue Ocean Institute. In April he'll speak at one of the prestigious Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conferences. "Barton is at the forefront of ocean advocacy, and there aren't many chefs out there who are," says TED's Bonnie Calvin, producer of the ocean-focused event, which will include world policy makers, activists, and marine scientists.
Seaver's also in the fundraising phase for his next gig, the Diamond District Seafood Co. and Market, a sustainable fish restaurant and shop in an up-and-coming D.C. neighborhood, where he'll be executive chef and a partner. It's a logical step for Seaver, who was executive chef at Hook, an ecofriendly seafood restaurant in Georgetown, before becoming chef at Blue Ridge. It will help move Seaver's seafood agenda—sustainability, taste, and price—forward.
Seaver wants consumers to expand their fish horizons: Choose barramundi, which has the same sweet, clean flavor as endangered red snapper; experiment with lower-profile varieties of sustainable wild Alaskan salmon, like chum, along with the more familiar king, coho, and sockeye; and give bluefish, mackerel, and sardines a chance.
Seaver insists that sustainable varieties can save money. Tilapia is cheaper than endangered species it resembles, like orange roughy. His vision for Diamond is to both sell and cook what he preaches, and he hopes the business will serve as a prototype for seafood restaurant/markets elsewhere.
With tousled hair, longish sideburns, ripped jeans, and earnest manner, Seaver looks more like a brainy indie rocker than a guy who makes his living shaking sauté pans and scorching his fingers (he eschews tongs and kitchen towels, using lightning-quick fingertips on the hottest foods). In conversation he'll bounce from Robert Kennedy as inspirational figure (imagine a better future, then shape it) to the stylings of blues guitarist Earl Hooker and harmonica player Slim Harpo, and on and on. It doesn't feel show-offy, though, and when he turns to complicated scientific problems—and seafood sustainability is nothing if not complicated—the listener tends to get the picture.
"We need to create awareness about our relationship to the ocean, and the best way to do it is to talk to people about something they can relate to," Seaver says. Most of us can relate to fish and chips, sushi, and crab cakes rather than bycatch statistics. The message is more pragmatic than evangelistic. "I'm not trying to save the fish. I'm just trying to save dinner." Seaver cares about the environment, deeply, but from a chef's hungry perspective: He wants salmon, bluefish, and sea bass for his grill, forever.
A few weeks before the screening, over lunch at a trattoria, Seaver recounted his first "Aha!" moment, connecting fish to the health of the sea and humans.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and working in the States for a while, Seaver found himself knocking around the coast of Spain in winter 2003 with no specific agenda. "The hostel I was planning to stay at was closed and someone said there was a ferry to Morocco, so I figured, Why not?" Entering post 9/11 Morocco isn't as easy as it was in hippie days of yore, but Seaver eventually found himself hitchhiking the country, waiting for long-distance group taxis, and at one point, trekking into the desert with Berber clansmen.
Making his way to Essaouira, he ended up at an open-air food market and fell in with local fishermen—logical company for Seaver, who summered on the Chesapeake Bay in his youth and has fond memories of fishing and crabbing with his father and brother. The next few weeks in Essaouira were spent on fishing boats hauling in small nets filled with mackerel and sardines. Here, he saw, was the meaning of sustainability in a nutshell: Families and entire villages depended on there being enough fish in the sea for their livelihoods. "When the net went into the water, these guys were thinking of dinner first, dollars second."
The consequences of poor fishing practices, writ large, are catastrophic. Seaver points to the Newfoundland cod collapse of the early 90s as perhaps the most dramatic example of what happens when a fishery disappears. Greed and overfishing resulted in the complete loss of an industry and 40,000 jobs that had sustained one of Canada's poorest provinces for generations. Desperate to bring the fish back, the government enforced a moratorium in 1992, but the cod didn't come. One of the world's largest and richest fisheries had, unimaginably, vanished.
Eating our way through a species isn't new. Veteran Chef Eric Ripert, of New York's three-star seafood mecca Le Bernardin, recalls how the swordfish ban in the 90s moved him to be a spokesperson for and to the food community. The ban was successful, and fishing stocks dramatically recovered, mostly due to improvements in fishing practices.
As cod disappear, other fish move in to become staples of the fast-food industry or fashionable in high-end restaurants. Then these new species fall prey to overfishing. How's a chef—or consumer—to know? To keep track of sustainability issues, Ripert looks to ocean conservation organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with its extensive online guide ranking seafood via a color-coding system: green is best, yellow a "good alternative," red a no-no. In recent years, trendy Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and Bluefin tuna have all slid onto endangered lists. Ripert has yanked them from his menus. But, he says, he'd prefer better laws to protect our oceans and fish, rather than rearguard menu actions, "so we don't have to go to such extremes." Regulation requires public pressure, which celebrity chefs can bring to bear.
Seaver and like-minded chefs buy fish from people like Michael Dimin who, with his family, runs Sea to Table, an ecoconscious seafood supplier. Dimin works with about 200 U.S. restaurants and a dozen fisheries, as well as about 100 fishermen in Tobago who fish like their grandfathers did with hand lines, hooks, and bait.
There are, encouragingly, some sustainable fisheries. Geoff Shester, Senior Science Manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, cites the Alaskan salmon fishery and some ecosensitive fish farms (freshwater and contained, not saltwater and in the ocean) as steps in the right direction. He believes boycotts and pressure from environmental groups are highly effective, and says distributors and fish farmers the world over are finally starting to show an interest in sustainability. The time is right: "We have a tremendous opportunity to vote with our dollars."
But the challenges are also tremendous: At the Blue Ridge screening of The End of the Line, Clover predicted a collapse of all the species we eat by the middle of the century if we don't take action and "stop squandering our resources."
By action, Clover means changing a dauntingly long list of fishing practices, which in many cases occur in international waters. Overfishing by monster fleets is a big threat. Poor regulation leads to massive bycatch: Birds and other sea life end up in huge commercial nets along with targeted fish. Pole and line fishing is far preferable to large balloon-shaped seine nets or "long lines," rows of fishing lines that catch whatever happens to swim up.
Likewise, deep-sea dredging, in which heavy nets with huge anchors sweep across the ocean floor, catching much in their wake, continues to scar the sea bed and pull in inordinate amounts of by-catch. Open-net fish farming has its own issues: pollution; escape of diseased fish into wild populations; and toxic chemicals from poor farming practice.
This tangle of challenges is what prompted Clover to make his film and establish Fish2Fork. As with pandas, it is a matter of raising consciousness—except fish aren't cute and we eat them. "I want people to think every time they go into a restaurant or supermarket whether the fish they're going to buy has a bad effect on the ocean." Clover believes consumers can be moved to agree with him that sustainable seafood tastes better because "we eat it with a clear conscience."
Seaver seems less moved to change consciences than to expand palates. At Hook, he noticed an encouraging trend: Although Americans typically shun all but the most familiar fish, customers at Hook would devour all the sustainably caught oddball species listed on the chalkboard. That included fish he thought would be a hard sell, like oily, strong bluefish ("One of the best things out of the ocean if it's super fresh"); the little-known barramundi; and gigantic tiger prawns from West Africa. He is heartened by this evidence of adventurous palates. "There are about 300 commercially available species. Most chefs know about 15, and most home consumers, about 5 to 10."
On a wintry night a few weeks before the screening, Seaver cooked a rare dinner at home in the closet-sized kitchen of his D.C. duplex. Sustainably caught rockfish was on the menu. Seaver pumped up the flavor by brining the fillets before wood-grilling them. He sautéed minuscule fingerling potatoes, garlic, and almonds in olive oil, then added a bit of water and layered broccoli rabe on top. The pan went into the broiler with the fish fillets atop.
While the rabe turned crisp, the fish steamed from the bottom and developed the barest crust on top. Seaver spooned anchovy butter over the warm fish. Slightly bitter, with a hint of fruitiness from the olive oil, crunchy with sautéed almonds, the rabe needed nothing else. Here was cooking so good that in Seaver's hands, it just might help sustain the oceans.