Setting the table for an ocean-friendly feast.
Saying the word “chef” is about as descriptive as saying the word “fish.” You’re left with fuzzy images (“person who cooks” and “swimming animal with gills”).
For a fish scientist, the word “fish” conjures up a diverse sea full of wonder. Colors ranging from iridescent purplish black to a blushing pink or brilliant yellow. Shapes from a torpedo to a snowshoe and everything in between. Their life stories?-as diverse as a subway car full of people at rush hour in Manhattan. And how they get their next meal is just as diverse: bottom feeders eating whatever soft-bodied animals they can find, largemouthed carnivores that swim at highway speed and suck in whole prey, razor-toothed predators that slash their targets in half, herbivores that pluck algae.
Chefs rival our swimming friends in their diversity of approaches to food. If we hadn’t already realized the multitude of possible dinner creations, Iron Chef has hammered this point home: two chefs who see the same pile of ingredients don’t picture the same meal. One purees, the other broils. There are carnivores, vegetarians and vegans. There are chefs that are locavores and those who will fly in a product from the ends of the Earth to support a community or keep a tradition alive.
Recognizing that wealth of creativity, we partnered with Chefs Collaborative (chefscollaborative.org) to develop “Green Chefs, Blue Ocean”-an online course for chefs and chefs-in-training on the state of the world’s oceans, catching and farming methods, and what questions to ask seafood purveyors.
The program lays the table for an ocean-friendly feast. A chef who’s completed the course will understand why it matters if a fish lives to be 120 years old and doesn’t start reproducing until it’s in its late 20s, versus one that dies of old age at 5 years but starts cranking out eggs at the precocious age of six months. Then they can take that information and apply it to tonight’s menu to incorporate their personal philosophies, style of cuisine, price point and clientele’s taste.
Rather than saying “fit in this box if you want to support ocean health,” this program helps the culinary community make sense of the crowded (and sometimes conflicting) landscape of information on seafood, and add their own perspective to bring the information to life in their dishes.
“It’s all about the next generation and influencing more buyers and chefs,” says Peter Hoffman, chef and owner of Savoy and Back Forty in Manhattan, who collaborated on the program and who has long wrestled with translating marine science into culinary practice.
While the diversity of fishes leaves us awestruck, the diversity of chefs makes us hopeful. The most inspired culinary artists will see the depleted populations, the waste of unintended bycatch, or fish-farm pollution; then come up with alternative dishes that mesh their philosophy with oceanfriendly options to create a heaping serving of deliciousness. Whether they’re putting a new spin on an old favorite (U.S. farm-raised tilapia in your fish n’ chips instead of Atlantic cod), reviving a classic (grilled sardines) or throwing together a seasonal ceviche (fluke or porgy, perhaps), chefs can get people fired up about sourcing fish that come from healthy populations and environments.
To learn more, visit oceanfriendlychefs.org to check out the Green Chefs, Blue Ocean online course and resources.