Keeping a balanced perspective in the kitchen

Published on
March 21, 2013

Sustainability and ensuring the seafood products appearing on a menu are from responsibly-managed resources is proving a major minefield for many chefs. The very real danger is that commercial kitchens become so weighed down in sensationalized reporting and growing opinion that they scale back their fish offerings.

Recognizing this risk, London fish wholesale supplier James Knight of Mayfair felt it necessary to invite its customers to a seminar and walk them through many of the issues that currently top the seafood industry’s agenda. The primary aim was to give them enough insight that they can make the best choices for their respective menus while remaining commercially viable.

The company’s recent inaugural “Shedding a Light on Sustainability” forum tackled hot potatoes like the ongoing mackerel wars in the North East Atlantic (NEA), shrimp farming and feed issues, scallop dredging, cod stocks and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) — all of which have hit the headlines in 2013.

“The first thing to remember is sustainability is not a black and white issue; many people think you can say ‘use this species but don’t use that one;’ it really doesn’t work like that,” explained Natalie Hudd, sales and sustainability director at James Knight. “There are many variables within each species that you need to consider and this may include the size of the fish, the way that it’s caught, or the origin of the product itself.”

Similar considerations need to be made when considering farmed products, she said.

Probably the most contentious issue this year has been the downgrading of mackerel on the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) “Fish to Eat” list. The species started 2013 with a green rating (MCS rating 1) but is now yellow (MCS rating 3) amid concerns of sustained overfishing in the NEA.

From a commercial perspective, the mackerel downgrade has flummoxed many chefs and a big reason for their confusion is that mackerel was the poster fish of the 2011 “Fish Fight” campaign, led by campaigning chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, courtesy of his promotion of the “mackerel bap” concept as a product the general public could eat conscience-free.

But Hudd told delegates it’s really important everyone considers this issue within the wider context and pointed out that farmed Atlantic salmon is also rated yellow by the MCS, while Mediterranean farmed seabass and seabream are amber-rated (MCS rating 4).

“In this instance, I really advise against a kneejerk reaction and to immediately remove it from your menus. If you are going to do that then theoretically you will also remove salmon and many whitefish species too. Instead, I would say be a bit more cautious about selecting it so extensively; you can consider alternatives like sardines and herring, which are characteristically very similar and also offer the same sort of price advantage.”

Many restaurants, hotels and caterers now have objectives or “sustainability plans” about how they wish to pursue a more sustainable menu with regard to their fish buying, said Hudd. She said there are three things to consider in how operations position themselves in the industry:

1.    Do you want to have a menu that is purely based on provenance, i.e. caught in local waters?

2.    Do you want to have a menu based on sustainable species (MCS rating 1 or 2)?

3.    Do you wish to have a menu that is based entirely on both of the above?

“If you choose no. 3, then prepare to be extremely challenged,” warned Hudd. “Aiming for a menu which has low food miles, and comprises only MCS green-rated species means that your choices are severely limited. Key species such as salmon, bass and bream are the most widely used but are yellow-rated or worse; and species such as tiger prawns, tuna and coldwater prawns aren’t even found around U.K. shores.”

Hudd said developing an appetite for lesser-known or lesser-utilized species is always going to take time, so a good mix of products with an emphasis on U.K. sustainable species “will be key” to most pro-active, sustainability-engaged chefs.

“Avoid amber-rated species as far as is possible; completely remove any red-rated species - there’s no excuse for using them at all; and then try to develop a menu where green-rated species comprise a good 60 to 70 percent of your menu with an intention to grow that,” she advised.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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