Embracing Sustainability: A Challenge to Food Celebrities
Sustainable Food Success Stories
On March 17th, 2015, twenty chefs from some of the world’s top restaurants gathered in San Sebastian, Spain to promote sustainable seafood at Oceana’s Top Chefs event. (I wasn’t invited, so I can only imagine the delectable dishes that they cooked up.) Oceana is one of many groups trying to save the oceans while encouraging seafood consumption. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Chef’s Collaborative promote undervalued, sustainable species such as pollock and scup. Community supported fisheries, fishing cooperatives that roughly follow the model of community supported agriculture operations, have popped up on both US and Canadian coasts, connecting consumers and restaurants with fishermen, shortening the supply chain. Chef Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi cooks with invasive species while Chef Ian Arthur of Chez Piggy in Ontario explores (and understands) the economics of marine ecosystems and seafood.
As a gourmet and marine science wonk trying to combine my passion for the ocean and food into a fruitful career, this transition toward fresh, traceable, sustainable food is beyond exciting.
Sustainability is Sexy
Despite these sustainable successes, many big name chefs and famous restaurants have yet to embrace sustainable food. As a long-time fan of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, his 18 Seductive Seafood Recipes for Valentine’s Day disappointed me. While all the recipes looked delicious, 5 of them contain shrimp. If you’re up to date on the do’s-and-don’ts of seafood sustainability, you’re already avoiding shrimp. Speak with anyone connected to marine conservation and they’ll tell you that it’s almost impossible:
“To get shrimp and feel good about what you’re doing for the future. Wild shrimp are caught in a process that produces very high levels of…bycatch. And farmed shrimp are [raised] in shallow pens…in tropical countries that are often managed in a very short-sighted way… wrecking and contaminating coastal [ecosystems].” [source]
If you buy imported shrimp, most of which comes from Thailand, there’s a good chance you’re supporting a gruesome slave trade and intense pollution. And unless you eat spot prawns from Alaska, if your shrimp was caught domestically it’s likely that juvenile sharks and sea turtles died in nets alongside the shrimp.
Other recipes on Mr. Zimmern’s Valentine’s Day list include oysters, scallops, mussels, and clams, shellfish that often come from well managed fisheries and aquaculture operations that actually remove waste from the ocean. Yet he didn’t mention any of these positives. By neglecting to embrace food sustainability, Mr. Zimmern missed out on a fantastic marketing opportunity. Sustainable food is sexy. More people than ever are demanding to know where their food comes from and how it was grown or caught; consumers like feeling good about what they eat. Promoting food as organic, sustainably harvested, or local often increases its value. Wouldn’t it have been great if, by cooking from one of Mr. Zimmern’s 18 seductive recipes, you could show your love for that special someone, the environment, and local fishermen at the same time?
Having been in DC for a few weeks, living and cooking off of an intern’s salary, my uncle decided to treat me to lunch at The Palm. He assumed, correctly, that I would appreciate a juicy steak in a classy restaurant. My rib eye, true to its reputation, was one of the tastiest steaks I have ever eaten, perfectly seasoned and grilled to a deep pink.
I figured that at an upscale restaurant like The Palm the steaks would be from the choicest grass-fed, organic beef and that the quality and sustainability would be a selling point. After lunch, I went on The Palm’s website to see if I was right. Not exactly. The Palm proudly serves aged USDA Prime beef, corn fed, hand-selected and aged a minimum of 35 days.
The list of evils of corn-fed beef is perhaps longer than that of shrimp, and yet The Palm sells both. Many quality restaurants have already embraced sustainable practices. Restaurant Nora in DC, the first certified organic restaurant in the US, actively promotes its pasture-raised beef, a more sustainable option that supports local farmers with a smaller carbon footprint. Boston-area restaurants Oleana, Sofra, and Sarma source their produce from Siena Farms, a local CSA, while Water Bar in San Francisco presents a daily menu of fresh, responsibly caught seafood. Sustainability has become a marketing tool. So why isn’t the “best” steak in the world grass-fed? Why hasn’t The Palm capitalized on an opportunity to market sustainable beef?
Encouraging upscale restaurants and big-name chef’s to embrace sustainable food may seem like a small step toward a sustainable future, but think about all the influential people in DC and New York City that eat “power lunches” at The Palm or all the fans of Andrew Zimmern’s recipes (including 779 thousand twitter followers). What happens when those politicians and lobbyists start asking, why is grass-fed beef better than corn fed? What happens when Andrew Zimmern’s followers notice that his recipes no longer include shrimp?
Hopefully they begin to cut back on products that hurt the environment once they get answers. Learning from celebrities, instead of environmental activists or scientists, that certain options are more sustainable than others often has a better chance of changing public behavior. By refraining from specific products, consumers have power to shift markets toward sustainability
Since starting this piece, Mr. Zimmern has demonstrated his commitment to sustainable seafood. In March he engaged in a discussion about the benefits of eating lionfish, an invasive species in the Caribbean. He has also posted recipes like this one, for grilled sardines, that provides a tasty way to eat small fish, which as he points out are generally more sustainable than big predators like tuna and swordfish.