Living, Breathing, Eating Fish
He’s a cook, he’s an author, and he’s a National Geographic fellow. Barton Seaver lives, breathes and eats sustainable seafood, and his goal now is to have more people doing so.
The former chef/partner of two restaurants in Washington, D.C., both of which served sustainable seafood, in May Seaver published his book, ‘For Cod and Country,’ which is filled with advice about using and eating sustainable fish, as well as many recipes.
Seaver is also a National Geographic fellow, which means he looks at how humans give and take from the world and how that affects it. In this role he works with various audiences talking about the nutritive value of seafood but also the opportunities we have as consumers to ease our burden on the oceans.
What did you learn at the two D.C. restaurants you worked at?
They showed me that people like trying new species of fish and that food can be educational.
In one restaurant we served 78 species of seafood in the first year we opened. We were very seasonal and had appropriate protein portions, 4 oz. to 5 oz., so customers came to trust us and know they were going to get an appropriately portioned meal.
We traded in the perceived value of a giant slab of filet for a real value of a fulfilling meal with nuanced flavors and connections and people walked out of our restaurants happy.
But they also knew that the fish they’d eat with us probably wasn’t going to be scallops, bass, tuna or salmon. But it was going to be blackfin tuna, bluefish, Arctic char—species that were new and we had an opportunity to introduce people to them.
Why did you leave the restaurants?
I realized my message needed a broader audience than white tablecloth restaurants could provide so I made the transition away from being a chef to being a cook.
What led to you writing ‘For Cod and Country’?
I wanted to create a tool to help retailers sell more seafood and to help Americans incorporate more seafood into their diets. I believe that if we have eaten our way into this challenge, we can eat our way out of it.
Seafood represents one of the health benefits we can introduce into our life but it’s also something that can restore and replenish eco systems. What I’ve written is a cook’s book—a look at what we can do—rather than a chef’s book—look at what I can do.
What do you hope to accomplish with the book?
I’d like to think professional chefs take away the courage to diversify their menus and start to use things that are not so far out of the culinary lexicon like barramundi. I don’t pretend to have any brave new culinary ideas. This is good simple, clean food.
This book was written as a tool to help Americans eat more seafood and for chefs to take a little more confidence in species that may not jump off the menu like scallops and salmon.
Why are you so passionate about seafood?
I was able to spend my summers on the Patuxent River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and when I became a chef many years later I realized that some of my very favorite species that I’d caught as a child were either prohibitively expensive or outright unavailable.
I began to understand the relationship we have with foods and I began to extend that to the food that comes from our ocean. I realized that if chefs have the hand to destroy [by serving unsustainable seafood] then we also have the power to restore and heal. By incentivizing the right thing we’re incentivizing restoration.
How are you are involved with the National Geographic?
My goal is to restore our relationship with our oceans and the natural world through the products we consume from them. I talk to audiences about it on a fundamental level and that sea life has value living in the ocean as well as dead on our plates.
I find myself taking a different tact than many environmentalists. I want to save the fish so we can continue to eat them and have vibrant and vital waterfront economies. But I understand that the fish have importance swimming in the oceans—more than they do lying on our plate as a filet.
Who can make the biggest change?
Everybody. Certainly white tablecloth chefs help introduce sustainable seafood into the lexicon. But honestly I think the biggest role to play is by retailers and large companies that have capital to make wholesale changes under the water. And it’s consumers, deciding that 20-oz. portion of swordfish in February probably isn’t a good idea.