Talking Trash About Mainstream Seafood
Chef Kelly Whitaker of Boulder, Colorado’s Basta pizzeria and its sister restaurant, Cart-Driver, is reminiscing about wrestling with an octopus. This was a literal, not a symbolic experience, and yet, it does provide some potent imagery for Whitaker’s struggle to bring sustainable seafood to menus nationwide. In fact, this oddball episode occurred while Whitaker was attending an educational conference as a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force for the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, where, beyond getting to go behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to hug it out with sea creatures, groups of like-minded chefs and culinarians meet to break bread, educate themselves, and swap ideas about how to ensure that the fish on their menus aren’t endangering the future of the oceans (and limiting their options for future menu items). Through his involvement in Chef’s Collaborative, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and his friendship with former co-worker, chef, and sustainability advocate Michael Cimarusti of Los Angeles’ acclaimed Providence restaurant, Whitaker has come to realize that menu choices in the restaurant are the most powerful way to create a better supply chain and a better future for the world’s oceans.
Whitaker was invited to join the Task Force after Monterey Bay took notice of the work he did in organizing what become two of the largest “trash fish” dinners to date—first in Los Angeles, and then in Denver, Colorado—raising a record $20,000 in land-locked Denver, along with raising awareness of the benefits of serving abundant, yet underutilized species of fish as a way to help heal oceans, guarantee future supply, and spark menu creativity.
Contrary to what the name implies, Whitaker says that trash fish—an umbrella term that refers to a bevy of species from bluefish to butterfish—are worthy of a place in upscale dining for more reasons than one.
Yes, one of those reasons is because they are species that aren’t overfished and thus don’t damage ocean populations further; but Whitaker is also a big proponent of the taste and affordability of the fish that many fishermen now view as only a step above bycatch. He also touts the operational benefits of using these species, which tend to stay in season for longer periods of time and can be helpful for chefs who adjust menus frequently and quickly at all times of the year. For instance, Whitaker says that with salmon season coming to a close, West Coast groundfish (such as cod, flounder, halibut, and sole) are firming up in the cold water, providing an excellent filler between other seasonal fish.
The only problem Whitaker faced in getting these species on his menu, he says, was getting them in good condition all the way out in Colorado.
“Whereas they’re taking care of these beautiful scallops and everything, these fish were getting much less attention, and were arriving a little beat up,” he remembers. “Now we’re starting to see the quality of those types of species of fish come through, and it’s really a testament to how we as chefs can affect demand, strengthen supply chains, and hopefully in the long run create market pressures that make the whole system more sustainable.”
Despite his high level of involvement and obvious personal passion for creating more sustainable menus and fisheries, Whitaker doesn’t get on a soapbox at his two Colorado restaurants. What he does, however, is approach the issue holistically—realizing that making the best decision at every stage of the process, from sourcing to spicing, is important in providing the best possible dining experience to his guests.
For instance, Whitaker puts efforts into building a relationship with the oyster farmers he sources from for Cart-Driver’s menu—“When I know the famer, I really think it results in a better product for our guest, and that’s what we really do it all for,” he says. “So often in the restaurant industry we don’t think we have the ability to really have a positive effect, but especially right now in terms of sustainability, we’re seeing that chefs really can drive demand and change here.”
The easiest way Whitaker has found for himself and other chefs to start on the path toward more mindful sourcing is with Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch app, which provides up-to-date information on the best sustainable seafood choices for both chefs and consumers, and which “red-listed” species should be avoided.
“It’s exciting to see change happening, and to see chefs who are interested in carrying on this mission and having an impact,” he says. “There are actually cooks out there who aren’t just interested in chef tattoos and skinny jeans and cool aprons.”
While Whitaker and the other members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force continue to encourage industry influencers to yield their buying power for a better future, Whitaker will continue to get satisfaction from serving delicious food that not only satisfies his customers, but also supports small fisheries and the ocean’s seafood supply.