You can be pretty sure you're about to have an over-the-top dining experience when a seafood tower makes a beeline for your table. But what if you knew that decadent displays of oceanic delights could disappear in the near future? Reality is harsh — due to overfishing and an ocean ecosystem that's being depleted faster than it's being replenished, our universal obsession with seafood is causing irrevocable damage to our planet, as well as our plates.
The issues around serving sustainable seafood are growing increasingly important. Chefs are trying to reconcile their menu choices, which often feature those abundant tiers of seafood, with an array of environmental repercussions.
And as seafood continues to be a highly desired category on their menus, chefs must shift their process — crafting dishes to please diners while simultaneously making an effort to support a more sustainable industry. We talked to some of L.A.'s most forward-thinking culinary minds to learn how they're going about it:
Brian Malarkey, Herringbone
Chef Brian Malarkey's seafood-focused Herringbone, located in Santa Monica directly across from the beach, is poised to become a hub for the sustainability movement in L.A. Malarkey shared some of his insights on the topic:
"I’ve been involved in the seafood restaurant business for a very long time, before conversations around sustainability were happening, if at all. We just didn’t have the knowledge back then. Now, with all the resources that we have at our fingertips to educate ourselves as chefs and consumers, we can be much more responsible. I’m very fortunate to have relationships with some great seafood mongers. One is Patrick Glennon [Superior Seafood Co.; formerly of Santa Monica Seafood]. He’s always been out there educating chefs, and is very tuned in to issues surrounding sustainability. That said, it’s important to seek out reputable vendors and talk to them to stay informed about what’s happening in the industry. They’re key in educating us on what’s proper and responsible to buy."
Bryant Ng, Cassia
One of the minds behind Santa Monica's popular French-Asian concept Cassia, Bryant Ng is both a restaurant industry veteran and a modern progressive. But success comes with great responsibility, something Ng takes seriously:
“One of the many benefits we have living in the U.S. and in a First World nation is that many of us can make choices as to what we choose to eat or not eat. Those of us fortunate enough should make choices that are better for our environment and ultimately for future generations. [At Cassia], our philosophy toward food first comes from making food that we believe is delicious and to do it as consistently as possible. We can’t singlehandedly force changes in the fishing industry, but we can do what we do and try and influence others so that collectively we have a stronger voice. ‘Sustainability’ isn’t a buzzword used as a marketing tool. It’s a practice that we believe in so that the seafood we have the luxury of enjoying right now will be around for future generations.”
Andreas Roller, Nick & Stef's Steakhouse
Andreas Roller, executive chef of Patina Restaurant Group's Nick & Stef's Steakhouse, is one of the leading German chefs working in L.A. Roller marries old and new mindsets in his menu at the DTLA landmark, as well as advocating that chefs and customers understand the true meaning of sustainability:
"I think the concept of sustainability is often misused and misunderstood. The real meaning of sustainability is to create, or protect, ecosystems that remain diverse and reproduce indefinitely. So there is more to it than just saying, 'We don't use Chilean sea bass.' The three pillars of sustainability are economy, society and environment, and looking at these factors there is more than just the piece of meat or fish on your plate. It's about the living circumstances, and compensation of the people that harvest, hunt or produce the product. It's about the means of transportation and energy usage to produce the final product and many more things. [At Nick & Stef's] our oysters, clams and mussels are farm-raised in suspended enclosed culture systems. Our wild shrimp are caught in traps, not nets, in the Pacific Ocean. The same goes for our wild Dungeness crab, caught in traps in Oregon, Canada and Washington. Our crab fishermen stay away from female crabs to support sustainability."
David LeFevre, Fishing With Dynamite
Fishing With Dynamite co-owner David LeFevre may be a classically trained chef, but his cooking proves that modern innovation can shine along with traditional techniques. LeFevre also has a keen understanding of the importance of sustainability:
"Finding fishermen or cooperatives that purchase or practice sourcing that is responsible will keep our ecosystems thriving. Seafood is a finite resource, so we use technology and new information to help us sustain the fishing populations instead of depleting and ruining the water ecosystems. There is no way nature can keep up with the technological resources we have unless we are responsible and let the fisheries grow, not deplete them. We have had to make much more conscious decisions about the seafood we procure, which in turn has made our fishmongers need be more knowledgeable of the seafood they are sourcing and providing. Shellfish towers are actually some of the best for sustainable sourcing because there are a number of high-quality and responsible fisheries for oysters, clams, mussels, crab and lobster that are well managed. "
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Spencer Bezaire, L&E Oyster Bar
Spencer Bezaire, certifiable seafood expert, is the chef, oyster director and co-owner at Silver Lake's L&E Oyster Bar. His culinary prowess is based on understanding how ocean ecosystems function, and he takes a compassionate approach to serving seafood:
"There is a saying, 'There are plenty of fish in the sea,' but many species of fish are being overfished and as a result it impacts the balance of the ecosystem, and pushes more and more species to the brink of extinction. Sustainable seafood means just that — it is able to sustain itself. It also means that the practices of the farmer/fisher meet certain standards and don't leave the waters worse than they found it. Oysters help clean waters and can actually bio-remediate toxins and help other species of aquaculture thrive, especially in intertidal and brackish water regions. Farmed oysters are completely sustainable in that they are grown from seed and harvested with no footprint on the environment. Investing in fisheries and farmers that practice sustainable seafood harvesting is important. Gone are the times of wide-net fishing and large-scale productions. If we want to ensure healthy seafood for future generations, we need to put our money where our future mouths are going to be."