Sourcing sustainable seafood is a tricky business
Published: March 31, 2012
Sustainability continues to be a driver when it comes to buying and menuing seafood. But the criteria for sustainable seafood is confusing to many operators. Sure, entities like the Marine Stewardship Council, Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium have issued guidelines and lists. But for some restaurants, these “recommended” species don’t always jibe with food costs or availability. Compromises have to be made to get food on plates.
Salmon has been one of the most hotly contested fish in the sustainability arena. Seafood Watch, issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, warns consumers to “avoid” farmed salmon, with the “best choice” being several wild species from Alaska. But salmon is one of the top five fish menued across all restaurant segments (see sidebar), and year-round supply is essential. What’s more, advances in salmon farming have made it a more sustainable option of late. “Harmoniously raised salmon,” one of the newest methods, is guided by standards set by the World Wildlife Fund’s sustainability goals.
Two chefs from two very different concepts talk about how they’re meeting the challenges of sourcing salmon.
Director of Culinary, Famous Dave’s of America, Minnetonka, Minnesota
Famous Dave’s is a destination for BBQ-craving carnivores, but since 2005, salmon has been on the menu too. Early this year, three new salmon dishes were introduced to lighten up the meat-centric menu a bit more. “Salmon has great guest acceptance by both men and women,” says director of culinary Charlie Torgerson. “And with a higher fat content [than other fish] we can smoke it and grill it like our meats.”
Torgerson purchases IQF salmon that’s vacuum-packed in 6-ounce portions; these are easy to prep consistently across Famous Dave’s 188 locations. “We source Norwegian farm-raised salmon, which has a pink-red flesh that’s appealing to our guests. For awhile, we were buying Chilean farmed salmon because of price, but its flesh was a little too orange,” he notes. “Our customer doesn’t need wild sockeye—they’re happy with a tasty fish that offers good value.” That said, traceability and sustainability are priorities and Torgerson is satisfied that Norwegian salmon is farmed responsibly.
The salmon stars in one of his new Citrus Grill BBQ platters, cured with Famous Dave’s rub, then grilled to order with a Honey Chipotle Lime glaze and served with broccoli; it comes in under 600 calories. The dish replaces an old-school salmon entrée that was topped with French fried onion rings. “We’re getting ready for government-mandated menu labeling by introducing some lower-calorie options,” Torgerson explains.
The culinary team also developed a Cedar Planked Salmon that’s in test this month and will hopefully roll out systemwide in 2013. It’s prepared with a pineapple BBQ glaze and served with grilled pineapple “steaks.” “When people come to Famous Dave’s, they expect a glaze or sauce,” says Torgerson, adding that the planked salmon is selling well. The third new item is a Salmon Caesar Salad.
Volatility in supply and price remain challenges when buying salmon and other seafood. “Salmon is a mover, so we need ample supply at a cost that will be okay with our franchisees,” Torgerson points out. He works closely with his fish suppliers and frequently does product cuttings to meet Famous Dave’s “famous” quality standards.
Executive chef, Oceana, New York City
The menu at fine-dining seafood mecca, Oceana, may include 25 or more species of fish and shellfish at any one time, so sourcing can be challenging. The restaurant has its own seafood buyer, who goes to the Fulton Fish Market daily and buys directly from a number of vendors. “Our goal is to use as much responsible, sustainable product as possible,” states Pollinger, adding that one section of his menu features “steady” species—like salmon—while the rest of the menu has the flexibility to change with the market. Around 95 percent of the oysters—another “steady” item—are sourced directly from oyster farmers.
From April to September, wild Alaskan salmon—managed sustainably for over 50 years—is readily available, and Pollinger features the sockeye and king varieties in several preparations. “This salmon is very full flavored and takes well to bold ingredients,” he notes. He has crusted king salmon with sumac then cooked it with preserved lemon, and coated it with chermoula—a Moroccan-spiced marinade—and roasted the fish, serving it with seasoned chickpeas, almonds, olives and raisins. On Oceana’s spring menu, Pollinger is doing Grilled King Salmon “Vignarola” with peas, asparagas, favas, artichokes and saffron nage.
Oceana always has a salmon burger on the menu too. “It’s made with frozen coho salmon fillets,” says Pollinger. “ They have a nice color and meaty texture for this preparation.” But at certain times of the year, the chef relies on farm-raised salmon to round out the menu. He’s been using organically farmed salmon sourced from Ireland and Scotland, which is both affordable and available. “I feel good about using farmed product raised in a responsible manner,” he contends.