At the End of the Line
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Barton Seaver has bags under his eyes for a reason: Besides the exhaustive work it takes to get any new restaurant up and running, he spends his nights surfing the Web to determine which fish he can serve his customers with a clean conscience.
Seaver, 28, who officially opened the Georgetown seafood restaurant Hook just last week, preaches the sustainability mantra with conviction. He has become convinced that at a time when scientists are warning that commercial fish stocks could collapse altogether by 2048, he and other chefs need to prepare meals that do not deplete the world's oceans.
"For all of human history, we've seen the ocean as an endless, vast resource," Seaver said in an interview at his sleek, beige-tone restaurant, which sports oversize ocean photos on the walls. "This is a fundamental sociological change we're talking about. Basically, what we're trying to do is create a relationship to our oceans through food."
Seaver has joined a growing number of chefs in Washington and elsewhere who, motivated by a mix of ethical and pragmatic concerns, are trying to serve only fish that can reproduce at the rate they're being caught.
Americans are eating more fish even as the nation's stocks are struggling. Between 2001 and 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, per-capita annual U.S. seafood consumption rose from 14.8 pounds to 16.2 pounds; more than half of that was eaten in restaurants. But according to an analysis by Rebecca Goldberg, a scientist with the advocacy group Environmental Defense, roughly one in three U.S.-managed fisheries is already overfished or getting there.
That presents a challenge for chefs who, after all, aim to please their customers.
"Why are fish unsustainable?" says Seaver, who also extends the sustainability commitment to Hook's other ingredients. "Because they're popular. What makes restaurants work? Popular dishes that people come back for."
So chefs engage in a high-stakes sales pitch, replacing crowd-pleaser dishes such as Chilean sea bass -- which is actually Patagonian toothfish, a species that has been decimated by outlaw fishing vessels -- for less-familiar fish that are more abundant.
At the Oceanaire Seafood Room downtown, head chef Rob Klink stopped serving Patagonian toothfish five years ago despite customers' demands for it; reading G. Bruce Knecht's book "Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish," published last year, reinforced Klink's decision. "We're here long term," he said. "There's no reason for us to be using anything that can't be sustained."
Klink serves Alaskan sablefish instead of toothfish because both are mild-flavored and absorb sauces well. When swordfish stocks plunged worldwide, he opted for Hawaiian wahoo, which is also on Seaver's menu at Hook.
"It sells now, but it didn't sell for two years," Klink says. "We just kept putting it out there."
Such practices can have an impact: Between 1998 and 2000, the conservation groups SeaWeb and Natural Resources Defense Council ran a campaign called "Give Swordfish a Break," persuading more than 700 U.S. chefs and three major cruise lines to stop serving North Atlantic swordfish. In response, Clinton administration officials closed swordfish nursery areas in U.S. waters and pushed for stronger international management rules. The fish recovered: In 1998 it was down to 65 percent of sustainable levels; by 2002 it was up to 94 percent.