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Can Chefs Cozy Up to Frozen Fish?

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

In this era of globalization, restaurant menus from New York to San Francisco boast fresh fish with distant origins: blackfin tuna from Tobago, mahi-mahi from Hawaii and black grouper from the Bahamas. But a group of chefs and food service vendors (aware that such jet-setting comes at a heavy environmental cost) is promoting a radical shift in practice: Increase the amount of fish that is frozen at sea so it can be transported by ship or truck instead.

Culinary leaders who care about reducing greenhouse gases linked to global warming need "to get people to understand that frozen is fresher than raw" most of the time, according to Food Network host Alton Brown. "What we need is more trains," he added. "There needs to be a fish train."

Although the idea of a "fish train" might sound like a fantasy, Brown is making a serious point: Bon Appetit Management, which operates 400 cafes nationwide, estimates that shipping seafood by air generates 10 times as much greenhouse gas as transferring it by container ship and five times as much as shipping by truck.

"If it's frozen at sea and handled right, properly, we can live with it. There's not a difference," said the company's chief executive, Fedele Bauccio, addressing a crowd at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions 2008 sustainable-foods conference in May. "We have to get consumers behind us, to make a difference in what we eat."

Bon Appetit announced in April it was embarking on a "Low-Carbon Diet" to reduce its operation's climate impact. As part of its pledge, the company vowed to stop serving air-freighted fish by April 2009 and to adopt new procurement standards that prefer "regionally procured or frozen-at-sea" wild seafood.

Transporting what we eat accounts for 80 percent of the U.S. food system's greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientific studies, and the average American's eating habits account for 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, compared with the 2.2 tons of carbon dioxide the same person generates by driving.

Traditionally, frozen-at-sea products have served the commodity market. Producers who operate floating factories have caught, processed and frozen such species as pollock to make fish sticks and other inexpensive items. But with technological advances, high-end frozen products, either processed on a boat or frozen on the dock within a few hours of being caught, are making their way onto menus at white-tablecloth restaurants, where fresh fish usually occupies a place of honor.

Barton Seaver, who until recently was executive chef at Washington's Hook and Tackle Box restaurants in Georgetown, said that though he tends to support smaller, artisanal fisheries, he also buys products such as Marine Stewardship Council-certified bay scallops from Argentina. The scallops "are shucked and frozen within 10 minutes of being pulled out of the sea. They are a fantastic product, and the freshness is unbeatable," said Seaver, who, along with Brown and Doug Katz, chef-owner of Fire in Cleveland, was recognized at the conference as a sustainable-seafood "chef ambassador" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Peter Pahk, executive chef of Silverado Resort in Napa Valley, said he tries to buy as much local fish as possible to reduce his restaurant's carbon footprint, "taking advantage of the seasonality of fish by changing menus to reflect that."

"We are always going to have demand for Hawaiian fish and such, but if chefs are aware of their footprints a la fish, every little bit helps," Pahk wrote in an e-mail. "Chefs really hate to sacrifice quality, even at the expense of greenhouse gas or carbon emissions, but awareness will make a difference."

Some chefs have it easier than others. Dory Ford, executive chef of Bon Appetit's cafe at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a leader in the sustainable-seafood movement, estimates that 90 percent of his seafood comes from the Pacific, some of it from just a few miles from his restaurant. "I'm in a unique position because I'm located on an ocean," Ford said in an interview. "As a population we've gotten so used to getting whatever we want, whenever we want. So we've lost touch with where we are, locally."

Katz relies more on farmed fish to reduce his business's carbon footprint. A largemouth bass farmer an hour south of Cleveland provides him with more than 60 pounds of fish a week, which he roasts in his tandoor oven; when walleye is in season, he places that on his menu.

"Some people are of the thought, 'You buy farmed fish; that's terrible,' " Katz said. "We're definitely educators in the community. I think it's so important to teach local people about this, especially when it comes to fish."

Chefs such as White Dog Cafe's Andrew Brown in Philadelphia try to split the difference. During the summer, the cafe sells black fish, bluefish, striped bass and weakfish caught in New Jersey, along with oysters and clams from nearby Cape May. Brown serves salmon that was caught and frozen in Alaska and shipped by boat, but sometimes he offers fresh fish that has been air-freighted from more far-away locales.

"I'm not going to say that I don't buy some fish from Hawaii or even Tobago now and then, but we do try to maintain a good balance between sustainable and local," the executive chef wrote in an e-mail.

Although several prominent chefs and caterers have embraced the idea of using more frozen fish, not everyone wants to. Kona Blue Water Farms President Neil Sims, whose Hawaii-based company farm raises a yellowtail it has dubbed "Kona kampachi," sells to Hook and other high-end restaurants in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas. Those places pay for Kona Blue to ship its product by air.

"We've encountered low-level resistance because fresh sells, particularly in seafood," Simms said. "Restaurants are not opposed to frozen fish. They are just more willing to pay a premium for fresh. 'Fresh' is the single most powerful adjective in describing seafood."

It's a mentality that applies to customers and the people who serve them. Chef Rick Moonen, who runs his restaurant RM Seafood in Las Vegas, noted during the seafood conference that patrons in that land-locked city consume 60,000 pounds of shrimp each day, more than the rest of the country combined.

"When you're in the middle of a desert, in a place we call Sin City, talking about sustainability, it's a challenge," he said.

But in some cases, suppliers are responding to the demands of their more politically correct and influential customers, such as Bon Appetit. Helene York, director of Bon Appetit Management Co. Foundation, said her company judges fish by quality rather than by whether its temperature has dipped below zero. Not all fresh fish is equally good fish, she said, just as there are quality differences among frozen fish. Her suppliers are now learning that air freighting is going out of style, she said.

"We are saying, 'Look, if you're bringing us fresh fish, let's have it be tilapia from Central America,' " York said. "They're finally getting it."

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