By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
If Barton Seaver could teach us one thing, it would be: This is not about the fish.
That might sound strange coming from a chef who has made his name as an evangelist for sustainable seafood. But for Seaver, 30, the concept of sustainability is much more fundamental. It's about a meal.
"There's this scientific approach to sustainability. And then there's a human one," Seaver said over breakfast last week at Teaism. "You start talking about fish, and it's automatically some empirical formula which takes a PhD to understand. I'm not trying to save the fish. I'm trying to save dinner."
Since his acrimonious split last July with the owners of Hook, the hip Georgetown restaurant he helped put on the map, Seaver has been working to craft his message, setting himself up as the Alice Waters of seafood. But he wants to make that message accessible enough to play to audiences beyond Waters groupies or the Whole Foods shoppers who instinctively reach for their sustainable-seafood pocket guides at the fish counter.
To spread the word, the Washington native is launching myriad projects. Next week, he and partner Eli Hengst are set to open Blue Ridge, a decidedly casual spot in Glover Park. This summer, the duo will christen a seafood restaurant and retail market in Logan Circle. Next spring, Seaver is slated to star in a public television series, "Cooking Without a Net." He has also signed on as a fellow for the Blue Ocean Institute, an environmental advocacy organization.
Seaver's message isn't an easy one to sell. All things sustainable may be in vogue, but getting people excited about fish can be a challenge. Americans, Seaver likes to point out, have a deep-rooted respect for the Jeffersonian farmer with dirt under his fingernails. But they have little connection with fish: "We have 'Jaws.' 'Finding Nemo.' The Gorton's fisherman. And Charlie Tuna. That's it. We don't have that iconic relationship with the ocean and how we should manage it."
So here's Seaver's idea: Change the lexicon of sustainability. Instead of talking about fish and science and dire statistics about oceans in peril, talk about people and what and how they eat. "If you begin to talk about fish not as a resource, but as a reality in our daily lives, it has a different effect," Seaver says. "So let's talk about oysters. Eating a farm-raised Chesapeake oyster supports generations of watermen and supports the most productive marine ecosystem in the world. When I eat a delicious oyster, it's one of the most ecologically friendly acts a person can take. That's the kind of environmentalism I can get behind."
That's not a huge leap from the tack that other advocates have taken; the attempt to connect people to where their food comes from is a common, almost conventional, approach. But built into Seaver's thinking is a subtle argument for compromise and common sense. The way he sees it, conservationists need to accept that everyone, from the commercial fisherman in Alaska to the family fisherman in Senegal, acts in his own economic interest. Acknowledging that sustainability is about people, not fish, is the first step toward finding solutions.
Seaver's approach is being embraced by environmentalists. "A lot of people, myself included, thought we could fix environmental problems by working on what people are hurting," said Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute. "We could fix bluefin tuna if we got them to eat half as much. We could fix turtles if we protect the beaches. But a lot of this has to do with the various things that drive people. We have to involve people and solve the problems people have to save the sea turtles."
That's the message. Now, how to sell it? Americans are renowned for their love of easy three-step programs to save the world. But what Seaver wants is for people to engage, to see what role they can play in saving dinner.
He'll send the message at his restaurants. The ingredients will be sustainable, of course: grass-fed Virginia beef, Kentucky hams and local bluefish. The portions will be measured. Diners will get four to five ounces of fish and lots of vegetables, not all-you-can eat sustainable shrimp. "I don't care if something is certified 10 times over. It's morally reprehensible to eat 16 ounces of protein in one sitting," Seaver said. "Until that changes, it doesn't matter what the product is."
At the still-unnamed Logan Circle market, Seaver will target home cooks with what he calls "retail 2.0." The vision sounds more old-fashioned than futuristic. Instead of countertop signs, which Seaver believes are easily overlooked or misunderstood, he wants to employ passionate, educated salespeople to talk about the provenance of seafood and local produce and how best to use them. The 21st-century touch is that once shoppers are home, they can visit Seaver's Web site, where he plans to post short how-to cooking videos.
The public television series, a co-production of WGBH in Boston, will address a national audience. The project is still in the fundraising stage, but plans call for filming 13 episodes that will take Seaver from halibut boats in Alaska to the shrimp and oyster farms on the Gulf Coast and the Chesapeake Bay. In each episode, chefs, activists and fishermen will talk about the challenges of sustainable fishing and offer solutions so "we'll have our fish -- and eat it, too."
A series on public television is a coup for a rising chef. But Seaver is deliberately humble about it. "This is not about me," he repeated over and over again in an interview. "The macro-evangelism of television cannot be beat."
Seaver's reticence may stem from his bumpy fast track to local stardom. In 2004, after culinary school, he was hired as sous-chef at Jaleo. From there, he moved to Cafe Saint-Ex on 14th Street, transforming it from a glorified bar into a model of farm-to-fork dining. Before long, he had a deal to open Hook, a Georgetown restaurant that focused on sustainable seafood.
Hook was an instant hit and Seaver a sudden media darling. There were full-page photos of him in the local glossies, and New York journalists came calling for insights into sustainability.
The higher Seaver's star rose, however, the more grumbling there was in the local food community. He hadn't paid his dues, some whispered. Who did Barton Seaver think he was? Deservedly or not, Seaver developed a reputation for arrogance. Critics snickered gleefully when Seaver admitted to the Express newspaper that he always wore pricey women's designer jeans with his chef's coat.
"He's actually really hardworking and humble," said José Andrés, Seaver's boss at Jaleo. "It's journalists who decide who to put on a magazine cover."
As he launches his plan to save dinner, Seaver seems to be bracing himself for criticism. It's not a bad idea. In recent years, Berkeley chef Waters, who introduced Americans to the concept of buying local, has been ridiculed as out of touch and elitist.
But Seaver's passion for sustainability and good food appears to outweigh the personal risks. "I'm not developing a personality to sell. I'm using who I am to sell an idea," he said. "Our planet is not in peril. What's in jeopardy is our reality: Can we live where we live? Can we eat what we eat? Can there be as many of us as there are? This is not about the fish. This is about us."