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Networking: Bun Lai, Chef/owner

Miya’s Sushi New Haven, Conn.

By James Wright
August 05, 2011

Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Conn., revamped its menu about seven years ago. We’re not talking about a fancy leather-bound book with new photography, higher prices and snazzy descriptions of the dishes. No, the chef went in a wholly different direction: Bun Lai, conscientious young culinary visionary and son of the restaurant’s founder, Yoshiko Lai, took off staple sushi products that he deemed were in disharmony with the health of the oceans. “I started with the least popular items that I knew would create the least protest from our guests, such as Maine sea urchin and octopus,” says Lai, 40. “When I removed freshwater eel the following year, guests often walked out, fuming.” 

Nobody’s storming out of Miya’s these days; in fact, the 29-year-old restaurant is becoming a foodie destination as the accolades come streaming in. Lai’s efforts to source sustainable seafood have been recognized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Huffington Post (“Greatest Person of the Day” on Oct. 25, 2010) and the city of New Haven, which gave him the key to the city and the Elm Ivy Award for enhancing collaborative endeavors with Yale University. Lai is always updating his 60-page menu, full of only original recipes. Sixty pages? You might want to study the offerings at miyassushi.com before you visit.

WRIGHT: How different is Miya’s compared to other sushi restaurants? 

LAI: Miya’s will not serve 90 percent of the seafood that a traditional sushi restaurant sells; we have no eel, octopus, red snapper, Maine sea urchin, farmed salmon, longline-caught fish or shrimp. Sustainable shrimp does exist, but it’s a fraction of 1 percent of the total shrimp eaten. Meanwhile, shrimp is responsible for one-third of all bycatch in the world and a quarter of all of the destruction that happens to mangrove forests. I certainly don’t mean to disparage the good work being done by sustainable shrimpers; instead we are trying to create awareness on how harmful the rest of the industry is to the health of the planet. 

Why should sustainability mean more to the rest of us?

As food production becomes more industrialized, the connections between the source and methods of harvesting our foods become obscured. If we’re not aware of how our food is processed, or how it’s caught or how it’s affected others along the distribution chain, we are giving up personal freedoms in one of the most important choices that we have — the freedom to choose to eat good food.

What are some difficult decisions you make in sourcing sustainable seafood?

I use catfish in my sushi, because it is reasonably sustainable. It is raised in confined ponds that do not cross-contaminate disease or pollute in the way salmon farming is notorious for. But there’s a catch, it is fed meal based on grains and these grains are no doubt GMO, which has all sorts of pesticide, herbicide and socio-political implications. This is not to mention the extensive use of antibiotics too. What are the metrics as far as the CO2 emissions involved in the farming? I just don’t know. These are issues that I have to consider when using catfish.

Why aren’t more industries embracing sustainable practices? 

Sustainability is complex. Doing the right thing is not easy. Miya’s appeals to a growing population of sushi lovers who care enough about our planet to change the way they eat; they realize that consumerism, along with our zeal for exotic seafood, is sucking the breath out of our oceans. Together with our customers, we strive to eat in such a way that is nourishing for our bodies, our planet and our souls.

August 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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