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Behind the Line: Chefs get up close and personal at the source

Chefs who visit their seafood sources gain lasting relationships, deeper appreciation

A trip to an aquaculture operation gave chefs a new perspective on farmed fish. - Photo courtesy of Jasper’s Ristorante.
By Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2013

Until recently, Jasper Mirabile refused to eat farmed fish. The owner and chef of Jasper’s Ristorante in Kansas City, Mo., had no respect for aquaculture and looked down on the whole concept. Then he was invited to tour a white bass and hybrid-striped bass hatchery at Hubbs Sea World Research Institute in Carlsbad, Calif., to view the offshore grow-out operation at Pacifico Aquaculture, located off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico. His viewpoint changed completely. 

“I have so much respect now for what they are doing there, and I have no qualms about serving these fish to my guests,” he says. In Ensenada he and other chefs invited by the International Aquaculture Program of the U.S. Soybean Export Council watched as divers harvested a few of the fish for the group. 

“After seeing how these fish are raised and hearing about all the research involved, it really hit me when I tasted this fresh fish that there’s absolutely no difference in quality between farmed and wild fish,” Mirabile says. 

As soon as he got home he reached out to his suppliers to source the fish for his restaurant and hoped to include Pacifico’s farmed white bass and hybrid striped bass. “I’m very much more open to aquaculture now,” he says. “The industry has made some great strides in the last 20 years and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

When chefs travel to see the source of their products it can make all the difference in the world, says Rex Hale, who was also on the trip. The corporate executive chef at RHM Hotels in St. Louis gained a deeper understanding of how things are handled. 

“It’s extremely important to know how things are being raised and the facility at Pacifico is fabulous and so pristine,” he says. “There’s a lot of misinformation and negative publicity about fish farming, but when you visit a site and see it done correctly, then you know it’s the best way to be raising fish.” 

Ray Berman, corporate chef at CraftWorks Restaurants in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Broomfield, Colo., says the trip helped him understand that aquaculture is the future. “The fact is fisheries cannot meet the demand for seafood of a growing world population in the coming decades,” he says. “The species being farmed now are more economically feasible as aquaculture [producers are] getting smarter, addressing environmental concerns and focusing on sustainability.”

Renee Erickson, owner of Walrus & The Carpenter Restaurant in Seattle, recently traveled to Sitka, Alaska, with her chef Eli Dahlin to see the herring fishing operations. 

“I came away with an even stronger feeling that we need to focus our energies on lesser-known fish for people to consume,” she says. “I’m a huge fan of salmon, but there’s lots of fish that leave the country because we don’t have a market for it in the United States. Herring, in particular, is a species that’s delicious and has more omega-3s than salmon. But most of it gets harvested and sent to Asia, where it’s turned into fertilizer or dog food, an incredible wasted food potential.”

The restaurant features between four and 12 oysters at any one time and Erickson has visited Washington state oyster farms including Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Hama Hama Oyster Co. in Liliwaup and Treasure Cove Oysters in South Puget Sound. 

Erickson places a great deal of value on her relationships with farmers “whether it’s a vegetable or a clam. The most rewarding part of my job is having these great friendships with the people I trust to bring me the best product they can,” she says. “Visiting their facilities, seeing how the fishermen work and what their life is like is also a great way to continue my education in my free time and to learn what other people are doing to make my job easier.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

  September 2013 - SeaFood Business

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