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Behind the Line: Filling a void

Sea Change brings sustainable fish to the Twin Cities

Chef Tim McKee was named this year's James Beard Best
    Chef Midwest. - Photo courtesy of Sea Change
By Lauren Kramer
November 01, 2009

As a successful chef and restaurateur in the Minneapolis area, Tim McKee found it odd that although there was a strong focus on using products from sustainable, local farms in Twin Cities restaurants, the sustainability of seafood was largely ignored. He opened Sea Change Restaurant in the city's Guthrie Theatre in July to address this shortcoming, promising exclusively sustainable seafood on a menu that also includes other proteins.

"Until now, there hasn't been any emphasis on where our seafood is coming from. I really wanted to bring that to people's consciousness," McKee says. Sea Change is the only restaurant in the city offering only sustain-
able seafood.

"Some of it is Marine Stewardship Council-certified, but for all of it, we've gone to great lengths to ensure that the people we buy from are obtaining their seafood in a sustainable manner," he says. "And we're getting a very favorable response from diners for whom sustainable sourcing is meaningful and important."

The menu contains information on how product is sourced, and the restaurant staff is armed with more detailed knowledge on sustainability so they can relay it to guests.

"There's also a blackboard updated daily that explains the variety of seafood that we have and what boat or farm it's coming from," says McKee.

The Sea Change menu includes halibut, cod, Arctic char, California sturgeon, sea urchin, rock shrimp, oysters and clams. Price points range from $7 to $25, which is not much higher than seafood served at other area restaurants, he says.

A starter of grilled octopus with salsa verde, Spanish peppers and pimento costs $11, while a half-dozen half shell oysters with assorted sauces from the raw bar cost $15. A clam croquette appetizer with tarragon and piri-piri is $7, and the most expensive seafood entrée is striped bass with oxtail, eggplant, red miso and potato, at $25.

It can be difficult sourcing sustainable seafood smack in t he middle of America, McKee says.

"It is dependent on having really good relationships with our vendors, Coastal Seafoods and The Fish Guys," he says.

"Our frustration is that we have to rely on different shipping methods to source our product. But we're trying to do what we can because I'm very committed to the idea of sustainable seafood, which means buying from fisheries that are dedicated to making sure fish populations are 
well-managed."

It's not just the seafood that's sustainably sourced at Sea Change. Instead of offering diners bottled water the restaurant has a filtration system and filters its own. The restaurant tables are made from reclaimed redwood trees that were felled in a 2002 winter storm in California. McKee is also in the process of 
establishing a compost system at the restaurant.

Looking at all of the elements that fall under McKee's direction, it's hard to believe the Twin Cities restaurateur didn't begin his professional career in the food industry. McKee trained in the field, working as a line cook in 1988 to pay his way through college, where he was studying anthropology and geology. By 1990, he was working in the fine-dining French Mediterranean restaurant Azure in the Twin Cities, when the penny dropped and he knew his college job would become his career.

"What we were doing at Azure was really interesting to me," he says. "In terms of cuisine and technique, I was doing things I'd never seen before."

The hands-on learning seems to have paid off. McKee won this year's James Beard Best Chef Midwest award. In addition to Sea Change, McKee also owns the French Mediterranean fine-dining restaurant Solera, Smalley's Caribbean barbecue and two Barrio tequila bars, all in the Twin Cities.

Despite the economic recession, business at Sea Change has been brisk over the past couple of months, McKee says. "We opened the restaurant during the recession, so it's been a reality for us from day one," he says. "Still, the restaurant has been busy and for the most part, I think it's because we're doing something no one else is doing."

Sea Change's location, in the Guthrie Theatre, is another huge, regional draw, he says. "But a lot of people are coming because of our concept, and also because I'm a well-recognized chef in the area, and people want to see my new restaurant."

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

 

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