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Behind the line: Piscine podium
Culinary schools train chefs in seafood preparation, ethics
By Lauren Kramer
July 01, 2009
Seafood is the last wild product on the market, a precious
resource that is highly fragile, perishable and preparation
vary from one species to the next. So it makes
sense to give trainee chefs as much information as possible
about seafood, especially given that roughly two-thirds of the
seafood consumed in the United States is served in
So says Gerard Viverito, associate professor of culinary
arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Viverito teaches a class titled Seafood Identification and
"With any species we discuss in the classroom, I incorporate
a completely holistic view of the fish from spawning to
consumption, including sustainability issues and the
environment, fishing methods and health concerns in the
kitchen," he says.
Viverito believes strongly in the importance of teaching his
students which fish species are caught or raised in an
ethically and environmentally safe manner. To determine what is
environmentally safe, he relies on data from nonprofit groups
like the Blue Ocean Institute in New York, the National Marine
Fisheries Service's Fishwatch program and the Monterey Bay
Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. By enhancing his students'
knowledge about different species he is able to foster a more
human connection that will, he hopes, follow them once they
"In years past, people knew what they were eating and where
it came from, but today you go to a generic grocery store, put
everything in one cart and forget about it," he says. "I try to
encourage my students to buy from a local fisherman, for
example, so that they know the story behind the food. If
there's a human connection, people are more likely to have
greater respect for what they're eating."
CIA students watch videos of different fishing and
harvesting methods in Viverito's class, where they see
fishermen who fish with rod and reel, as well as large-scale
operations. "When people see that comparison they have greater
respect for the species they are cooking," he says.
Viverito believes respect and knowledge about a species are
key ingredients to its preparation.
"You really have to know a lot about the food, where and how
it swam, to do the greatest justice to it," he says. "Some of
the biggest mistakes I see come from chefs who think of their
seafood as a generic piece of protein. In class, we break
seafood into categories of high-, medium- and low-activity fish
depending on their oil content. That, in turn, dictates the
cooking time and style of preparation."
At the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales
University in Providence, R.I., Maureen Pothier, department
chair, lists improper handling and incorrect cooking as two of
the biggest mistakes students make. "Fish must be handled much
more delicately than other meats so as not to bruise and tear
it," she says. "When filleting a fish, a trainee will often be
concentrating so much on the hand with the knife in it that
they don't realize the other hand is tearing and breaking up
Overcooking is also a problem, she notes.
"Most fish is cooked until it is just done, but cooking
should be stopped a tad in advance because residual heat will
continue to cook the item while it is being plated and served,"
As seafood is increasingly being served as a healthy protein
choice, Pothier says it becomes more and more imperative for
chefs to be stewards of the environment and make sustainable
seafood choices, to ensure a healthy seafood supply. This is a
role in which chefs can make a huge difference, says
"Diners constantly look to us to validate their choices, and
as chefs, we can present them with good ones or uninformed
ones," he says. "Every day, chefs make decisions as they place
their orders with various suppliers. The student chefs of today
will have a significant effect on the future."
Chefs' purchasing decisions for their restaurants will
affect not only where the fish come from and how it arrived on
the plate, but also which species are chosen. Viverito urges
his students to broaden their horizons and offer customers
seafood species they don't frequently turn to.
"Americans eat the same four seafood species - shrimp, tuna,
salmon and pollock - day in and day out, even though there are
literally hundreds of species out there," Viverito says.
"Education is key in getting people to stop eating so many of
the carnivorous pelagic species and instead, start eating lower
down on the food chain."
That means opting for smaller species and bivalves such as
clams, oysters, mollusks, anchovies and sardines [see Going
Green, p. 30].
"Smaller species are less endangered because they are more
abundant, reproduce faster and feed lower on the food chain, so
they don't consume other fish themselves," he says. "They also
have less fat and don't accumulate as many toxins as the
larger, longer-lived fish species."
As evidenced by Viverito, Pothier and other culinary school
instructors, training the next generation of chefs could very
well play an important role in the nation's future seafood
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British