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Behind the line: Piscine podium

Culinary schools train chefs in seafood preparation, ethics

Culinary school professors impart more than just knife
    skills to their students. - Photo courtesy of the Culinary Institute of
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 methods can 
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 restaurants.

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 Fabrication.

"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 leave school.

"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 the meat."

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," says Pothier.

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 Viverito.

"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 supply.


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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