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Networking: Barton Seaver

Writer, speaker, advocate and executive chef, Blue Ridge restaurant Washington, D.C.

Barton Seaver, Writer, speaker, advocate and executive
    chef Blue Ridge restaurant Washington, D.C. - Photo by Laura Lee Dobson
By James Wright
June 01, 2010


QUOTE: "Making this a purely environmental concern is missing the entire point. This is about human behavior, and, frankly, about human jobs, nutrition and wellness and things that really matter to us."


Consumers need to be able to access seafood's sustainability story. But how? And, more importantly, where? A restaurant would seem an obvious choice, but as chef Barton Seaver can say through experience, the food on guests' plates is a better messenger than the chef, the waiter or anything printed on a menu. After all, this is a dining room, not a classroom. Seaver's passion for sustainable seafood has transcended the kitchen into larger arenas, and his efforts have gained him a fair measure of notoriety. The sustainable seafood he trumpeted at the Washington, D.C., restaurant Hook put him on the green-eating map and the young chef is now in as much demand for his culinary acumen as his progressive views on the interconnectedness between the planet and the food we eat. I was able to hook Seaver for a few minutes at this year's International Boston Seafood Show to discuss some of his ideas.

JW: You say sustainability begins with people. What do you mean?

BS: Fisheries are efforts that are specifically directed for the benefit of people. We fish in order to feed people. We farm in order to feed people. So what we're really managing with the oceans is nothing under the water but us above it and how we interact with the resources below the surface. Making [sustainability] a purely environmental concern is missing the entire point. This is about human behavior and, frankly, about human jobs, nutrition and wellness and things that really matter to us.

You've also said your definition of sustainability is always changing. 
What is it now?

I keep going back to this idea about profitability. Right now I have to ask myself, "Does the original steward of this resource benefit from its exploitation?" If you can't answer "yes," 
definitively, I think it makes it very tough. The social aspects are very important to me. You can't have a sustainable system if the people guarding it aren't benefiting from it.

Have any species on your menus been difficult to replace with more sustainable options?

No. There's such a wealth of species out there, so many underutilized ones. Sustainability tries to answer the questions "what, where and how?" When you begin to deal with artisanal fisheries, you incorporate two more important questions, which are "who" and "why?" You get such a great story and such great products that you don't miss the high-trophic species, the tunas, the snappers, the groupers. Grouper is a fantastic fish; it tastes incredible. But so does barramundi. So does wahoo, a replacement for tuna. There are options out there and it's fun and exciting as a chef to engage in them.

How do you inform your guests 
of the choices you've made?

Blue Ridge right now is not a bully pulpit. Hook was a sustainable-messaging entity that was a restaurant first and profit-making machine first, but its whole purpose was sustainable-seafood messaging. We were able to do things on a big scale there.

But a restaurant that serves as a neighborhood meeting point is not the place to say, "Hey, have you considered the benthic resources and social aspects of your food today?" It's all there, and it might be written on the menu, like Rhode Island calamari or Chesapeake striped bass. The tools are there for the informed person. Jacqueline Church (contributing writer, Nourish Network) said something great, which is, "You don't need to know all the answers; you just need to know where to find them."



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