There’s a problem with fish — it’s fishy. “They want it because it’s healthy, but most of my retail customers ask for something that doesn’t taste like fish,” says Blake Edwards, owner of De La Mer, a fish purveyor in Toronto.
Interest in seafood is growing modestly, averaging a two-per-cent increase per year for the past five years, according to the NPD Group. “A unique quality of the seafood customer is they tend to order multiple types of seafood in their meals, whether they’re adding an appetizer or ordering a seafood medley in their entrées,” says Robert Carter, executive director of Foodservice with the NPD Group. “This behaviour balloons the seafood market to 512-million servings a year.”
Canadian preference has been for the mild-flavoured species of fish. That may explain why we have over-fished familiar species such as cod, haddock, halibut and even Atlantic salmon, almost to the point of extinction. Firm-fleshed and mild-flavoured, they have been favourites with chefs and diners for years. So, it makes sense that most of these species are now being farmed to meet demand.
However, detractors fear that if aquaculture isn’t farmed effectively it may lead to an environmental disaster. The concerns are endless: polluted water could destroy wild habitats; disease and parasites could transfer from farmed to wild species; escaped farmed varieties could cross-breed with wild stock, weakening the wild strain; it could take more protein to feed a farmed species than is produced; and the food farmed species are fed in some parts of the world is questionable (for example, in some areas, shrimp are reportedly fed chicken manure). So, chefs are being challenged to find safe and eco-friendly fish — whether wild or sustainably farmed.
Do customers care?
Although chefs are aspiring to source responsibly, not all customers are demanding sustainable fishing practices. “Only about one per cent of restaurant consumers chose a restaurant because it offers green/sustainable options. That represents nearly 50-million visits a year,” says Carter. However, he adds, while sustainability is not much of an issue at quick-service restaurants, it continues to drive growth at full-service restaurants (FSR). “FSR has grown to attract 13-million visits a year from customers seeking green/sustainable options, with a total spend of $200 million a year — up five per cent from a year ago.” Seafood is the second most popular type of protein, and it’s ordered in 19 per cent of full-service restaurant visits by customers making their restaurant choices based on sustainability, says Carter.
The good news is sourcing sustainable seafood is getting easier. A number of seafood purveyors, including giant distributors such as Sysco and GFS, offer sustainable options, while a mini industry of local suppliers and fishermen offer direct access to fresh seafood.
The challenge is educating customers. “When they ask why the fish is so good, I point out that’s it’s local, line-caught fish,” says Craig Flinn, chef and owner of Chives Canadian Bistro in Halifax, who sources from fishermen through Community Supported Fisheries (CFF). “As chefs we have to cook responsibly, and many of our customers want to know where their food comes from. But there are still those who want Chilean sea bass.”
In Edmonton, David Bowie, chef at Ric’s 104th Street Grill, educates his diners, too. “They have to understand we don’t serve certain fish [if they] are being overfished. And certain others are seasonal,” he explains. “You can’t get fresh halibut year-round.”
The flavour is key to succeeding in the seafood market. Most traditional chefs agree good fish needs little to make it shine. Overcooking and over-seasoning are the two biggest mistakes. “You want to ensure the flesh stays moist,” says Yannick Anton, executive chef of the Bistro at Signatures in the Cordon Bleu School in Ottawa. “Cook a fish with skin unilaterally — on the skin side only. It’s not an aggressive process; cook the flesh evenly to medium rare. A little sea salt, that’s it. But never pepper.”
Some Latin American cuisine masks the fishy taste. For example, tacos are being upscaled and filled with everything from pollock to crab. Genevieve Talbot, chef at Baru Latino in Vancouver, offers soft corn tortillas filled with breaded halibut topped with a habanero hot sauce and a sweet mango salsa or with albacore tuna seared rare, then topped with shredded cabbage, mango salsa and sliced radish ($12 each).
But, tacos aren’t confined to Latin eateries or Latin flavours. At Yew Restaurant at the Four Seasons, Vancouver, dungeness crab, crispy wontons, avocado and radish sprouts form the filler ($16). In Coal Harbour, B.C., the kitchen team at Cardero stuffs white-corn tortillas with Ocean Wise fish, salsa fresco and chipotle ($11). And Zac Eckhardt of Toronto’s Zee Grill makes a three taco sampler. Crispy shells are filled with tuna tartare, wild salmon or sea bream tartare (made with sushi-grade fish) and lump crab meat, then topped with guacamole, pico de gallo, jicama, lettuce and tomatillo verde ($15).
At upscale chains such as the B.C.-based Earls Kitchen & Bar, two flour tortillas are filled with grilled lime and coriander-marinated wahoo (a flavourful game fish), mango and avocado salsa and spicy Valentina crema ($12). One of Rob Feenie’s signature dishes at Cactus Club is a taco of hand-stretched tortilla filled with ling cod, topped with chipotle aioli, shredded cabbage and salsa fresco ($14).
Calgary-based Joey’s Restaurants recently introduced a fish taco made with battered pollock and shrimp in a corn tortilla, topped with fresh Pico de Gallo and Chipotle mayo ($13.49). “It’s been so well received that our franchise partners are clamouring for it to become a permanent addition to our menu,” says Andy Taylor, Joey’s SVP. “Frankly, I have been a little surprised by how popular it is across demographics.”
Another beautiful Latin way to showcase fresh fish is ceviche — fresh seafood marinated in lemon or lime juice, along with cilantro and chilies. At Vancouver’s Fish House in Stanley Park, Stephen Duyzer makes ceviche each morning, brining halibut in lemon and lime juices, white vinegar, red onions, seeded jalapeños and salt ($9). “You have to make just enough. If it’s fresh, it’s amazing,” he says. “It’s our number-1 selling appetizer for catering. Once they taste it, they choose it.”
There’s no doubt sustainably sourced seafood is preferred among chefs, but it comes at a price. For example, at De La Mer, non-Ocean-Wise-certified farmed Atlantic salmon might cost $5.95 per pound, while wild-caught salmon is $11.95 wholesale. Ocean Wise Arctic char is $10.50 per pound compared to farmed, uncertified steelhead, which retails for $7. The biggest difference might be in shrimp: sustainably harvested, frozen headless spot prawns are $26 while tiger prawns from farms in the Far East might be as low as $5.99 per pound.
“The price is bigger, but the flavour is better,” says Zee Grill’s Eckhardt. “People who come here know the fish is sustainably caught. I absorb a lot of the cost because people are only willing to pay so much, however much money they have in their pockets.”
Given the price, it’s important to educate customers. “We recently promoted the Copper River salmon [wild, sustainable], but had poor results, likely due to a price point about 15 per cent above our usual farmed salmon,” says Joey’s Taylor. “However two years ago we had a terrific response to the Fraser River sockeye run, possibly due to the huge amount of press surrounding the unprecedented event. All of this notwithstanding, we try to source our seafood from responsible fisheries.”
One way to save is to incorporate premium seafood in dishes such as risotto, pasta and mashed potatoes. Eckhardt’s lobster mashed potatoes are made with spuds cooked in broth from the head and shell, then mashed with pieces of lobster. Chives’ Flinn turns a simple fish into something special by crusting haddock fillets with a forcemeat featuring chunks of lobster, then he breads it before baking it on a tray ($28).
Another way to keep costs down is to sell the seafood quickly. The “catch of the day” can promote an influx of fresh fish. At The Fish House in Stanley Park, Duyzer takes it a step further. One of the most popular items on its menu is the Trio ($28) — a daily selection of fresh grilled fish (at lunch a Duo is $22). “We’re always rotating the fish,” he explains. “That way we don’t have day-old fish hanging around.”
But choosing sustainable seafood may not attract customers in droves. “Sustainability has not proven to be a menu draw, nor is it requested often,” admits Joey’s Taylor. In the final analysis, it may come down to providing the best possible product to customers, while the chef satisfies his conscience and educates the diner. “It helps people connect with their food, and it’s the right thing to do,” says Duyzer.