Portland waves in sustainable fish
There's nothing quite like fish and chips at the brewpub.
But the next time you pull up a barstool, you might want to ask if it's Oregon halibut or cod, or if it comes from the Atlantic.
Why does it matter?
Atlantic halibut and cod are two of the species on the "Red List" of seafood, meaning they are part of the 90 percent of world fisheries that are overfished.
That's why rock star Portland chef Cathy Whims — owner of Nostrana, Oven & Shaker and Hamlet — last week announced that she's helping to roll out a national pilot program by the James Beard Foundation to help promote sustainable seafood on the menu, a movement that will give diners more choice when they're eating out.
"I think Americans are just now starting to realize that really good food is worth paying for, and fresh fish sourced well is worth paying for and does cost more," says Whims, a six-time nominee of the prestigious James Beard Award. Seafood, she says, "is the most perishable product at the restaurant."
Nostrana, her rustic Italian restaurant, is one of four Portland restaurants so far to be part of the new James Beard Smart Catch program, meant to increase sustainability in the seafood supply chain.
The others are Park Kitchen (by chef/owner Scott Dolich), Ox and SuperBite (by chef/owners Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton).
Since the pilot launched in Seattle in 2015, more than 165 chefs have signed on in 31 states, plus a waiting list of 200 more chefs.
The continued rollout is sure to attract many more Portland and Oregon chefs, who are no stranger to sustainable seafood practices. Bamboo Sushi, Nodoguro, Headwaters, Roe and many other Portland hot spots are built around this ethos.
Diners will soon have an easier way to recognize this: Through the Smart Catch program, chefs who commit to serving more than 80 percent sustainable seafood on their menus earn the Smart Catch emblem for their restaurant.
The program has two main parts: providing training and support (sourcing, marketing, menu consulting and assessment) to chefs; and giving diners a simple way to identify and support restaurants that serve seafood — fished or farmed — in environmentally responsible ways.
The program was originally developed by Paul Allen with a handful of lauded Seattle chefs, which is why it's populated that city first.
The sustainability criteria comes from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fish Stock Sustainability Index — which is based on wild and farmed seafood production and includes the health and abundance of fish stocks and impacts on the surrounding environment.
"We're excited about the potential demand," says Kathrine Miller, director of food policy advocacy for the James Beard Foundation. "People crave delicious food ... maybe that helps diversify what we're eating at home."
On restaurant menus, Miller and Whims say they hope the program will bring more diversity of seafood on the menu — perhaps less tuna, shrimp and salmon, and more rockfish, monkey fish, eel and Oregon sole.
A few years ago, Whims recalls doing a collaboration with four local chefs spotlighting such tasty but under-utilized "trash fish," to use its unfortunate moniker. "It was a great experience," Whims recalls, but she still has a hard time getting her wholesaler to bring in some of those species because not enough local chefs request it.
Nationally, Miller says, they're trying to balance the need for hyperlocal sourcing information — such as the name of the boat from which the fish was caught — and the need for customers to just relax and enjoy their meal.
But the tides are changing; awareness is growing, Whims says, in part due to activist chefs and authors like Michael Pollan and their sustainability message.
Pollan, after all, famously said: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
When Nostrana opened 11-1/2 years ago, Whims says, "I remember customers didn't know the difference between farmed salmon and farmed trout. Salmon was sustainably raised and trout wasn't. Educating them about why we have wild salmon on our menu and it costs more (has been a process)."
For more: www.jamesbeard.org/smartcatch.