Takeaways from 20 months of advising chefs on better options for their menus
As sustainability advisors, a large part of our work involves ensuring that each James Beard House menu meets the sustainable seafood requirements laid out in our Smart Catch program. That way, diners know that all seafood served at the Beard House is not only delicious, but also a better choice for the planet.
Starting in 2018, every seafood menu item was reviewed with the goal of eliminating red items (a.k.a. those rated “avoid” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch). By early 2019, the Beard House attained Smart Catch leader status. With over 650 seafood menu items reviewed so far in 2019—84 percent of which are Smart Catch–approved—this is a prime example of a sustainable seafood journey that any restaurant across America can take.
Fostering Culinary Knowledge and Diversity
Asking the right sourcing questions is the first step to making better seafood purchasing decisions. A reliable seafood supplier should be able to answer your sourcing questions, and the simple act of asking, whether as a diner or chef, can be a powerful driver of sustainable demand.
While we often see the top 10 mainstream seafood items on the menus we review, the Beard House also provides a public platform for showcasing innovative seafood products and producers, as shown in the top 20 items served at the Beard House so far this year (illustrated below). Chefs who choose to get creative with underutilized species such as mackerel and redfish, or invasive species like blue catfish or green crab, have a real opportunity to demonstrate leadership and create food trends rooted in sustainability.
More often than not, chefs facing a red item can use the same species of seafood, swapping out their initial choice for an option that is caught or farmed in a different way or location. Here are some sustainable success stories we’ve witnessed over the past year:
Uni: sea urchin, also known as uni, is a popular delicacy in Japan and is one of the top 10 seafood items served at the Beard House. But it requires a deeper dive into its sourcing to ensure it meets Smart Catch requirements. When Anthony Wells, executive chef for Juniper & Ivy in San Diego, wanted to serve uni at the Beard House, he was able to turn to local purveyors to find a Smart Catch–approved source: “When we source seafood, we rarely look for specific species or sizes, and rely more on pristine quality and whatever happens to be available that day. This helps us to be [dynamic] and a little more creative with our dishes. We have one particular guy who hand-dives for sea urchin daily and a team who traps our spot prawns every few days. We used this seafood sourcing approach when we created our Beard House dinner menu and were really excited to showcase how wonderful the seafood quality is here in San Diego.”
Hamachi: another great example of a more sustainable source of seafood involves using farmed Hawaiian Almaco Jack (kanpachi) in favor of Japanese Amberjack (hamachi). Hamachi is rated by Seafood Watch as “avoid,” which meant chef Krista Garcia of the Hotel Wailea in Maui had to be thoughtful when planning her menu for this summer’s Beard House dinner: “I wanted to feature Blue Ocean Mariculture’s Kona kanpachi, which I knew had the green light, and after touring their farm in Kona I was really excited to share what they are doing with aquaculture,” Garcia said.
Sardines: European sardines are an example of a wild-caught species for which there are no Smart Catch–approved alternatives. Being a little too popular for their own good, forage fish like European sardines and anchovies are best swapped out for fish with healthier stocks such as herring, capelin, or smelt from an approved fishery. We've advised chefs that if they can’t do without sardines, they should give Marine Stewardship Council–certified Pacific sardines a try.
Caviar: caviar is another popular seafood item that has historically been fraught with sustainability challenges given stureon's worldwide overfishing and habitat loss. However, with farming picking up in recent years, much of the caviar on the market comes from green-rated sturgeon farms, taking the pressure off of these fragile, long-lived creatures. With so many sustainable caviar products on the market, there is no need for chefs to shy away from using it. A sure thing is to buy caviar from farmed sources.
Advancing Seafood Sustainability
Today, the Foundation aims to serve zero red items at the Beard House. It does happen on rare occasions, but through the productive collaboration of chefs, staff, and the Smart Catch advising team, red items to-date have been limited to less than two percent. As a Smart Catch Leader, the Beard House has become, and will continue to be, an important place for advancing innovation in sustainable seafood.