Europe's Top Chefs Push for Sustainable Seafood

  • Share
  • Read Later
Olivier Pon / Reuters

Pieces of fish sold as "Mediterranean bluefin tuna" are seen during a protest action of Greenpeace at a market in Bordeaux, southwestern France

Faced with reports that the ocean's major commercial fish species will disappear by 2050 due to overfishing, many seafood-loving gourmets have been wondering if it's time to abandon their penchant for pesce. Governments aren't doing much to assuage those fears, having largely failed to step up with stricter regulations, as coastal nations like France, Spain and Italy lobby for the status quo. But today, a growing number of top chefs aren't waiting for their leaders to change course. "If politicians don't want to take action," says renowned French chef Olivier Roellinger, "it's up to us as chefs and consumers to do what we can to improve things." By scrapping endangered fish from their menus, and cooking up tasty eco-safe species many gastronomes have never heard of, chefs like Roellinger are launching a sustainable seafood movement, one recipe at a time.

Among the trailblazers is the Michelin-starred Auguste on Paris's left bank. At the restaurant, which opened in 2005, endangered bluefin tuna and codfish aren't on the menu. Instead, Auguste's upscale clientele dine on mise en bouches like goujonettes of megrim rolled in mint leaf and crispy brick pastry, spoons of delicate, hazelnut oil-livened conger eel tartare, followed by shrimp and galanga ginger consommé with silky cuttlefish slices and saithe fillet poached in coconut milk and lime.

Such dishes would once have been unimaginable in a European gourmet restaurant, admits Auguste's owner, chef Gaël Orieux. "In 15 years working in three-star restaurants, I cooked maybe six or seven species of fish. Sea bass, turbot, monk fish, red mullet, lobster, sole — it was always the same," he says. "But as restaurant owners, we have the possibility — and responsibility — to encourage our clientele in new directions."

As the patron of the European campaign Mr. Goodfish, Orieux is working to highlight the numerous lesser-known or underappreciated seafood species that happen to be not only delicious but also — and more importantly — plentiful compared to their more "noble"' cousins. Launched earlier this year under the umbrella of the World Ocean Network, Mr. Goodfish draws together chefs, fishmongers, fishermen and scientists to promote a sustainable consumption of seafood products, and generate frequently updated recommended-species lists for professional chefs to refer to as they stock their kitchens.

Also leading the charge is Cancale-based chef Olivier Roellinger, who has used his vice-presidency of the luxury hotel and restaurant group Relais & Chateaux to convince chefs of the group's 500 sites around the world to commit to immediately banning bluefin tuna and, by the end of 2010, entirely eliminating endangered species from their menus. It's time to "sound the alarm," says Roellinger. "If we want our children to be able to still feed themselves from the ocean, we need to take action immediately."

But how much impact can one, or even 500, chefs have? A lot, says Stéphane Hénard, head of aquariology at France's Nausicaa sea center and coordinator for Mr. Goodfish. "Restaurants like Auguste ... are lighthouses that everyone navigates to," he says. "Thanks to them, we've been able to launch a movement that's spreading." Recent years have seen the emergence of fishing cooperatives like Lonxanet in Galicia, which has made sustainable fishing a value-added enterprise for its artisan fishermen. They cater to eco-minded chefs across Spain, like Pep Nogué and the Terra Madre cooks collective in Catalonia, who have organized Slow Cook Jam Sessions in Barcelona to improvise new recipes on the theme pescado sin precio (the undervalued fish). In France, the Nantes-based distributor Pêcheries Océanes, which handles some 30,000 tons of fish annually, recently partnered with Mr. Goodfish, committing to permanently carry a large selection of approved sustainable species, with another large international distributor said to be joining the campaign soon.

As the entrepreneurial chef Alain Ducasse says, the essential role chefs play in the movement is "to educate about the planet's limited resources, and how we can eat in new ways." So when Ducasse creates a 100% sustainable-fish menu for his newest Paris restaurant, Spoon, and serves a citrus-infused tartare of mackerel every bit as delicious as one of tuna or salmon, the benefit for the planet doesn't end at the door. "Imagine just in France, a country of 60 million people, if once a year everyone ate 300g of fish from non-endangered instead of endangered stocks," says oceanographer Philippe Vallette, co-President of the World Ocean Network. "You'd save 18,000 tons of endangered species."

More than fisherman, chefs and perhaps even politicians, "it's the average citizen who has the power to change things," says Vallette. "The consumer is the final link in the chain, and when the consumer changes his or her behavior, the whole chain has to follow — from the bottom up."