Over 20 years ago, when I decided to become a chef, the word “sustainability” had no meaning in the culinary world. Snapper, tuna, grouper, swordfish, and, later, Chilean sea bass were indiscriminately put on restaurant menus by chefs and prepared by young cooks without a thought about nature’s ability to sustain the delicacies that inhabit our oceans. Unfortunately, we no longer have the luxury of nonchalance. The world’s oceans are being over harvested, and the once bountiful supply of fish is quickly becoming depleted.
In the health-conscious ’90s, demand for fresh seafood increased drastically. The demand was fed by harvesting the ocean wildlife at an efficient pace with the use of new technology. Mother Nature’s losing battle against industry profits had begun. We have come to the point, 20 years later, when we need to look at alternatives to slower-reproducing, high-demand species of fish.
As the chef and owner of Sienna, I have the privilege of making menu decisions based on sustainability first, profits second. However, I also know if we were to be a business without profit, we would join the crowded restaurant graveyard in Charleston. This presents an interesting challenge. If I were to have skate wing or grouper as the two seafood options on my menu, I know that 95 out of 100 guests would order the grouper. For me, that’s too easy. We have to get the customer excited about alternatives. I think chefs, restaurateurs, and their waitstaffs have to become ambassadors of sustainable seafood, and sell it to our guests.
On the Sienna menu, which changes daily, sustainable species such as triggerfish, skate wing, and wild Alaskan salmon are offered as frequently as possible. As a kitchen, we revel in the fact that our guests are offered and often opt to try these alternatives.
To really make an impact, I know we need to teach consumers about sustainability, while keeping in mind that the restaurant is not a classroom. No one has ever made a reservation with the hope of getting a lesson in sustainability. We are in the entertainment business. We have to be smart, gracious, and accommodating, all things that guests expect and deserve, while subtly letting them know how delicious a glass of Pinot Grigio with poached skate wing and Maine mussels can be.
Twenty years from now, I want the option of being able to eat seafood that has been foraging on its own and not something raised in a pond on herring pellets and antibiotics or, worse yet, not having that option at all. It’s up to all of us, in every sector of the business — from purveyor to chef to consumer — to make informed choices about the seafood we supply and demand.
For a list of restaurants that participate in the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, visit scaquarium.org.