Sourcing fish sustainably can be a difficult challenge for restaurant operators, but some chefs are going beyond that. They’re not just using seafood caught responsibly from healthy fisheries, or farmed fish raised without damaging the environment. They are working to cut down on the populations of invasive species by feeding them to their customers.
That’s what’s happening with the wild blue catfish of the Chesapeake Bay area.
These large fish indigenous to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins were introduced as sports fish to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in Virginia — all tributaries of Chesapeake Bay — in the 1970s and ’80s, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, an organization formed in 1983 to help restore the environment of the area.
With few natural predators in the Chesapeake area, the population of the fish has exploded, making for great fun for sports fisherman who regularly catch specimens of 20 pounds or more. It’s less fun for local, delicious species such as shad and blue crab, which the blue catfish eat in large numbers.
How to put blue catfish on the menu
“But the fact that they eat good food means they taste really good,” said Bruce Mattel, senior associate dean for culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who has been using them to teach his students about fish butchery and cooking for the past couple of years.
“They sauté up really beautifully,” Mattel said. “They’re lean and have appeal because they’re mild and somewhat sweet tasting, and pretty firm for a catfish.”
Since these Chesapeake fish come from brackish water or salt water rather than fresh water, Mattel said they don’t have the grassy or muddy flavor that the more common channel catfish, which are fairly common in rivers and lakes throughout North America, have. He said even catfish that are farmed in the southeast can have a muddy flavor if they’re not super-fresh.
Blue catfish also are fairly easy to fabricate, he added. “They don’t have scales, they’re easy to skin and pretty easy to fillet.”
He cautioned, however, that it’s a fish that you want to cook as a fillet rather on the bone, since the bones are rather strong tasting and oily. Additionally, the skin, being “kind of rubbery,” isn’t great eating.
The strong-flavored bones also aren’t great for stock unless you have a specific purpose in mind.
Being a wild product, Blue catfish can be pretty inconsistent in size, said Jason Alley, chef and owner of Comfort, Pasture and Flora restaurants in Richmond, Va.
“So there’s some portioning involved,” said Alley. Still, he buys boneless, skinless fillets of them, so the labor cost is quite low.
That item is on the menu at Comfort every night, breaded in a mixture of cornmeal and flour, deep-fried and served with tartar sauce, “the way that God intended,” Alley said.
The restaurant currently buys the fillets for around $5 a pound — comparable to farmed catfish and half the price of other wild-caught filleted fish, he said — and he charges $17 for an 8-ounce portion with two sides, “so it’s a good margin for us,” Alley said.
Alley was raised catching channel catfish growing up in southwestern Virginia, and he said he prefers the blue catfish.
“It’s so much sweeter,” he said.
Although the muscle fibers are similar to channel cats, the ones he gets from the Rappahannock River near Chesapeake Bay, where the river bottom is sandy, are firm — mushiness can be a problem with farm-raised catfish, he said — and devoid of muddy, sulfurous flavors. He said his customers compare the fish to flounder.
Besides the flavor difference, using wild blue catfish allows Alley to tell the story that a growing number of his customers are interested in: cleaning up the Chesapeake by cutting down on an invasive species. The fish have really just become readily available in the past two years because most places weren’t set up for that type of processing.
Indeed, blue catfish is fairly new to the culinary scene, but its popularity is growing rapidy according to Gavin Gibbons, vice president for communications at the National Fisheries Institute, a trade body for the commercial fishing industry.
“Its seen an astronomical jump in popularity, certainly in the last five years,” Gibbons said, at least anecdotally — the NFI only records consumption numbers for the top 10 seafood species.
“From a sourcing perspective, it has a terrific story in the Chesapeake region, and it’s also affordable, and it’s a good menu addition because it tastes good, so it’s really a triple-threat fish,” he said.
Potential marketing problem on blue catfish
Blue catfish isn’t an easy sell in the western United States, said Andrew Gruel, founder of 10-unit Slapfish, based in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Using sustainably sourced seafood is part of Slapfish’s mission, and Gruel buys it at a premium from the conservation-focused supplier Sea to Table.
“It’s an interesting story,” Gruel said. “It kind of has a sexy spin to it. Eating the hell out of this species to save another species is interesting.”
And he agrees that it tastes good.
“It eats differently than a classic channel catfish,” he said. “Because it’s a cleaner flavor we don’t need to fancy it up. It’s just a great, simple taco fish. … But it’s hard to sell because people hear ‘catfish’ and think of a different species than what it is.”
Also, calling it “blue” is a marketing challenge. “People immediately go to blue Gatorade or blue gumballs.”
He said if he offers it in tacos, po’ boy sandwiches or po’ boy burritos people will eat it, but given a choice, his customers don’t choose catfish.
“It really sells when it’s part of a dish,’ he said.
But a reclassification of government oversight of catfish could radically alter supply, NFI’s Gibbons said.
Fish processing is normally regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, but lobbying from the farmed catfish industry has resulted in transferring that authority to the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for domestic livestock such as beef, pork, lamb and poultry.
Gibbons said the USDA is set up to oversee animals whose processing can be much more accurately predicted than wild fish. The department require onsite inspectors paid for by the processors. If the inspectors aren’t there, the fish can’t be processed.
But with blue catfish or other wild fish, you don’t know when the fish will be arriving or how many there will be, “So the regulatory hurdles associated with processing the fish when it comes in, and making sure it’s fresh and prepared for delivery or cold storage is a timing game,” Gibbons said. “USDA has never had to play that role before, and so they don’t. They tell you you’re going to have an inspector at this time, for this long, and that’s it.”
Gibbons said the catfish farming industry’s lobbying was aimed at a different kind of catfish, Vietnamese pangasius, to help prevent importation of the fish.
“Collateral damage from that may be the blue catfish,” he said: Since other fish, being under the FDA’s jurisdiction, don’t require a USDA inspector, fish processors might decide that catfish aren’t worth the trouble.
Enforcement of the new regulations were slated for September 2017. So far, NRN hasn’t found evidence of any supply chain shortages.
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