Seafood is complex. Different fish cook differently and taste differently. They can be tricky to butcher, and managing to source them sustainably can be challenging even for veteran chefs.
Trying to get all of that to make sense for aspiring chefs is the job of Gerard Viverito, associate professor in culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who, with his colleagues, teaches a three-week course on seafood identification and fabrication. He and senior associate dean Bruce Mattel recently discussed their teaching approaches with Nation’s Restaurant News.
How do you approach the topic of sustainability with your students?
: We try to apply a lot of our seafood specs off the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, although I tell my students it’s not the only [reliable source]. We have students here from all over the world, and you can’t just blanket them with a sustainability statement, because to us sustainability includes the species, the economy, the local population and the environment, and if I try to drill down on them that species X is not sustainable, well, it might be the only species available to a student from another country, so that puts them at a loss.
And it changes so much over time. Depending on the species, if you give it a break for a couple of years it can really repopulate.
Viverito: Well, yeah. When Rick Moonen spearheaded the whole Give Swordfish a Break campaign [in 1998], it did wonders for the Atlantic swordfish.
Bruce Mattel: But there can be negative outcomes, too. [Give Swordfish a Break] was for Atlantic swordfish, but Pacific swordfish fishermen were negatively affected because people just got on the bandwagon [even though Pacific swordfish wasn’t overfished].
For us to be completely sustainable here we wouldn’t be bringing in West Coast species because there’s a perceived carbon footprint, but with that said we do want to expose [our students] to wild salmon species, steelhead trout, things of that nature.
And we’d also like to be independent thinkers to an extent as well. For example, we use a [salmon] fish farm up in New Brunswick, Canada, that’s rated red by Monterey Bay Aquarium [meaning it should be avoided for reasons of sustainability], but we did an analysis looking at all the criteria that Monterey Bay uses for sustainability when it comes to salmon aquaculture and we feel it’s still the best choice for us, especially given their proximity.
What was the problem with it?
Viverito: Generally they [Monterey Bay] don’t like [farm-raised salmon] because of environmental impacts or feed-conversion ratio, but this particular farm is the best of the bunch. And I like to explain to our students why we don’t only use wild-caught salmon.
Many of our students know how I feel about Alaskan seafood, which is it’s pretty much the gold standard for sustainability. But [Alaska salmon] is not always in season, and it would be a disservice to our students if for nine months out of the year they would graduate not knowing how to work with a salmon.
Also, the vast majority of the salmon we eat in this country is farm-raised, and a lot of your students, I would think, would be banquet chefs at some point, and they’re going to be working with farm-raised salmon.
Mattel: That’s true, but what you said is a mouthful. There’s so much salmon, and one of the problems in general about the seafood industry is there’s so much pressure on so few species.
So at the same time we’re trying to inspire our students to use less-utilized species, or to come up with some substitutions to create a balance. Smaller quantities of more species may be able to be consumed in the future, so we have a steady supply from the wild, and when we farm-raise we’ll be able to do it in a responsible manner.
Viverito: I think more important than focusing on farm-raised salmon, like Bruce was saying, is we try to educate our students on [less-utilized] fish, or eating lower on the food chain. Let’s be realistic: You’re going to have lower environmental impact on the ocean if you do that. I make my students taste, depending on the season, between 35 and 40 different species of fish.
The hardest thing to teach students
I bet you have students who don’t like fish, or think they don’t.
Viverito: Exactly. And I say, "I don’t care if you don’t eat it, but put it in your mouth, like a wine class, and if you spit it out, you spit it out." But I’d be hard-pressed to believe that in three weeks of being with me you won’t find one fish that you can eat. I mean, some of them taste like meat. Haddock to me has a corn-like aroma.
Mattel: Some of them taste like mud.
Like wild catfish.
Viverito: The blue catfish that we’ve started to bring in from the Chesapeake Bay, an invasive species that we’re teaching our students about — it’s overrunning the Chesapeake and its tributaries and rivers — and it doesn’t taste like mud because it’s coming from more brackish water. It doesn’t taste like the catfish from the old swimming hole down in Alabama. Lionfish is another one, off the coast of the Carolinas.
Aren't lionfish are hard to butcher? Do you teach your students more advanced butchering techniques?
Viverito: I do. Sometimes it’s not a matter of putting them in their hands. Once in a while I may get a couple of fish that our purveyor has found. We can at least demo them to the students so we can put that seed in the back of their minds.
Mattel: That’s the key. We’re hoping that when they’re in the purchasing decision position that they have a little bit of a connection. Their monger might say, “Hey I’ve got this to use.” And they might remember seeing it at the CIA, so they’ll give it a try.
Or, ideally, they’ll know that just because they haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it’s not something they can try.
Viverito: We break fish down into general families. So we teach them how to identify them visually and then within those families how to fabricate it, their activity levels and oil content, [which will indicate] how they can cook them, so even though they have never seen fish X, they know that if it’s from a certain family they can at least approach it from an educated point of view.
What’s the hardest thing to teach your students about fish?
Viverito: So many of us chefs are visual learners, so if you give us a demo we learn something really quickly. If you give us a lecture on the history or the origins of the species, that’s the hard part because to them, this is not something they grew up with. Fish, veal and lamb are the three smallest [animal] components of the American diet, so we know the least about them and have the least reference points to build upon. They’re more likely to understand the pigs, the chicken and the cattle.