A Conversation with Renowned Chef & Sustainable Seafood Advocate, Barton Seaver

There are few people who know the world of seafood and sea life as well as Barton Seaver. An avid seafood lover—hey, his kids even eat sardines—Seaver is a renowned chef and champion of the sustainable seafood movement. In 2009, Esquire named him Chef of the Year and his D.C. restaurant, Hook, was one of Bon Appétit magazine’s top ten eco-friendly restaurants in America. In 2012, he was named by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the United States Culinary Ambassador Corp and is currently the Director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Seaver is the author of seven books including, American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery from Sea to Shining Sea (photo). A few months ago, I caught up with Seaver for a conversation about his latest book, and to hear his thoughts on how to get Americans to eat more seafood and the ongoing debate over which is better: wild-caught or farm-raised. Here’s a snapshot of our conversation:

Midwest Mermaid: You’re from New England—did you grow up eating seafood? 
Barton Seaver: I did. My father was an accomplished amateur cook and seafood was where his talents shown brightest. It was soft shell crabs lightly floured and sautéed … flounder filleted right off the hook … every year at Christmas we’d have whole salmon.

MM: That’s very cool you were introduced to seafood at a young age. Any tips on how to encourage kids to eat more seafood, or for that matter, how parents can best introduce seafood to their kids?
Well, I think being a good role model is so important … parents should introduce seafood early, in ways that seafood itself isn’t put on trial … it takes the trepidation away. The other day my son ate two cans of sardines, a little greedy I thought, but I was a proud father none the less.

Get your family to eat more seafood by selling the dish, not the fish

MM: It seems like many people are afraid of seafood—afraid to cook it, to purchase it. Why do you think that is?
BS: There’s a plethora of reasons … cultural … memories. It’s hard to say where the biases originated … but it’s (seafood) guilty before it’s given a chance … it’s segregated at the grocery store … we need to start considering seafood in the same context as other proteins. When we fail to do so we fail to measure it as appropriate. No one ever asks, “Is that pork fresh?” But everyone wants to know if the fish is fresh. Of course there are reasons to ask questions about the quality, but where seafood is concerned, the conversation starts off with a bias.

MM: I recently wrote a piece telling people to stop Googling how to cook fish and aim for simplicity—yet when it comes to trying something new, people have a tendency to want direction. What’s one thing you can tell all the home cooks out there about cooking seafood that might make them less afraid?
BS: We have a saying with university dining, “Sell the dish, not the fish.” Instead of saying we’re having pollack tonight, say baked pollack in tomato sauce with pilaf. When you present the accompaniments or the flavor profile before presenting the protein, you’re starting by selling the things they’re not biased against.

MM: Any thoughts on the wild-caught vs. farm-raised debate? Can we have both wild-caught fish and aquaculture in our future? Or should people agree to disagree?
BS: Once it breaks the surface of the water there’s not a difference. I’ve never seen a menu that has a wild section and a farmed section. Once it hits the culinary sphere it’s all the same—there’s no need for any real segregation between the two. Everything else we eat is farmed … farmland is written into our nation’s culture … amber waves of grain, fruited mountains. And industries advance. Cars used to be unsafe at any speed. A computer couldn’t do what it does now … yet we haven’t allowed aquaculture to exist within the dialogue that allows for credit and innovations. We need to think about aquaculture with a longer lens. Innovations are investments in the industries … we should support domestic aquaculture.

We should be rallying in the streets “Eat fish. Eat fish. Eat fish. Not “eat wild” or “eat farmed” … simply, “EAT FISH.”

MM: Any tips for choosing seafood at the grocery store?
BS: More often than not, seafood is seen as the “other” option instead of being part of the normal protein considerations … despite occupying the main part of our plate it’s still considered the “other” option. To find the best option in the store, you need to narrow down the choices at the seafood counter. When people feel reservations, they go right back to the ground beef … ask questions. Walk into the store knowing you’re going to eat seafood tonight, then ask questions and find the best available options.

MM: What about in a restaurant? People sometimes get nervous or feel bad when they ask their server a question about the food. Any suggestions on what they should ask?
BS: I ask simply, is there a fish on the menu tonight with a great story? This is where people shine. They might say, “Chef just said the pollock came if fresh …” something like that. Don’t ask about gillnets or specification. Ask about the story.





Seaver’s latest book, American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery from Sea to Shining Sea (Nov. 7, 2017) is filled with stunning photography that transports readers directly into the boats and docks of the fishermen and fisherwomen working in our waters, both past and present. A gorgeous representation of U.S. maritime history, to the evolving aquaculture industry, to the evolution of seafood cuisine, American Seafood is a treasure … one I cannot wait to read in its entirety. Featured photo credit © Michael Piazza

Coming up next week on the blog … a guide to purchasing and cooking shellfish.

DISCLAIMER: I’m a writer and an editor. And I try my best to make sure every post is articulate and free from errors. However, being that I edit my own work—and it’s next to impossible to properly edit your own work—I admit, occasionally there may be an error or two I miss. But doing so doesn’t make me an idiot so don’t be mean. Just smile, pat yourself on the back for finding an error and be glad you’re not the only one who makes mistakes sometimes … yes, even mermaids slip up every now and then. xoxox

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