Out Of The Frying Pan
A fresh crop of restaurants has banded together with local fishermen to safeguard Boston's endangered seafood supply.
A blustery January wind blows off the harbor as I enter the cozy confines of 606 Congress. Wednesdays, especially in winter, are usually slow for Boston-area chefs, so it's odd to hear the clamor of a restaurant at full tilt. I shouldn't be too surprised, though, knowing that the chef at the helm is rising star Richard Garcia, who's earned a loyal following by using local suppliers for his innovative fare.
The restaurant doesn't look like the typical seafood shack locals are accustomed to. It's contemporary and bright with high ceilings, dangling lights and a wall of illuminated wine bottles. It could just as easily be a hotel restaurant in Dallas, Denver or Des Moines, but when my entrée arrives, it brings me back to the Renaissance Hotel, in the emerging South Boston neighborhood.
The fish comes pan fried, atop a tangy mix of white beans, chorizo sausage and a dollop of yogurt. One bite of the tender white meat and I can taste its freshness. My waitress gave me a small business card when I ordered the Fisherman's Catch with a QR code and identification number — proof that this fish was swimming in nearby waters on the very same day it landed on my plate. I scanned the code and pulled up a website run by an organization called Trace and Trust. I learn that fisherman Steve Arnold caught my fish (a scup) near Block Island, Rhode Island, and shipped ten pounds of his catch to 606 Congress this morning. There's a detailed biography on Arnold and his vessel, the 55-foot Elizabeth Helen. I even find out that my scup was hauled in by net and placed in the back of a refrigerated truck en route to my plate.
Welcome to the world of traceability, an increasingly important trend in Boston, a city that prides itself on its fresh seafood and fishing heritage. Traceability means more after a two-part exposé in The Boston Globe revealed that a significant number of fish were mislabeled. Having been raised on a diet of chowdah (as we call it here) and cod, Bostonians, outraged, demanded to know how this could happen in one of America's greatest seafood hubs.
According to Globe staff writer Jenn Abelson, one of the two reporters to break the story, the five-month investigation came on the heels of a local court case — a Massachusetts supplier was convicted of defrauding national chain T.G.I. Friday's.
"Diners were being served cheap Vietnamese catfish instead of the succulent and more expensive grouper described on the menu," Abelson explains. "The case garnered little coverage, but it prompted us to explore how widespread such deceptive labeling is in Massachusetts."
Abelson and co-writer Beth Daley went on a fish-collecting spree, sending seafood samples to a laboratory in Canada for DNA testing. The outcome? A whopping 48 percent was mislabeled.
"The results were astonishing," says Abelson. "We contacted every one of those restaurants and stores, and many even acknowledged making the substitutions."
With the price of seafood on the rise, restaurant owners could save money by serving haddock instead of cod, tilapia in place of pricey red snapper. Indeed, 24 of the 26 red snapper samples tested were some other species of fish. Other restaurants were duped by suppliers.
In response to the scandal, a handful of seafood restaurants across town like 606 Congress, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Legal Harborside have found an alternative.
Almost a year prior to The Boston Globe report, Michael Clayton, a West Coast-based fishing consultant and the eventual founder of Trace and Trust had begun thinking about accountability in the fishing industry. At the time, he was working with New England fisheries on the new regulations that might restrict their catch.
"I was meeting fishermen who took tremendous pride in their work and the care in which they caught fish," Clayton says. Among those fishermen were Chris Brown and Steve Arnold, the man who caught my scup. The two were trying desperately to think outside the box to increase their profitability. "We talked to Clayton about a way to make money beyond the normal distribution channels," Arnold says. That's when they hit on traceability. Clayton introduced the two Point Judith, Rhode Island-based fishermen to Garcia, and, Trace and Trust was born when Arnold delivered his first batch of fish to 606 Congress in January 2011. Arnold and Brown now deliver their fresh-from-the-sea catches to more than 60 restaurants in Boston and Providence.
Working long hours in foul weather and endangering their lives, [Arnold's boat, Eliza-beth Helen, sank during the reporting of this story; all hands survived], fishermen are a tough lot who aren't exactly known for their forward thinking. Their traditional profit model — go to sea, catch as many fish as possible, get paid, repeat — is age-old. But they've broken the mold to create a new distribution channel that sells directly to restaurants in small increments. So far the system is proving itself profitable.
Chris Brown's two sons handle the marketing and shipping aspect of the operation, sending an email out to restaurants that describes what fish the duo will target so that chefs can make their purchase before Arnold and Brown return with their catch.
"There have been days when they tell me, 'Hey, we didn't get your order,'" Garcia tells me at my table, on a rare break from the kitchen. "So they turn around and fish some more. They really try to do what they can to get you the fish."
In Garcia, Clayton couldn't have found a better chef to pilot the Trace and Trust program in Boston. Asked to cook his unique seafood offerings at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, Garcia is truly the fishermen's best friend, using all types of little-known fish in his cooking, like sea robin, dogfish, and yes, scup. It helps that he hides these offerings on the menu under the prosaic phrase "Fisherman's Catch."
"Would you order scup if it was listed here?" Garcia asks. "Of course not. You'd pick salmon or tuna. There are a lot more fish in the sea, my friend."
Clayton, for his part, understands that effectively communicating with customers is the key ingredient for the success of Trace and Trust. Living near the UC Davis campus, a college renowned for its viticulture program, Clayton has met many winemakers making exceptional product. Yet, all would be lost if the restaurants couldn't educate the consumer about these vineyards.