The rise of the real estate bubble saw the emergence of a
devil-may-care meat culture, with every restaurant in New York City
rushing to put some new variation of pork belly on the menu. From this
sudden meat mania sprung the PC carnivore. In 2006, Michael Pollan's
The Omnivore's Dilemma was released and the already building
sustainability movement came to a head, prompting the ubiquity of
words like organic and grass-fed in the city's restaurants and
Now, New York City's fickle tastes are once again changing. Where once
indulgent temples to meat would have opened, seafood restaurants are
popping up. April Bloomfield, the woman behind the wildly popular
nose-to-tail gastropub The Spotted Pig, opened the John Dory in
November of 2008, where well-to-do diners eat char-grilled striped
bass amidst the glow of a massive aquarium. More high-profile seafood
projects followed. Harbour. David Burke's Fishtail. The curiously
named Flex Mussels. Most recently, a pair of seafood-centric heavy
hitters, chef George Mendes' Aldea in the Flatiron District and Marea,
from Michael White of Convivio fame, became the darlings of New York's
restaurant scene. Not that meat is over, per se (see Minetta Tavern),
but it is undeniable that a new trend has caught the fancy of the New
But if the city's food culture is shifting, are sustainability
practices shifting along with it? Has all the recent focus on organic
farming and humanely raised animals extended to the sea? When diners
read that Fishtail aims to be "the first sustainable seafood
restaurant" on its website, do they even understand what that means?
"It hasn't been easy," says David Burke, the restaurateur behind
Fishtail and seven other restaurants across the country, about having
a sustainable seafood program. "Consumers say things like 'I want
Chilean sea bass,' but we have to stick to our guns."
Fishtail's menu is currently 80 to 85 percent sustainable, although
Burke would like to get that number to 100. He mostly sources from
Connecticut's Litchfield Farms as well as his company-owned fishing
boat. Although he is firmly committed to the cause, he is struck by
how customers can care so much about things like grass-fed beef but
still remain ambivalent about sustainable seafood.
"You drive past the farms and you can see the cows. You drive past sea
and you can't see the fish."
And if the people don't care, then the restaurants don't care.
"You have to work harder (to serve sustainable seafood). You can't
just call up your fish guy and ask for whatever you want. You have to
ask where it's caught, how it's caught and all of that."
Therein lies the problem. If diners don't care that their cod is
overfished or that their halibut was caught by bottom trawling,
restaurants certainly won't take the extra effort to ensure their
seafood is sustainable. Vox populi, vox Dei, as the old proverb goes,
and until the public demands it the industry will not change.
There are glimmers of hope. Rupert Murray's documentary The End of
Line, with its gloomy prediction that with no change in our fishing
practices we will effectively see the end of seafood by 2048, is
trying to do for sustainable seafood what An Inconvenient Truth did
for climate change. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium has even released an
iPhone app with up-to-date information on which fish are sustainably
caught or farmed and which are not. These, along with the willingness
of people like David Burke to take hard stances on seafood
sustainability, are hopeful portents indeed.
Still, if we New York diners want sustainable seafood, it is
ultimately up to us, not the fisherman or the restaurants, to make it
happen. The tide has turned and a new crop of exciting restaurants has
appeared, reacquainting the city with its love of seafood. Now it is
our responsibility to apply the same rigorous ethical standards to our
fish as we do to the rest of our food before it's too late.
Follow Keith Wagstaff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Kwagstaff