Local restaurants striving towards more ocean-friendly fish menus

Off the Dock

by Amandine Surier

Off the Dock

Elizabeth Cecil

As a customer, find out why a restaurant's menu may change daily. Sourcing seafood responsibly and/or locally, is an opportunity to learn more.  

“I just don’t like when it’s looking at me,” said shellfish hatchery director Rick Karney while clumsily trying to filet the whole black sea bass that was resting on his plate. We had gathered at the Home Port Restaurant for the annual Dukes County Fishermen’s Association dinner. The fish had come straight to the Home Port kitchen from young Menemsha fisherman Alec Gale’s boat. It was incredible. “Just give it to me,” I said impatiently and started taking apart the fried carcass. These gestures were familiar to me. I had seen my mother patiently excavate filets from dozens of whole sole Meunières, turbots in court bouillon, poached salmons, and haddocks. I had stared at those eyes many times. It was gruesome and real, and made you feel sorry and grateful all at once. I had never felt that way here while eating a square piece of fish.

Maybe this disconnect is the root of the problem. While the distance from fish to plate was growing, people had stopped caring. Thankfully, things are finally changing. “People are really excited to be connected with their food again,” said Melissa Kogut, executive director of Chefs Collaborative, the Boston-based sustainable chef’s network. “Just look at the sheer number of farmers’ markets.” They are everywhere, people are starting to ask the right questions to find sustainable food in general and fish in particular: where, how, and how many more?

“Food should be nearby,” said Teddy Diggs, former executive chef at Ripple in Washington, D.C., who is revolutionizing the Home Port Restaurant’s concept this season, “It should always be about supporting home base.” A lot of Island restaurants try to feature local fish and shellfish, but their local choices are limited by their Island wholesaler, and they often end up sourcing most of their fish from Boston to get a better price. Local fishermen often come knocking on their doors with totes full of all kinds of fresh fish. But without a license, it is illegal for the restaurants to buy straight from the boat.

Teddy Diggs does not have this problem, the Home Port, just like a fish market, holds a fish wholeseller’s license, a small piece of paper that makes all the difference and allows him to serve the freshest seafood around. Michael Holtham, “poisonnier” at State Road Restaurant, knows it well. He grew up at the Home Port. “My father owned the restaurant for 32 years,” said Michael. “We lived in the apartment upstairs.” He started working in the Home Port kitchen as soon as he could reach the stove. For years, Michael watched the bass, bluefish, squid, and swordfish come straight off the boats and into the restaurant. He never thought anything of it until he started cooking elsewhere. When he joined the State Road team, he knew that getting a fish buyer’s license was the way to go if they really wanted to emphasize local seafood. With guidance from Division of Marine Fisheries employee and childhood friend Cecil French, who helped him navigate the licensing bureaucracy, he applied for the $200 retail fish buyer’s license this spring and is now also able to skip the middleman and buy his finfish at the source. “Every morning I am in Menemsha to get the fish as it comes off the boat,” said Michael, “I bring it back, I butcher it, and it’s on the menu that night.”

The license, a rare thing for a restaurant to hold, doesn’t just mean ridiculously fresh, it also means diverse and unusual. “We are getting him all kinds of crazy stuff,” said fisherman Alec Gale about Teddy Diggs, “and he’s eating it!” When Alec came back on shore with a load of large surf clams, usually processed into strips straight off the boat, he thought he’d bring a few into the Home Port. Teddy Diggs had a hard time controlling his excitement. “I had never seen one alive,” said Teddy. “It is the best thing that has come through the door so far.” That night, the Home Port chef took the adductor muscle and the foot of the clam, sliced them thin, tossed them with shaved fennel, radishes, and torn parsley, dressed it with a smoked lemon vinaigrette, and served it inside the giant shell. It was completely unique and a huge hit.

Beyond the local aspect, how the fish is caught makes a big difference. Selective methods like rod and reel, traps, and harpoons are definitely the methods of choice for our sustainable chefs. “If a swordfish gets harpooned,” said Teddy Diggs, “I’ll put it on the menu.” This month he alsoput haddock on the menu a few times. Haddock is usually caught with midwater trawls, which is not a very selective method; however, he bought it from a fisherman who operates modified nets. “When pollock and haddock get spooked, they swim to the surface, but cod swim down,” explained Teddy. “The nets are designed so that nothing that’s swimming down gets caught.” The cod get away. Teddy also buys trawled fluke, a fishery that sees significant bycatch of skate, monkfish, and spiny dogfish. To make itrawled fluke “sustainable,” he also features the bycatch on his menu. “Right now we’re using skate wings and spiny dogfish for our fish and chips,” said Teddy. “I also have a little fish stew of sea scallops, monkfish, and homemade salt pollock.” This new Home Port chef is causing quite the stir in Menemsha’s fishing community. No one has ever seen a chef feature fish that they would normally throw overboard. They have nicknamed him “the bycatch man.”

Now the fish is local and it’s caught sustainably, but what if the fish population has been struggling and numbers are on the decline? How many more fish are there really? Michael at State Road keeps up with the health of fish stocks with the Seafood Watch iPhone app created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The program, geared towards consumers and businesses, publishes a list of fish and shellfish classified from most sustainable to least sustainable. The list is updated regularly and points him in the right direction. “Cod fish for a while looked kind of grim, and we took it off the menu,” said Michael. “It seems to be having a strong comeback this spring so we get it from Georges Bank and serve it again when we can.”

While these two chefs make it look quite matter of fact, cooking sustainable seafood is not an easy thing. “It is complex and there is a high learning curve,” said Melissa Kogut, “that’s why we don’t see more of it.”

From kitchen to dining room, sustainabilty increases everyone’s workload. Chefs have to stay informed of commercial fishing seasons and spend time talking to fishermen to find the best products. And since fish comes off the boat whole, they have to break it down and deal with the bones. Both State Road and the Home Port use those bones to make stock or hand them back to lobstermen to use as bait.

The chefs also have to be more creative. “We rewrite our menu every day,” said Michael. “We’ll keep some staple items, adjust some proteins, but within a week’s time we flip the menu over completely.” At the Home Port the ever-changing menus are no longer printed, customers can find out what’s for dinner off a chalkboard. Every night, the chef talks to the staff before the restaurant opens, and every night servers have to learn it all over again. It is especially important to educate the staff because diners hungry for sustainable eats ask a lot of questions. “More so than ever in my career, people are asking me to talk to them at the table,” said Teddy. “They are asking, ‘why are you doing this?’—Not why in a negative way, they’re just interested.”

The public’s response has been incredible. Michael said, “People are digging it.” Even the progressive bycatch menu at an institution like the Home Port is being received really well.

“I would say it’s about 75/25,” said Teddy. “Twenty-five percent are upset that we are ruining their Home Port; I think it is pretty good.” It is pretty good indeed.

And what about serving a whole fish?

“We do,” said Teddy, smiling. Almost every night they have had a whole fish on the menu.”

People have been ordering black sea bass, baked fluke, whole fried porgy or scup. “We’ve had a few people asking us to take the heads off,” said Teddy, “but when the gills get nice and crispy, it’s like a free chip.”