If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em
Inventive chefs turn an invasive species into a delicacy
Phillip Foss's crisp paupiette of Asian carp in Barolo sauce.
Courtesy of Phillip Foss
For a few years now, the idea of eating Asian carp to slow its predicted incursion into the Great Lakes has been bandied about with varying degrees of seriousness. The carp are a hard sell: They’re unappetizingly ugly, and the peculiarities of their anatomy make it hard to harvest the meat.
But in late January, the carp caught the fancy of Chicago chef-turned-fishmonger Carl Galvan. Galvan handles sustainable and environmental fishery issues for Supreme Lobster and Seafood Company, and his Twitter feed (@ChicagoFishDude) is a virtual online fish market monitored by many of the best chefs in town. Galvan wondered what would happen if some of his boutique restaurant customers got their hands on the stuff and worked their mojo. Could they help Asian carp appeal to a larger market of eaters?
There are those who argue that creating demand for the fish will only encourage producers to keep it around. “That’s kind of a cynical way of looking at it,” Galvan says. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet. We’re at a crossroads where something has to be done immediately. Fisheries are massive operations. If we can take a dent out of the populations and allow some of the natural phytoplankton to grow back, and other species to come in, that could have a big impact.”
So he ordered about 100 pounds of the fish from Schafer Fisheries, the Midwest’s largest supplier of freshwater fish and probably the biggest handler of Asian carp, and off they went to 10 fine-dining establishments in the Chicago area, including Vie, Blackbird, SushiSamba Rio, Browntrout, and Cibo Matto.
A couple of different invasive species are grouped under the Asian carp label. Silver carp are the ones that fling themselves dramatically above the water as boats approach, but it was the less aggressive, far uglier bighead carp that Galvan chose to distribute. He didn’t tell all of his chefs what he was sending—he likes to surprise them sometimes—and the carp seemed to unnerve a few.
“So far, all I can say is that they are disgusting,” reported Paul Kahan upon receiving his share at the Publican.
“The shape was salmonlike, with a bull head,” said David Carrier from Kith & Kin. “It kind of looked like a character from Return of the Jedi.”
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