Upscale Sushi Chefs Fight Overfishing Sustainably

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One day in 2007,Kin Lui was taking a break from his shift at an upscale Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. A piece in the Chronicle caught his eye: Stocks of bluefin tuna–the sine qua non of any sushi bar worthy of its lucky cat figurine–were flat-lining due to overfishing.

Later, at Hana Zen, where Lui moonlighted, he described what he’d read to co-chef and buddy Raymond Ho. They agreed the news was tragic–then went to work behind a bar stocked with cherry-pink blocks of bluefin. “At the time, it seemed like we couldn’t do much,” Lui recalls.

But eventually Lui and Ho did do something. In February 2008, they set up behind the sushi bar at Tataki, their first venture as owners. The 26-seat restaurant started with a simple mission rooted in that Chronicle article: serve only seafood that was sustainably farmed or wild caught. Soon, Tataki was being hailed as the only fully sustainable sushi bar in the nation.

Still, with growing awareness of the role sushi has played in decimating the world’s fisheries, one wonders whether places like Tataki can stop our appetites from emptying the oceans.

In 2007 Americans picked up chopsticks and dipped 2.5 million sushi meals into slurries of wasabi and soy sauce. It’s a figure capped with a question mark: Is sushi as we know it–from prepacked supermarket rolls to exquisite omakase meals–doomed, inevitably, to extinction?

Consider the face of most American sushi: It is the realm of monster maki: hefty, gooey with spicy mayo, often deep-fried, and lavished with layer upon layer of fish. Like meat lover’s pizza and the Croissan’wich, monster maki were born in the USA, for people with a seemingly bottomless craving for proteins and no fear of calories. Not to mention an apparent lack of curiosity about where the rolls’ hefty layers of seafood originate.

“We’ve somehow moved ourselves into this strange relationship with food,” says Sheila Bowman, manager of outreach for Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Look at how Americans eat shrimp. Forty years ago, you most likely ate five shrimp a year, probably in a shrimp cocktail on Christmas Eve. Now we just gorge on them whenever we want. Some things simply should not be all you can eat, and fish is one of them.”

Casson Trenor, director of business development for FishWise, advised Lui and Ho about acceptable seafood buys almost from they moment they first toyed with the idea of ocean-friendly sushi. The problem with sushi, as Trenor sees it, is this: The five most popular menu items are threatening to decimate global fisheries or destroy the environments in which they’re farmed–or both. Soon.

Take salmon, number one in U.S. popularity. Wild fish are pricier than farmed, and aquacultured salmon are voracious feeders, crowded like factory hogs in filthy ocean farms. Ditto hamachi, also known as amberjack. Most wild shrimp are bottom-trawled, a practice as devastating as slash-and-burn, while farming shrimp often entails ecological destruction. Unagi, freshwater eel, are snatched and penned young before they can breed, then fattened on wild fish. And the numbers of bluefin tuna, which is nearly always wild caught, are crashing about as precipitously as stock prices.

A bigger problem with the five–dubbed the toxic five–is that they also tend to be a sushi bar’s biggest profit makers. Meaning that, even if a chef wanted to do the right thing and banish them, the economics of the sushi bar are skewed in favor of keeping them in the case.

Trenor devised a menu of swap-outs for Tataki. For salmon, it uses sustainably farmed arctic char. Its amberjack comes from lower-density U.S. and Australian farms. It buys wild shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific coast, and the mid-Atlantic, where shrimpers employ better resource management. For tuna, it relies on troll- and pole-caught bigeye and yellow­fin, and albacore from Hawaii and the northern Pacific. These are relatively straightforward substitutions, doable for sushi bars willing to accept reduced or negative profit margins on select menu items.

But unagi? That was tough. Trenor, Lui, and Ho got creative, perfecting something they call faux-nagi: thin slices of Canadian black cod, seared with a blowtorch so the muscle fibers swell to an approximation of eel flesh. Glazed with viscous sweet soy, it’s an interesting solution. But at least in the nigiri I tasted, also a slightly unpleasant one, with an acrid taste from the blowtorch. Is this, I asked myself, the key to saving fisheries? Forging simulacra of sushi bar favorites?

Perhaps it could work. In the absence of pressure from customers, however, there’s little incentive for restaurants to make decisions that chip away at their profits. And once customers have developed a taste for American creations like the Rock ‘n’ Roll, it may be hard to entice them toward sustainability. Even with clever alternatives available, monster-maki joints could just go on rolling the toxic five until sushi as we know it disappears.

Which is why some think we should reexamine our very notion of sustainability and extend it beyond swapping “good” ingredients for “bad.” Perhaps sushi needs to become as rare as that once-a-year shrimp cocktail.

Michael Black, co-owner and chef of the celebrated Sebo in Hayes Valley, California, understands special occasion sushi. The sparkling pieces of nigiri that Sebo serves are links in a Japanese tradition going back to the early 1800s, when Edomae-zushi (Tokyo-style sushi) was born. Most people think of sushi as pieces of raw seafood. Authentic Edomae is a complex choreography of timing and curing, yielding subtle and not-so-subtle transformations of fish.

Almost all of Sebo’s seafood comes from Japan. It’s expensive, of course–a solo meal will set you back at least $50, and even then you’ll be tempted to grab a slice from the pizza parlor next door. Eating at Sebo is about something besides stuffing your gullet, however. The restaurant satisfies a yearning to connect with the oceans and the creatures it contains.

“You shouldn’t have the same fish on the menu 365 days a year,” Black says. “One of the fundamentals of Japanese cooking is seasonality.” If shrimp isn’t on Sebo’s menu, that’s not because someone forgot to order it, just that it’s not time–in part, a kind of naturally imposed check against depleting fragile stocks.

Meanwhile, I’m taking my first bite of umekyu, a slightly dented maki filled with sweet-tasting Japanese cucumber and sour-salty pickled plum. It’s refreshing, delicious, suffused with a kind of handmade, wabi-sabi aesthetic.

And it doesn’t contain even a single fiber of fish.

Excerpted from Edible San Francisco(Spring 2009), a quarterly magazine in the Edible Communities network. Edible Communities is a member-driven organization that produces local-foods publications reflecting the United States’ culinary regions.

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