There is a literal and proverbial sea of possibilities when sourcing seafood for the menu, yet operators often cling to the usual suspects whose numbers are dwindling. Resourceful and environmentally aware chefs are turning to B-list fishes like dogfish, mackerel, monkfish, pollock, redfish, skate and whiting, which are in ample supply and sell well when properly prepared and menued.
These ‘underdogs’ of the ocean are versatile, economical and help support the environment and fishermen as well. “There are species out there, like pollock, that are under-fished. Last year, only 50 percent of the available catch of pollock was harvested,” says Jennifer Levin, sustainable seafood program manager with the Portland, ME-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI).
• Dogfish Baked in Romesco
• Cornmeal-Crusted Goujonettes of Acadian Redfish
• Prosciutto Wrapped Monkfish with Sautéed Green Beans and Red Pepper Sauce
The institute connects local fishermen with both restaurants and noncommercial foodservice operations. The mission is to increase consumer awareness and develop new markets for underutilized seafood from the Gulf of Maine.
“To work toward our mission, we have identified the culinary world as a place to start in terms of thought leaders. Chefs have a huge influence on what people find palatable, or even cool,” Levin says.
Fishermen will catch what they can sell. Proper handling of species in the kitchen can mean the difference between diners lining up for seconds or turning their noses up at the “catch of the day.” Onsite chefs are in a unique position to make a difference, with the potential to order in much higher volumes than a typical restaurant, Levin says.
When fishermen can diversify their marketable catch, that increases their profitability, Levin says, “and that’s important to keep them afloat.” In short, onsite chefs can help fishermen stay in business by promoting sustainable harvests.
From Boat to Menu
Getting seafood-shy customers to try something other than their old standbys can be a challenge. Customers generally feel comfortable ordering salmon, cod or tilapia, but…dogfish?
“Dogfish is great, and it makes a wonderful fish ‘n chips, but...the name…it’s not exactly very attractive,” says Ken Cardone, associate director/executive chef, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME.
Recently, GMRI teamed up with a few local restaurants and also Bowdoin College, for a weeklong promotion of local, responsibly harvested and “underappreciated” fish in several different menu items called “Out of the Blue.”
Bowdoin worked with GMRI, creating delicious menu items from Atlantic pollock, mackerel, dogfish, Acadian redfish and whiting.
“Luckily, our students are very adventurous,” Cardone says. “They may not have seen dogfish or redfish before, but they’re willing to try it.”
Preparation techniques should be market-driven. “Look at your customer base,” Cardone adds. “If they don’t enjoy steamed fish, don’t serve a new fish steamed.” For the fish ‘n chips made from dogfish, Cardone and his team played with the recipe to get just the right consistency for the batter, and ended up slicing the fillets thinner for less time in the fryer.
Grilling is another surefire way to serve many underused fish. David Schneider, district executive chef at Mary Washington University, grills redfish and serves them with a white wine-grain mustard sauce.
A little bit of romance doesn’t hurt when trying to get customers to buy in to something new from the sea. And everyone likes a good story.
Just as promotions that feature local farmers have really taken off in the past few years, letting customers know where—and sometimes by whom—their fish was caught can be a great marketing tool.
At the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the seafood company Red’s Best works with small local fishing operators around New England and traces the provenance of the fish. A QR code on the cases allows dining services to share information about the boat, the location and even the fisherman with customers.
Another organization that works to link fishermen to chefs is Sea to Table, which has connected with 30 colleges and universities across the country and also restaurants, campus dining, B&I, and is even starting to work with some K-12 partners.
“One university recently bought an entire boatload of monkfish,” says Michael Dimin, founding director of Sea to Table, with obvious pride. “And they sold 100 lbs. in the first hour.”
Success like that depends on a chef who can come up with great menu items featuring underutilized fish. Sea to Table talks with chefs about what they have on the menu currently, and works with them on menu suggestions as well as POS materials to make the new fish stand out.
“When we first start speaking with a school, for example, we ask them to send us a ‘top 10’ list of the seafood species they currently work with,” says Sophie Waskow, director at Sea to Table. “And it’s the usual suspects—a lot of imported fish or farmed species.”
“We say, ‘You’re using tilapia, so why not try Acadian redfish, which is also versatile, mild and sweet,’” Waskow says. A simple way to dive deeper into the sea’s bounty.
Meet the New Fish
What it’s like: Similar to the flavor and texture of lobster tail, but without the cholesterol.
Good for: Pan searing, grilling, wrapping in prosciutto or ham and baking.
What it’s like: A mild white fish.
Good for: fish tacos, lightly fried, anywhere you would use tilapia.
What it’s like: Firm, flaky, mild.
Good for: Chowders, pan seared.
The gray color can turn people off when they see it in the case, But it cooks up just as light and flaky as haddock.
What it’s like: Similar to cod, but with a more delicate texture and taste.
Good for: Cod substitutions: fried, pan seared, sandwiches.
What it’s like: Mild flavor.
Good for: Fish ‘n chips. It can also work well in a marinade.
What it’s like: Strong, pronounced flavor, oily like salmon.
Good for: Can stand up to bolder flavored sauces and stews.
Elevating Fish on the Menu
Familiar Preparation: When developing the recipe, use tried-and-true fish flavor pairings like lemon, caper and butter. “When writing the menu, use words like ‘pan seared’ or ‘pan fried,’” suggests Ernie Quinones, executive chef, UMass-Boston.
Pasta on the Plate: Serving fish on a bed of pasta goes a long way in making the dish sell.
Start Small: “Chefs should first experiment with a small audience before putting an item like this on the menu,” Quinones says. Serving dishes like monkfish wrapped in prosciutto in a place like the Faculty Club has worked well to test the dishes and to build buzz.
Samples! Think succulent bite-sized pieces of pan-seared fish skewered with toothpicks on a nice serving tray. Nothing too big. “Any new species you want to try and sell, give them a small portion,” says Ken Cardone of Bowdoin College.
Chef/Staff Interaction: If the chef has a good rapport with customers, let him come out and tell them, “You gotta try this,” Quinones says. “I tell them, ‘Have I ever steered you wrong?’” Make sure your staff on the line gets to sample the fish too, so they can suggest/promote to customers one-on-one.