The Culinary Institute of America now buys 95 percent of its seafood from sustainable sources, an increase from just 25 percent five years ago. It’s a change that the college in Hyde Park hopes will help train a new generation of chefs to shift people’s taste toward more sustainable seafood.
The shift in purchasing comes out of a partnership between the college and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch in California. Seafood Watch is a nonprofit that provides recommendations on the best choices for sustainable seafood purchasing.
The CIA buys about 3,000 pounds of seafood per week, costing close to $750,000 per year. The seafood is used at the college’s five public restaurants and in 42 teaching kitchens.
Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives for Monterey Bay Aquarium, said the partnership with the school was borne out of a meeting in 2012 with a large group of chefs. The meeting was meant as a way to engage chefs already in the field on ways to increase sustainable purchasing, but Bowman said many of the chefs suggested a different approach.
“Several of them happen to be CIA alumni, and they believed we needed to engage young chefs,” she said. “Even in minor programs, if we can start getting young chefs to be experts, we create a new vanguard for sustainability.”
It wasn’t long after that meeting that Bowman and Seafood Watch were in touch with the CIA. The college then formed a task force aimed at increasing sustainability, which included Bruce Mattel, associate dean of food production for the school and designer of the seafood curriculum. Mattel has been with the CIA for 18 years. Before that, he worked at Le Bernardin, a three-Michelin starred seafood restaurant in New York City.
He said sustainability in seafood purchasing considers several factors, from how it was fished or farmed to how populated the species is to an area. Mattel said for types of seafood that are particularly popular, meeting the demand can lead to unsavory practices.
“The main problem, at least in the U.S., is that a few species make up the majority of what is on people’s plates,” Mattel said. “But there are an almost endless amount of edible species.”
Edible, but not always preferred. So while it may help relieve stress on the nation’s salmon supply if more people ate Asian carp, an invasive species threatening the ecosystems of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, it’s not always that easy. The earthy tasting Asian carp can be a tough sell on a menu next to a more traditional salmon dish.
So Mattel said the CIA’s seafood curriculum needs to train young chefs to properly prepare and market just about any kind of fish. If chefs learn to cook with a more diverse set of fish, Mattel said, people’s preferences can begin to be shifted away from the current heavy appetite for salmon, tuna and shrimp.
Mattel said the CIA recently brought in dogfish, a shark species that is invasive in Massachusetts Bay. He said that while dogfish used to be served in the original form of English fish and chips, the small shark doesn’t have the same name recognition stateside, and might be avoided on a menu. “But you fry it up really well in batter made from good ale, it can be fresh and awesome,” Mattel said.
“If we expose our students once or twice to these different kinds of species, even if they are not prevalent right now, there may come a time in the future when their fishmonger says ‘Hey, I’ve got some dogfish,” Mattel said. “Now they can say ‘You know what, I remember that from the Culinary. Let me give it a try.’”
Seafood Watch rates individual seafood providers as either “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives” or “Avoid.” For fishing operations, it considers the impact on the habitat and ecosystem. It also rates how effective the fishery is managed, among other factors. For fish farms, Seafood Watch considers the types of chemicals and amount of feed used to sustain the population and the risk of the species escaping and damaging the nearest ecosystem.
While the CIA will generally follow the guidelines and ratings set by Seafood Watch, there are still a few species the college buys that are considered unsustainable. Mattel said the CIA considers factors of its own as well. So while most of its salmon is delivered from a provider in northern Canada that has an “avoid” rating from Seafood Watch, Mattel said buying from that provider is better than shifting to a better rated one in Chile or Alaska thousands more miles away. Certain fish, such as salmon, may be raised in unsustainable ways, Mattel said, but students still need to learn to cook them for a full culinary education.
As students and employees scurried between the delivery bays and test kitchens on a recent morning to unpack and prep that day’s shipment of fresh mussels, scallops, lobsters, bass and dozens of other species, Mattel said pushing for sustainability is part of caring about people and the future of the food they eat.
“We want people to be able to enjoy a diverse amount of seafood for the rest of their lives and for their kids’ lives and their kids’ lives,” Mattel said. “In order to make that happen, we have to perpetuate the species.”