I’ve been hearing great things about Barton Seaver for years, most of which can be summed up with, “He’s got a really interesting perspective on the industry.”
But any time I go to hear a chef speak about the fishing and seafood industries, I’m a little wary, as I was last week when I attended an event at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. I presume that chefs know a good deal about seafood itself and some about the fishing industry — primarily through the lens of NGOs. But that’s not what you get with Barton.
Not only is he an engaging and eloquent speaker, it’s very clear that he thinks — a lot — about seafood, where it comes from, what it means to us historically and culturally and what it should mean if we want to keep eating it.
Some of the greatest seafood marketing minds know full well how important it is to have chefs on your side. After all, these are the people who introduce many consumers to new proteins, dishes, sauces, preparations, flavor profiles. These are the people who make the mundane magnificent and the unusual approachable.
What we hope after a consumer tries a new type of fish or preparation is that he or she will work up the courage to try making it at home. Perhaps not with the same mastery as a chef, but buy it, cook it, eat it and come back for more.
And if we look at tilapia’s meteoric rise in this country, we cannot dismiss the notion that Americans can be sold on fish. The hiccup is that while more Americans are eating tilapia — generally farm-raised in Asia — they are also getting to be more choosy about other types of protein.
Tilapia is the equivalent of store-brand family-pack chicken. You’ve seen it, a pile of wan meat squeezed onto a massive, plastic-wrapped styrofoam platter. Cheap meat has a place in the market, sure. But do you want to eat family pack and only family pack forever?
My personal experience is that happy, free-range chicken is just tastier. And I feel the same way about fish. I’ve been beating the drum of “Eat Wild First” for a long time. But what I like about Barton-Think is his ability to take it one step further. Don’t just eat wild, be wild. Try something new. So how do we get tilapia eaters to upgrade?
Seaver says you have to sell the narrative of the food. When he opened his Washington, D.C., restaurant Hook, he had established relationships with 13 commercial fishermen and told them that if they caught it, he would serve it. One of his most popular dishes was built around the bait from an otherwise unsuccessful trip.
Hook offered 78 different species of fish on the menu in just the first year, and it was a roaring success. In that one restaurant, Seaver proved that you don’t have to offer the standard top five fish.
Americans will eat interesting food if you sell it to them. Right now, all those tilapia eaters are primed for an upgrade to what American fishermen have to catch, the same way farmed salmon eaters were primed for the flavor explosion that is wild salmon. It’s up to us to sell it to them.