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Menu Development | By Marc Halperin

Gone Fishin’
Creative—and sparing—use of different kinds of fish can ensure a future for seafood.
Redefining the role of wild-captured fish in the restaurant industry.

You won’t be seeing all-you-can-eat fresh swordfish buffets in U.S. restaurants anytime soon. Getting a dinner of wild, fresh-caught Pacific salmon is now a rare, memorable, and expensive treat for most Americans. And if you pine for an era when fresh Atlantic cod and bluefin were as plentiful as fresh coleslaw at summer cookouts, well, sadly, you may be pining for a good, long time.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that “the maximum wild-capture fisheries potential from the world’s oceans has probably been reached.” And as Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything, said in The New York Times last fall, “I remember when local mussels and oysters were practically free, when fresh tuna was an oxymoron … but we overfished these species to the point that it now takes more work, more energy, more equipment, and more money to catch the same amount of fish—roughly 85 million tons a year, a yield that has remained mostly stagnant for the last decade after rapid growth and despite increasing demand.”

Farm-raised fish are everywhere, but the sensory quality is often unpredictable. Some research has even suggested that in certain cases, it appears that the practices that have yielded more plentiful supplies of particular fish might have negated the very health benefits that made people want to eat more seafood in the first place. Farm-raised tilapia, for instance, came under fire last year in a report by two Wake Forest University Medical School researchers. Writing in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the authors noted that the popular menu staple contains relatively low levels of healthful omega-3 fatty acids and relatively high levels of omega-6 acids, which reportedly trigger inflammation in the body.

So what’s a quick-serve chain bent on offering seafood as part of its menu to do? Here are a few suggestions:

Take the lead in sustainability

Obviously, quick-serves have customers who want consistency, and so for reasons ranging from cost to supply-chain efficiency to end-user satisfaction, it just makes more sense to serve the same beef patty or chicken breast in California as you do in the Carolinas. With seafood, though, the sourcing issue can be quite a bit more complicated. The saving grace is chains stand to score big points in sustainability circles by using their purchasing clout to help ensure that responsible, environmentally sound resource management becomes the norm. This could mean working to tailor fish offerings from season to season based on the availability of particular varieties. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is dedicated to educating both consumers and commercial entities about so-called “ocean-friendly” seafood, and the facility’s Restaurant Program even counsels establishments, typically local independent restaurants, about which fish are more suitable at particular times based on their geographic location.

Consider fritto misto

In Italy, it’s customary to serve portions of fried mixed seafood composed of whatever’s fresh and readily available at the moment. So rather than large fillets from a single fish, you may get bits of monkfish mixed with clams, calamari, and bass served alongside, or atop of, a portion of pasta. Now, managers of quick-serve outlets can’t take the time—or the risk—of heading down to the market or the docks every morning to procure fresh catches for that evening’s fried seafood combo platter. But serving, say, a fritto misto salad, in which small portions of lightly fried, sustainable seafood obtained from top suppliers are tossed with greens and light dressings might appeal to both the health-conscious and the eco-conscious.

Take the cakes

Who doesn’t love crab cakes? Judging from their massive popularity on both fine-dining and casual-dining menus, they enjoy more than their fair share of ardent fans. But crab cakes that comprise crab and crab alone are a rarity; for the most part, these fried concoctions contain plenty of seafood and vegetable fillers—as well as sauces and seasonings—that give the final product a balanced flavor and texture. Could mixed seafood cakes that draw from several varieties of sustainably sourced fish be the next hot finger food on quick-serve menus?

Can we, as consumers, start to think of seafood as something we enjoy in small amounts on top of a pizza, or in a salad, rather than something we must have as the centerpiece on our plates?

Accent the positive

With an eye to conservation and allowing time for certain stocks to recover, we need to rethink the way we use seafood in menu applications. If chains with 2,000 outlets add a 10-ounce plate of fried haddock or flounder to their menus, it’s hard not to imagine this putting at least a temporary strain on local supply chains. But if they instead add a three- or four-ounce serving to a salad, or include it in a fried combo platter of some sort, the supply-chain impact could be sharply diminished.

Using seafood as an accent or an accompaniment, rather than the main attraction, could be key to managing demand. Can we, as consumers, start to think of seafood as something we enjoy in small amounts on top of a pizza or in a salad rather than something we must have as the centerpiece on our plates? The answer to that question is likely to determine, to a great degree, whether we’ll still have anything to talk about when it comes to seafood in 2050.

photo courtesy: ©istockphoto.com / Jill Chen
As COO and culinary director at San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research.