RUNNING ON EMPTY
As the world’s seafood population shrinks, chefs turn to more sustainable ways of plating up the catch of the day.
Earlier this year, Attica’s Ben Shewry hosted a dinner with Matt Orlando, head chef and owner of Amass restaurant in Copenhagen. Guests were greeted with a handpainted sign that read, “Enjoy your fucking dinner” and detailed a menu full of the vaguely unsettling ingredients Attica is known for: ants, roadkill, produce on the wrong side of its use-by date. One course featured locally sourced abalone nestled on tender leaves of saltbush, staged on a pile of rubbish – cans, beer bottles, snarls of plastic, even a Nike shoe – handpicked from Brighton Beach. Shewry called it: “The State of Port Phillip Bay”. It was, he admits, a dish intended to shock.
Shewry tends not to valorise Attica’s sustainable credentials because he believes employing such practices is the basic responsibility of every chef, and Attica’s menu speaks for itself. If you look closely, you will discover an open secret: while crustaceans figure in several courses, there isn’t a hint of finfish to be found.
“We haven’t served wild finfish for probably three years,” he says. “I decided I couldn’t in good conscience, so I just took it off.”
The problem weighing on Shewry’s mind is this: our appetite for seafood has put increasing pressure on the world’s wild fish population. According to a 2016 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, biologically sustainable levels of fish stock dropped from 90 per cent in 1974 to just 68.6 per cent in 2013 – meaning that 31.4 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are overfished. A 2016 study of Australia’s marine domain found that of 83 species assessed, 17 per cent of those were either overfished, environmentally limited or depleting. Add this to the problems caused by trawling, net fishing and dredging – devastated marine ecosystems and the endangerment of species such as dolphins, dugongs and sea turtles as victims of bycatch – and things start to look very bleak, very quickly. The ocean may give the impression of limitless abundance, but the reality is that seafood is a finite resource and some species, like the southern bluefin tuna, are at risk of being eaten out of existence.
Shewry’s own interest in the issue came after he realised that the fish that had been readily available when he first moved to Australia had, over a 10-year period, become almost impossible to get.
“Now, why would that be?” he asks. “Because they’re being overfished. Because stocks are being depleted. There’s no other practical reason for that to happen. I don’t want to sound too extreme, but if we were harvesting koalas from trees the way we harvest rock lobsters, people would be outraged.”
Overfishing is one thing. But as Shewry points out, there’s a lot more to the business of ethical seafood than being mindful of that. “It’s not just the sustainability of the species that’s important, but also how a restaurant handles the fish.
“We want you to be able to eat some fish sperm and go ‘wow, that’s amazing, what is that?’”
“The RSPCA has excellent guidelines in place that I believe every chef in Australia should be following.”
This issue of handling live produce is one that Vue Group executive chef Justin James has thought a lot about. Last year, Shannon Bennett shut down Bistro Vue and opened, in its place, a moodily lit seafood restaurant called Iki-Jime. The restaurant shares its name with a Japanese method of killing fish that both the RSPCA and the Australian government have endorsed as best practice.
“Ikejime is a method but it’s also a philosophy about how to handle anything – with the end goal being that the product is as perfect as possible,” explains James. He was introduced to the concept by fisherman Mark Eather, who pioneered the method in Australia and believes that the way in which a fish is caught, handled and killed directly correlates with how it will taste on the plate. This makes sense. The flesh of a fish that’s been line caught, individually handled and treated with a certain level of reverence will taste better and last longer than a fish that’s been jostled and bruised by thousands of kilograms of other fish writhing in a net. Exposed to such stressors, a fish’s heart starts racing and its muscles tense up, triggering chemical changes in its body, such as the release of lactic acid.
“That’s what we want to avoid because it actually changes the flavour, texture and taste of the final product,” says James. The ikejime method sees each fish caught on the line and individually dispatched via a spike to the brain. “It’s a quick, clean kill.”
Eather works in a small-scale, considered way that leaves almost no environmental footprint. “You’re not getting any bycatch and you’re not destroying any habitats,” explains James. “If it’s not within size regulations, it gets tossed back; if it’s in spawning season, it gets tossed back.”
Sourcing whatever is available locally and at peak freshness has its own challenges: the offering at Iki-Jime changes daily, in accordance with whatever Eather brings in from the boat.
“We order a lot of things and never get what we want,” says James wryly. “But that’s the beauty of it – you let the fishermen decide what your menu is.”
He’s found that working strictly within the confines of seasonality is limiting, but not in a negative way: instead, it’s encouraged him to think – and cook – more creatively.
Josh Niland, one half of the team behind Paddington’s Saint Peter and Fish Butchery, says: “When you go to college or TAFE, you get told that some fish have a 60 per cent loss and a 40 per cent yield.
“I just can’t get my head around that. We’re being taught what loss is but we’re not getting taught what to do with it.”
Niland is thinking creatively about how to make use of the parts of fish that we would typically throw away, citing marrow, blood, offal, even fish sperm, as fair game.
“I relish the opportunity to use everything,” he says. “The Japanese have been doing things with all the parts of the fish for centuries, so it’s not as if we’re the first ones to come out and say we’re using the eyeballs or whatever.”
His challenge is to find a way to make those less-utilised parts of the fish appeal to an Australian palate. He’s found success with a kind of crisp chip, a little like a prawn cracker, made out of fish eyeballs, a black pudding made from fish blood, and an instant fish stock made from ground bones. Fish livers, pan-fried and served with parsley on toast, are the ocean’s (less controversial) answer to foie gras. Rather than using just the fillet of a swordfish, Niland dry-ages the fish for 15 days and serves it smoked and charred on the bone so it arrives at the table looking more like bistecca alla Fiorentina than something that came from the sea.
“We want people to see that we can make fin-food glamorous,” he says. “We can make the head of a fish desirable. We can make the eyes really delicious. We want you to be able to eat some fish sperm and go, ‘wow, that’s amazing, what is that?’ If you apply half the ‘nose-to-tail’ philosophy of pig cookery to the fish world, you have a whole new repertoire.”
Of course, before you can get diners on board with eating fish sperm, there’s a certain amount of squeamishness that needs to be overcome. Part of this, Niland has found, comes down to presentation: if you can make something look beautiful as well as tasting delicious, it goes a long way to helping people confront their food biases.
At Fish Butchery, instead of a big, slush-filled ice counter, you’re greeted with a humidity controlled case displaying precise cuts of fish arranged like jewels. A refrigerated cabinet shows off the most photogenic produce: whole wild cobia from Bundaberg, Mooloolaba albacore midway through its dry-ageing process, and bundles of sausages made from prawns and ocean trout.
Not only do these displays look appealing, they also serve to put the spotlight on species of fish that wouldn’t be at the top of the average shopping list.
“We’re buying leatherjacket, black ling, snook, yelloweye mullet – all these different fish that no one knows too much about,” says Niland. “We’re having a good time exploring the methods of cookery so we can then tell our customers what to do with them.”
All food, of course, involves a certain level of ethical compromise. Fish is no different. In Australia, marine parks and fisheries are governed by strict guidelines designed to ensure sustainable fishing, and management plans have been implemented for vulnerable species such as southern bluefin tuna and orange roughy. The tide, then, could be turning, but only if diners will follow where chefs lead.
For Shewry, this means only serving the things that his conscience will allow. For James, it’s about insisting on a higher standard of care in the way that fish are handled, stored and killed. For Niland, it means promoting under-utilised species and using every last bit of the fish he can. Lately, he’s been thinking beyond the scope of Saint Peter and Fish Butchery.
“To commercialise a fish-eye chip would be quite cool.
Just to take the edge off one facet of the fish going to waste… I think there’s heaps of potential.”