West coast sustainable seafood super-chef Michael Cimarusti invites fish fans to responsibly — and deliciously — push their palates.
Once upon a time, humans could eat Pacific bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and virtually any other fish in the sea with an equally healthy appetite and conscience. Cut to decades of overfishing, under-protection, and endangered supplies coupled with today’s unbridled seafood demands, and clearly we’ve drifted into the grim reality chapter of this toothsome fairy tale.
The good news, according to West Coast chef and sustainable seafood advocate Michael Cimarusti, is that it’s not all bad news for fish fans who’ve been reading too much of that lately.
“Yes, there are seriously threatened fish nearing extinction that we really should not be eating right now if ever again,” says Cimarusti, chef and cofounder of Los Angeles seafood restaurant Providence and a recent White House honoree for his sustainability efforts. “And then there’s all this other delicious, sustainable seafood that we should really be celebrating. I feel like part of my responsibility as a chef is to help people realize that.”
Lingcod. White croaker. A surprisingly tasty sea snail called Kellet’s whelk. You won’t find these lesser-knowns anywhere near the top-10 list of fish and shellfish staples (e.g., tuna, salmon, shrimp) that constitute about 90 percent of all seafood consumed in the United States.
But on any given week, you may find them stunningly prepared at Providence, as well as at Cimarusti’s more casual L.A. seafood institution Connie & Ted’s and the chef’s new fish shop, Cape Seafood and Provisions — all of which showcase delicious seafood alternatives that our beleaguered oceans humbly request we direct our progressive pelagic appetites toward.
Cimarusti’s latest sustainability efforts include spearheading California’s first restaurant-supported fishery program with the West Coast launch of Dock to Dish. The national initiative and cooperative, which originated in Montauk, New York, and has since spread to several coastal regions, aims to connect chefs with local fishermen — and diners with sustainable, traceable, and delectable seafoods beyond the usual finned fare.
Cowboys & Indians: In the wake of depleted fish stocks and dire warnings about the future of our oceans’ once bottomless supplies, these must be challenging times for all facets of the seafood world. What’s the view like from a seafood chef’s side of the table?
Michael Cimarusti: It depends on where you’re looking. On the more dismal side are those stats about Pacific bluefin tuna being down to 4 percent of its historic biomass and the reality that if people’s attitudes about critically endangered species don’t radically change pretty soon, we’ll probably eat many of them into extinction within the next several years. On the positive side, we’re seeing success stories with other rebounding fish species thanks to conservation efforts that often don’t get as much play as all the doom and gloom.
C&I: Let’s give them some play, then. What’s your favorite Left Coast fish comeback story of late?
Cimarusti: Pacific Coast groundfish would be up there. In 2000, several marine protected areas and federal restrictions were set up to conserve them. A few years ago, they did some sweeping studies and noticed a tremendous rebound. So now the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California — the source I always use for these kinds of issues — have put many of these fish back on [the aquarium’s Seafood Watch “Best Choices”] green list, which is great. Even greater, going back to the bigger picture, is that we’re noticing a marked attitude shift among many seafood chefs and consumers toward sustainability in general.
C&I: How would you describe that shift, beyond being wary of eating certain species to death?
Cimarusti: It’s a bunch of things. One big shift I’ve noticed is that people are thinking more about where their seafood is coming from. That’s important because we can’t really have a serious discussion about sustainability if we have no idea about the source and conditions of our seafood. And it’s especially important because currently about 90 percent of it in this country is imported — a lot of it from countries with either very little or no regulation.
So if you’re in a supermarket, a farmers market, a fish shop, or even sitting down at a restaurant, you’re allowed to ask a few questions like, “Where were the fish caught, and how?” If a place selling you seafood can’t answer any of those questions, you should probably be getting your fish from somewhere else.
C&I: Do we need to be importing 90 percent of our seafood into the United States?
Cimarusti: No. We import this much purely based on price. Imported seafood is cheaper and so much of it is caught completely outside of any kind of government regulation or quotas. I’m not trying to say that all imported seafood finds its way to the U.S. market illegally, but plenty of it does.
One of my big motivators as a seafood chef is to keep American fishermen fishing. It’s a dying industry, like being a small farmer. It’s no different to me because they’ve been regulated and consolidated out of their livelihoods in many cases. So anything I can do to support fishermen directly or indirectly, I try to do.
At Providence and Connie & Ted’s, almost all the fish we serve is domestically harvested and all of it is wild. And now with Dock to Dish, I feel like we’re really taking that to a new level because it flips the table and pays the American fisherman a higher price than what they’re used to getting while offering a more direct relationship between the fisherman and the consumer. And a mutually beneficial one.
C&I: Providence was the first restaurant in the West to sign on with Dock to Dish. How did you become involved with this initiative?
Cimarusti: I was invited to Capitol Hill a few years ago to speak with Washington lawmakers about legislation that directly affected California fishermen. That’s where I met the program’s cofounder Sean Barrett, who launched Dock to Dish out of Montauk, New York. Back then the program was in its infancy. Now numerous restaurants in several cities are on board, and there’s a waiting list.
C&I: How does the program work?
Cimarusti: It’s a total departure from the normal vendor-consumer relationship where you pick up the phone and place an order for a specific fish on the menu. Dock to Dish works the other way. Chefs agree to a prepaid system of whatever supply is coming to the dock that day. Essentially, it’s a revival of the age-old “catch of the day” model. Small-scale, local fishermen catch what they catch. And you get what you get.
C&I: Most American seafood restaurants stick to the menu and the usual seafood staples. Does Dock to Dish cater more to a certain culinary market or service model — like Providence’s tasting menu format?
Cimarusti: Yeah, most restaurants and chefs don’t have the freedom or desire to move to a supply model. It’s still a very demand basis-driven seafood economy. Going from “Go catch me this” to “What did you catch today?” is a fundamental shift — even though there’s really no wild species of fish out there that’s as year-round available as any menu would have us believe.
But I also know there are a lot of chefs undaunted by the idea of giving up that level of control where you can always just pick up the phone and order what you need. Nowadays, we’re presented with all these choices — and not without a serious environmental cost. So I think people do get that there’s a broader benefit to this old-school model where we cook and eat what’s available, and also what’s responsibly caught.
C&I: From a seafood chef’s perspective, this get-what-you-get model must require some serious thinking on your feet.
Cimarusti: It definitely does. Luckily here at Providence I have an amazing team that’s used to seeing a lot of different things and strong enough to figure them out. And when 55 pounds of Kellet’s whelk shows up at your back door — because that’s what the fishermen caught last week — there’s definitely some quick, creative figuring out to do.
C&I: Kellet’s whelk?
Cimarusti: It’s a species of sea snail with a texture and flavor not unlike abalone — one of the most prized shellfish in the world. Kellet’s whelk isn’t something a lot of people have tried, but I’ve gotten intimately familiar with these things through Dock to Dish, and I can tell you they’re really delicious. And our clientele at Providence seems to agree. We serve them with great success.
C&I: How did you prepare them?
Cimarusti: First we steamed them to get them out of their shell. Then we put them in sous vide pouches and cooked them overnight at a relatively low temperature, just below a simmer. We made a glaze for them with some garlic preserved in red miso and the liver of the whelk and fermented chile paste. Then grilled them over a charcoal fire. Then sprayed them with a little lemon juice and sprinkled sesame seeds on them. Delicious!
C&I: Any other recent exciting Dock to Dish arrivals to further broaden our palate?
Cimarusti: We just got a beautiful 42-pound California white sea bass — a highly elusive, hard-to-catch fish that local anglers around here call “the ghost.” It’s not actually a true sea bass, but a croaker. I guess “white sea bass” sounds better than “white croaker,” but they’re delicious nonetheless. We also received some beautiful rock crab from here on the Santa Barbara coast. And lingcod — a Pacific coast species not dissimilar to traditional [Atlantic] cod, but firmer and tighter flaked — and just outstanding tasting.
C&I: Do we have to adjust our salmon-and-shrimp thinking with these lesser-knowns?
Cimarusti: Sure, if you’ve grown up with the usual stuff, maybe you have to open your mind a little when someone serves you Kellet’s whelk on a stick. But by all accounts, people are really enjoying it — as well as the level of freshness and variation that comes with it. Some of these things we’re receiving may be a little different and a bit trickier to cook, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of being served in a restaurant, or protected in their habitat. I’m really happy to be a part of this for all of those reasons.
C&I: Are there any other local seafood favorites of yours that you hope to see arrive at the dock soon?
Cimarusti: Two of the finest seafoods California produces, I think, are spot prawns and sea urchin — which is like the new pork belly these days — and some of the best sea urchin-producing areas in the world are right around here in Santa Barbara and San Diego. There’s some great rockfish species that I’d love to see come in. Sheephead. The list goes on. We have so many great fish right here that we can eat well and sustainably.
C&I: What else should we be avoiding on this coast besides Pacific bluefin tuna?
Cimarusti: It’s a tough question, and I think the best answer is to refer people back to the Seafood Watch program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They create a painstakingly researched and detailed guide that is completely unbiased, independent, and there to be trusted.
C&I: Any morsels of cooking advice from a top seafood chef to the home seafood cook? What are your cardinal rules?
Cimarusti: I think the biggest thing people often fail to realize with fish is that it needs to be treated with great care. So, for example, don’t just throw a beautiful white sea bass fillet on the grill the way you would a steak. It’s great to grill it, but time and temperature are incredibly important. No turning and burning.
C&I: What about just turning — without burning?
Cimarusti: It depends. With that lingcod I mentioned, we only cooked it on the skin side without ever exposing the flesh side to direct heat — so in some cases you really only may want to expose it to ambient heat. In other cases, you can turn the fish. Carefully. But, in general, I think we’d all be happier and wiser to do away with that whole “10 – 15 minutes per inch” cooking rule. Especially with fish, there’s really no all-purpose law like it that can be trusted. It really depends on the species and the fattiness of the fish and a variety of other factors. Overall, I think people err on the side of overcooking, and would often be surprised by how little time it takes to get a large piece of fish properly done.
C&I: Seasoning tips? Do we tend to over-season as well?
Cimarusti: Yeah, don’t overdo it. Sometimes all you really need is salt and a little charcoal fire and that’s it. At Providence, we brine a lot of our fish in a 5 percent salt solution for a period of time — depending on the thickness of the fish. So that’s a great way to evenly season a good piece of fish. Most of the time, I love to season it just with salt and pepper. Usually we use Espelette pepper, a delicious French spice that is really quite sweet and not spicy.
C&I: So, if we can walk away with one all-purpose “rule” here, how about “less is more”?
Cimarusti: Sure, I can live with that. If you’ve got a beautiful piece of fish in front of you, the greatest secret of all is that there’s almost nothing more you really need.
Photography: Lisa Cohen, JennKL Photography, Misha Gravenor. All images courtesy Providence.
From the August/September 2017 issue.