For this week’s Chatting With we caught up with Anthony Fusco, executive chef of Harbour, a seafood restaurant known for serving only sustainable fish. We thought of him because last week’s chat, with Michael White of Marea, left us with a bad striped marlin taste in our mouth. Our Man Sietsema favorably reviewed the spot recently.
Click through to read Fusco’s thoughts on sustainable fish, and where he and his crew go drinking after a long night’s work.
How do you source seafood, and ensure that it’s sustainable?
We follow guidelines set forth by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute. They list the fish that are the best choices, those that are good alternatives and those that are meant to be avoided at all costs. And it’s also dependent on season–wild striped bass from Long Island came into season July 1, and then in September, when wild striped bass goes out, it’ll be replaced by red hake.
It’s all dependent on market availability, seasonality, and fishing or farming practices.
Right, and those fishing practices can make all the difference as to whether a fish is sustainable, which makes things more complicated for consumers. Plus, it seems like you never know if that info is accurate. How do you know when your fish purveyor tells you something is hook-and-line caught that he or she is telling the truth?
Well, that boils down to the relationship you have with your purveyor. We exclusively use a company called Sona, and our rep there, Brian Begler, understands what it is to be passionate about seafood, in a way that protects customers, his clients, the fish, and the fishermen. If we have any questions we ask him, because he has direct relationships with the fishermen. We’ve been very happy with his service.
So it’s all about who you buy from, how well you know that person, and their business ethics. You wouldn’t want to be buying from someone who says it’s sustainable and it’s not.
I had a meeting the other day with a second seafood purveyor, and I noticed day-boat cod on his list. Now cod is one of the least sustainable fish to come out of the Atlantic. I kind of raised an eyebrow, and asked, “How are you getting day boat in a sustainable way?” He said that there’s an area of the Atlantic off Cape Cod dedicated to hook-and-line only, and that’s a sustainable way to get cod, even though it’s already over-fished. He says he has documents to prove it, and I would really need those in my hand.
Why do you think so many chefs around town have been so resistant to changing their seafood selection? Just recently, I’ve seen striped marlin, monkfish, skate, and others on very prominent restaurants’ menus.
I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. Why people decide to use unsustainable fish, I couldn’t say. But you know, Morimoto uses monkfish a lot; he loves it; and his approach to sustainability is using everything, from head to fin–the cheeks, the bones, the liver, everything. Everyone has their own approach, but ours is based on Monterey Bay and Blue Ocean.
How did you become interesting in filling this niche?
I was in Las Vegas up until last September–I had been working there for four years, and I became friendly with chef Rick Moonen, of RM Seafood. It’s a small incestuous chef circle in Las Vegas, just like in New York. And he really opened my eyes to just how detrimental it is to use monkfish, Atlantic halibut…fish that aren’t necessarily endangered in the true sense of being on the brink of extinction, but which you really should give a fighting chance in terms of population rebound.
Do you think we’re slowly starting to get on the right path, or do you feel like a lone voice in the wilderness?
The country is on the path of becoming more eco-conscious, and New York diners are very educated, on the cusp on what’s current and what should be done; what’s the right thing to do.
But some people you can’t convince. They love Atlantic cod, they love monkfish, and they don’t care. I can’t force anyone to eat sustainable seafood. I do feel that we’re not alone in caring about sustainability. Some chefs are becoming more active, more aware, and establishing a closer relationship with their fish purveyors.
When I was younger, and working at Mesa Grill, there was a veal protest right outside our door because we had a veal chop on the menu. I don’t know if sustainability advocates are as passionate as the PETA people.
Well, that’s funny, because I’ve always felt like if it’s legal, chefs should be able to serve what they want. But I feel differently when it comes to endangered or over-fished species.
Yes, it’s really outside the realm of veal protests and foie gras protests. One species of fish might not be the most important thing to you or I, but it helps maintain the ecosystem in that part of the ocean.
Do you have any advice for consumers who would like to buy fish?
There are certain selections that are 100 percent sustainable, that you can buy without having to ask. Things like farm-raised catfish, Pacific halibut, wild-caught salmon, mussels–shellfish in general are extremely sustainable because they’re being farmed in a very pristine manner. Sardines and mackerel don’t have as good a reputation as they should, and those are excellent selections. Farm-raised trout is good–in recent years farming has started to be done much cleaner, with less pollution. After July 1, in the summer, you can buy striped bass.
Along the same lines, which fish are 100 percent unsustainable?
Absolutely monkfish, U.S. and Mexican groupers, true red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico, Chilean sea bass, imported shrimp–you don’t know what type of regulations those countries have on fisheries. Flounder is tricky–it’s not sustainable unless you’re finding it in the summer, because then it’s fluke and that’s okay. Some species of tuna are not sustainable, but good luck convincing people not to eat tuna.
Most underrated sustainable fish?
Mackerel is a perfect example–it’s awesome off the grill, out of a saute pan; it’s great fried. You can do a lot of things with mackerel that people aren’t taking advantage of. It’s a stronger fish, more on the oily side, but by no means is it fishy. It’s a little bit ugly, so people might avoid it when see it in the fish store. But pick up a mackerel, throw it on the grill, you’ll be a convert.
What’s in your fridge at home?
Sriracha, fish sauce, a big jug of water, Dijon mustard, a thing of baking soda, butter…they’re all condiments! I eat here. It’s pretty ridiculous, the eating habits of chefs– we’re picking all day, but then when we get home we’re starving and there’s nothing in the fridge but a bare bulb.
Where do you and your crew like to go after hours?
To eat or drink? [laughs]
There’s a great bar right across the street called Antarctica. For eating…Fatty Crab is a favorite, and Blue Ribbon. We go to Wo Hop to get some good greasy Chinese-American. Those are the big three.