It’s not necessarily because of his food. I’ve never been to Cafe Saint-Ex or Bar Pilar or Blue Ridge or Hook, his DC-restaurant that had 78 species of seafood on the menu in one year. And I haven’t had a mind-blowing, life-altering experience with his cookbook, For Cod And Country.
No, the reason why Barton Seaver is my favorite chef is because he’s about as rare as a California condor in the foodie world — he’s sensible about sustainability.
I first discovered Seaver two years ago – I was driving to a party in Kenosha, Wisconsin, when I heard him on Here on Earth, a show on Wisconsin Public Radio. Initially, I was just captivated because here was this enthusiastic, hyper-articulate guy talking about fish, especially lesser-known species of fish (a particular interest of mine). Americans only eat about 10 species of seafood, even though the ocean offers hundreds of varieties, and Seaver argues that we need to take advantage of the huge variety of fauna out there. Amen. He struck me — with his energy and passion and gift at seafood porn —as a kind of Rick Bayless of seafood.
But what really made me fall in love with Seaver — what created the NPR driveway moment (specifically, it was the parking lot of Pic-n-Save on 63rd Street) — was hearing his answers to questions like: “Should I eat wild or farmed fish?” (You can hear his answer to that on at around 9:49 of the Here on Earth interview.)
My point: here was a chef with some of the foodiest bona-fides possible —hailed as Chef of the Year by Esquire’s John Mariani — who talks the importance of INDUSTRIAL aquaculture. “It’s our patriotic duty to eat farm-raised mussels, clams, and oysters,” he says.
Why is this such a huge deal? Why was it so exciting to hear a chef talk about the importance of industrial-scale fish-farming? We live in the age of Pollan, and for so many chefs — local, organic, wild-caught = sustainable — has gone from a well-intended ideal into an inflexible dictate. Too many chefs have a view of the world in which the definition of sustainable is organic, local, artisanal. End of story.
Seaver, by contrast, talks about sustainability in a refreshingly nuanced way.
“You and I could rent a canoe and harpoon a blue whale,” he says. “Just because it’s local, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”
He talks about seasonality and diet— when is the right season to eat your sablefish or your halibut, why you should eat smaller portions, why you should eat species that are lower on the food chain. Yet he also talks, with equal passion, about the virtues of canned fish (yes, industrially-produced canned fish) He even explains that a sustainable choice can involve shopping at Walmart — yes, Walmart, that paragon of industrial scale, globavorism can be part of “restorative seafood.”
That’s why Barton Seaver is my favorite chef. It was exhilarating to hear a guy who shared a kitchen with Jose Andres, a guy who can make you literally ache for a crab cake, talk so pragmatically about sustainability.
The reason I’m enthusing about Seaver right now, today, is because I just stumbled upon an old interview with him on another radio program, The Splendid Table. Here, in a show titled, “Seasonal Seafood,” that was recently rebroadcast, is a little taste of my favorite chef talking about the virtues of canned products — and a suggestion for how to work with canned pink salmon.
Then look at some of the other canned products: sardines, mackerel, herring, pink salmon, clams, mussels, oysters, and my favorite, anchovies. I mean these are nearly across the board some of the very best things we should be eating. And talk about ease of Tuesday night, when you’re coming home from ballet and soccer and you’ve got a report due. Pull out two 7-ounce cans of pink salmon; drain it off; add a little bit of mayonnaise, fresh dill, bread crumbs, and lemon juice; throw it in the oven under a broiler; and in 10 minutes you’ve got a beautiful, pink, salmon cake, crisp and crunchy on one side, soft and moist all the way throughout, perfectly cooked. You’ve got your protein portion for four people for $4 or $5, you’re ready to roll with your broccoli and there you go.
Check out the Splendid Table site for two of his recipes for Pacific cod and mackerel.
ALSO… a promise to TofT readers. One of these days… when I get back to DC, I will try to meet and interview Seaver… And if I do, I will post the interview , along with a collection of canned tuna/salmon/anchovy/sardine recipes, right here on the TofT site.
Till then.. have some canned sardines or anchovies tonight and watch this Ted Talk “Sustainable Seafood — Let’s Get Smart.”