The Cook: A celebrated chef preaches sustainability
April 30, 2012
Snakehead with a side of Kudzu? Washington, D.C.'s Barton Seaver is pushing boundaries in the kitchen, urging restaurants to use menu choice to help sustain diversity – and connect the dots – in a changing climate.
A Climate Query for Barton Seaver
Interview conducted and condensed by Rae Tyson
The Daily Climate
Editor's note: Climate Query is a semi-weekly feature offered by Daily Climate, presenting short Q&A's with players large and small in the climate arena. Read others in the series here.
Growing up, Barton Seaver spent many a summer on the Chesapeake Bay, enjoying the waterway's bountiful fish and crabs with his family. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2001, he apprenticed at a small family restaurant in southern Spain. Both experiences profoundly shaped his cooking – and taught him the value of sustainability.
Returning to Washington, D.C., in 2005, Seaver worked with chef José Andrés at Jaleo, the innovative tapas restaurant. Two years later, he became owner-chef of Georgetown's trendy seafood restaurant, Hook, which made the Washington Post’s Top 50 and Bon Appétit’s Top 10 eco-friendly restaurants. Seaver used it as a laboratory to push sustainability and biodiversity: Hook once served 78 different fish species in one year.
Esquire named Seaver "chef of the year" in 2009, and a year later he left the kitchen to write his first cookbook, "For Cod and Country," and promote sustainable seafood practices. His latest focus has been incorporating invasive species in the kitchen.
Seaver has been a National Geographic Society fellow since 2010. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Carrie Ann, and two cats.
How did your summers on the Chesapeake Bay as a boy come to shape your choices in the kitchen as an adult?
I would spend my entire day in search of food. With each cast of my line I’d catch something different – porgies, striped bass, bluefish. I’d check my crab pots and they’d be full with huge blue crabs. I’d wait until the sun sunk just low enough that I could see the water moccasins in the sea grass so I could search for soft shell crabs shedding their hard shells in the sand.
You push sustainable seafood by urging people to consume less fish and rely instead on other sources of protein.
Your mother was right – you need to eat your vegetables.
You also call for a more adventurous palate.
One main cause of overfishing is our limited appetite as we stick to the same ten basic fish that we know. An easy way to help combat overfishing is by expanding your palate and trusting your fishmonger.
Is that sense of adventure what got you noticed by the National Geographic Society?
I would have never guessed when I was peeling potatoes as a young cook that my path would eventually lead me to National Geographic. My mission is to explore how we relate to the world through the food we eat. It can be hard to convince people that they want to save the ocean, but saving dinner? That’s something on which we can all agree.
Stopping climate change has the same problems of scale as saving the ocean: It's virtually unapproachable as an individual.
I like to approach the oceans like we approach the "six degrees of separation" concept: Tell me something you care about and I will connect it back to the oceans. For me, that’s mostly through our dinner plates. It can work the same for global warming. While you might not be able to see global warming, you might notice a change in the tulips in your front yard.
One of your more interesting projects has been to prepare meals using invasive species like the lionfish and, more recently, the snakehead. Are they really edible?
Invasive species can be delicious. My favorite is the snakehead, as it is invading my beloved Chesapeake Bay. Its firm flesh is very tasty. Best of all, when we eat snakeheads we are helping to preserve both the Bay and the livelihood of Bay fishermen.
Appetizers from zebra mussels and a salad of kudzu?
Ha! I don’t think we’re there just yet.
You have been a chef at a number of successful restaurants in the Capitol. Any plans to return to the kitchen?
My only plan to return to the kitchen is to make dinner for my beautiful wife in our home.
Rae Tyson pioneered the environmental beat at USA Today in the 1980s and today restores and races vintage motorcycles in central Pennsylvania. Climate Query is a semi-weekly feature offered by DailyClimate.org, a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.
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