Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Barton Seaver: The Alice Waters of Seafood
Are you into cooking shows? Are you interested in sustainable fisheries? Eating healthy? Are you a foodie? A follower of innovative marketing campaigns?
If so, then you have to check out the up and coming 30 year-old chef Barton Seaver.
Since his acrimonious split last July with the owners of Hook, the hip Georgetown (Washington, DC) restaurant he helped put on the map, Seaver has been working to craft his message, setting himself up as the Alice Waters of seafood. But he wants to make that message accessible enough to play to audiences beyond Waters groupies or the Whole Foods shoppers who instinctively reach for their sustainable-seafood pocket guides at the fish counter.
To spread the word, the Washington native is launching myriad projects. Next week, he and partner Eli Hengst are set to open Blue Ridge, a decidedly casual spot in Glover Park. This summer, the duo will christen a seafood restaurant and retail market in Logan Circle. Next spring, Seaver is slated to star in a public television series, "Cooking Without a Net." He has also signed on as a fellow for the Blue Ocean Institute, an environmental advocacy organization.
Seaver's message isn't an easy one to sell. All things sustainable may be in vogue, but getting people excited about fish can be a challenge. Americans, Seaver likes to point out, have a deep-rooted respect for the Jeffersonian farmer with dirt under his fingernails. But they have little connection with fish: "We have 'Jaws.' 'Finding Nemo.' The Gorton's fisherman. And Charlie Tuna. That's it. We don't have that iconic relationship with the ocean and how we should manage it."
So here's Seaver's idea: Change the lexicon of sustainability. Instead of talking about fish and science and dire statistics about oceans in peril, talk about people and what and how they eat. "If you begin to talk about fish not as a resource, but as a reality in our daily lives, it has a different effect," Seaver says. "So let's talk about oysters. Eating a farm-raised Chesapeake oyster supports generations of watermen and supports the most productive marine ecosystem in the world. When I eat a delicious oyster, it's one of the most ecologically friendly acts a person can take. That's the kind of environmentalism I can get behind."
... built into Seaver's thinking is a subtle argument for compromise and common sense. The way he sees it, conservationists need to accept that everyone, from the commercial fisherman in Alaska to the family fisherman in Senegal, acts in his own economic interest. Acknowledging that sustainability is about people, not fish, is the first step toward finding solutions.
... what Seaver wants is for people to engage, to see what role they can play in saving dinner.
He'll send the message at his restaurants. The ingredients will be sustainable, of course: grass-fed Virginia beef, Kentucky hams and local bluefish. The portions will be measured. Diners will get four to five ounces of fish and lots of vegetables, not all-you-can eat sustainable shrimp. "I don't care if something is certified 10 times over. It's morally reprehensible to eat 16 ounces of protein in one sitting," Seaver said. "Until that changes, it doesn't matter what the product is."
At the still-unnamed Logan Circle market, Seaver will target home cooks with what he calls "retail 2.0." The vision sounds more old-fashioned than futuristic. Instead of countertop signs, which Seaver believes are easily overlooked or misunderstood, he wants to employ passionate, educated salespeople to talk about the provenance of seafood and local produce and how best to use them. The 21st-century touch is that once shoppers are home, they can visit Seaver's Web site, where he plans to post short how-to cooking videos.
The public television series, a co-production of WGBH in Boston, will address a national audience. The project is still in the fundraising stage, but plans call for filming 13 episodes that will take Seaver from halibut boats in Alaska to the shrimp and oyster farms on the Gulf Coast and the Chesapeake Bay. In each episode, chefs, activists and fishermen will talk about the challenges of sustainable fishing and offer solutions so "we'll have our fish -- and eat it, too."
Barton Seaver Has Something To Save: And Surprisingly, It Isn't Fish. But His New Message Has a Catch, by Jane Black, Washington Post, Wednesday, May 13, 2009