Chef Steve Phelps of Indigenous in Sarasota leaned over the makeshift prep tables to monitor the assembly of pulled barbecue amberjack sitting on a corn cake with kale slaw.
"The most important thing tonight is that 150 people walk out of here and begin to ask, 'Where does your fish come from?' "
Earlier this month, Louies Modern hosted the area's third annual Trash Fish Sarasota, a local effort to celebrate the ugly ducklings of the undersea world. That includes "bycatch" — the undesirable fish that sneak into nets sent to snare more prized varieties — as well as underused, invasive or aquafarmed seafood species. It's a phenomenon that is happening simultaneously all around the state and country as chefs, restaurateurs, purveyors and concerned citizens understand the fragility of existing fisheries.
The United States imports 90 percent of the seafood we eat, many of the wild-caught species overfished to a critical degree, some of them now threatened or endangered. The evening's aim: By celebrating lesser species, we can take some of the pressure off at-risk fisheries.
At the Sarasota event, a parade of skate wing, cobia, farmed sturgeon meat and caviar, lane snapper, mullet, amberjack and invasive species like lionfish hit the long communal tables.
Although the event was put together by Edible Sarasota publisher Tracy Freeman, the idea for trash fish dinners came from Chefs Collaborative, a Boston-based chef-driven nonprofit network aimed at building a better food system.
"Chefs from New England were at a national sustainable food summit," explained Alisha Fowler, Chefs Collaborative programs director. "All these fishermen were talking about fish that don't fetch a market value; they called them 'trash fish' because there wasn't a market for them. The chefs thought, wouldn't it be great if we had a dinner series to shine a spotlight on this? The model for change would be if people had a good time."
Michael Leviton is a Massachusetts chef who put on the first trash fish dinner in 2013. Since then, he has stepped out of the kitchen to write a book on trash fish, a term he says is "borrowed from the fishermen — eventually we won't use it because we will hopefully be using everything that comes out of the ocean."
In fact, at the Sarasota dinner, for which guests paid $150 (and $100 more for VIP tickets), the term "trash fish" was part of the fun.
"Saying 'trash fish' can be a hard sell," said Joey Egan, Louies Modern chef, while holding one of the evening's spiky-quilled lionfish. "But then explain what it's all about and guests are enthusiastic, because inherently most people are good."
Not long ago, Garden & Gun magazine published a guide to trash fish: squirrelfish, jolthead porgy, bearded brotula — even the names for some of these species are daunting. Here in Florida, venomous-barbed lionfish are increasingly sought after by chefs, according to Katie Sosa of Sammy's Seafood in St. Petersburg, as well a newly problematic invasive from China called bullseye snakehead.
According to Leviton, the key to bringing these fish to table is education.
"Sustainability has to be sold. It's local, it's fresh: You have to sell the story and make it sexy. Food, like fashion, is one of those places where trickle down can work. As chefs take the plunge, if they do their jobs right and everybody concerned works to the best of their ability to get behind this idea, then we get somewhere. Because if we're not moving forwards we're moving backwards," he said, painting grim pictures of trawlers sucking the oceans empty of fish and environmentally destructive fish-farming.
"We need to support those restaurants and institutions that are looking beyond the farmed salmon and tuna and Southeast Asian shrimp. If we don't support those people who are legitimately and sustainably pulling fish out of the ocean, the only option will be farm-raised crap from who knows where."
Locale Market in St. Petersburg has had an ongoing agreement to purchase from Sammy's Seafood bycatch program, which may bring in 1- to 2-pound yellowtail snapper, cobia, wahoo, amberjack, queen snapper and black fin tuna. At Pearl in the Grove in Dade City, owner Curtis Beebe has been buying lionfish from Whole Foods and serving the tiny fillets in bouillabaisse; now Pearl is introducing diners to carp from Green Acre Aquaponics in Brooksville. At Ed Chiles' three restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key, chef Eric Walker has launched rigorous "nose to fin" seafood cooking, utilizing mullet bellies, swordfish collars and other parts frequently thrown away.
The shift toward more sustainable seafood species began in 2006 when Walmart made a sustainable seafood commitment, said Justin Boevers, director of operations for FishChoice.com, which he describes as a "the Match.com for sustainable seafood businesses."
"It changed the landscape for retailers in North America," he said, adding that now, 20 out of 25 of the top U.S. and Canadian retailers are in a partnership with one or more non-governmental organizations working on sustainable seafood.
"Forward-thinking companies are making forward-thinking moves," explained Leviton. "This is because they all smell a paradigm shift coming. It's not altruism. This is entirely financial. When they see there is money to be made by doing it the right way, they will do it the right way."
And there's another reason.
According to Sosa at Sammy's Seafood, the good stuff is getting prohibitively expensive for chefs, who have to pass that cost along to consumers.
"My fight all summer long when business slows down is with grouper. Basically, it costs me $5 per pound, so you're well over $11 before anyone's put a knife on it," Sosa said. "Grouper is supposed to run our industry, but the crowd that can afford that now is shrinking. So chefs go right to what's the cheapest whole. It's the bycatch."
The problem with bycatch, said Sosa, Beebe and other chefs, is that it's hard to build a menu around it. It's whatever happens to get pulled up inadvertently — tricky if you're counting on a certain amount with reliable availability.
Not that all trash fish and invasives are inexpensive. At the Sarasota dinner, Allie El Hage spoke about the challenges of catching lionfish, which can be as expensive as $16 per pound. His company Zookeeper is designing containment tubes for this particular invasive, which doesn't congregate on sandy bottoms but prefers to hang out in reefs. You can't net-fish a reef, so thus far labor-intensive spearfishing is the only route. A better method seems imperative, as female lionfish lay 2 million eggs per year and have no predators other than humans.
Boevers said that beyond the trash fish push, there's another program called Eat These Fish aimed at promoting U.S. Atlantic, gulf and West Coast groundfish — species that live on or near the bottom of a body of water, like cod, flounder, halibut and sole.
"Yes, we import 90 percent of the seafood we eat, but there are some fisheries domestically that are underfished. There are some species where maybe only 10 or 20 percent of the quota are being landed," he said.
Leviton said there are all kinds of reasons that certain fish have fallen out of favor.
"If everything tasted like Chilean sea bass and was as forgiving, we wouldn't have a problem. Why do some things get eaten in Europe and not here? It's because most people are really divorced from food production and from any real cooking, by and large."
Before the guests arrived at Louies Modern, the seven regional chefs assembled spoke of all the ways it's an uphill battle: Consumers are afraid of whole-fish cooking; they are leery of unfamiliar species; they are accustomed to eating only the fillets and are squeamish about the idea of a "nose to fin" approach (ling cod head cheese, anyone?). By 10:30 p.m., 150 attendees had engaged in what psychologists call immersion therapy. Echoing Oscar the Grouch, the consensus seemed to be, "I love trash."
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.