When we started Big Jones, the top consideration was how to build a menu focused on sustainable ingredients and humane farming practices, and still remain an affordable neighborhood spot. We knew from the beginning that seafood would be a huge issue for us, because of our passion for Coastal Southern cooking. Even as we were in the early planning stages, red snapper, grouper, and swordfish were widely publicized as bad choices, and they are bad choices, usually, because of the way they are fished. Just a few years ago, American gulf coast grouper and snapper fisheries were in a horrible tailspin. Farm raised shrimp wasn’t an option for us, given the horrible destruction it wrecks on coastal mangroves and their critical habitats for all kinds of life.
An early tool for us was the Shedd Aquarium’s Rite Bite Wallet Card which is an indispensable starter guide for the seafood enthusiast. We found wild-caught American Gulf of Mexico shrimp out of the Texas coast, a “yellow light” choice for our shrimp, planning on more research. Same with our blue crab – we’ll only use American Blue Crab, at least somewhat comfortable that the fisheries are being managed in a sustainable way. Our catfish is closed-loop system raised in Mississippi or Alabama, green light. American, hand-harvested or farm-raised oysters, green light, check. For fin fish, we do our best to select fish that comes from sustainable fisheries – Alaska has done a great job, and the south coast of the US is catching onto their practices, which is great news for us.
None of this is possible without the right partners on the supply side. Carl Galvan from Supreme Lobster is the kind of supplier we really enjoy working with – on the ball, a hard worker, and dedicated to sustainability. The fish business is like the restaurant business; customer demands often force you to make choices you wouldn’t make personally, so you serve your customers, and share information and educate at every opportunity.
Recently, we began serving Laughing Bird Shrimp as our shrimp of choice on the menu. This was another Chef’s Collaborative Summit discovery, where Carl put us in touch with the Clean Fish folks, a company dedicated to finding and brokering seafood with the right practices for preserving aquatic life while enjoying its fruits.
Many of our guests were recently startled to see red snapper on our Southern Table Menu. I am proud of how informed our clientele is at Big Jones on environmental issues, and some folks wanted to know what-the-devil were we doing serving red snapper?!?! Well, I wondered the same thing when I went to a sustainable seafood reception at the Shedd Aquarium during the Chef’s Collaborative summit. They were serving red snapper at the Shedd!
This was a “teachable moment” for me, and one of the concepts the sustainable seafood experts urged us to understand was that even in bad industries, there are often times good companies doing the right thing and we have to support them if we want the “right practices” companies to succeed. We also have to refuse seafood from bad sources. Support the good players, ignore the bad, and we are doing our part to achieve balance in our fisheries and aqua farms.
Even a few years ago, Gulf of Mexico red snapper was badly overfished and the population crashed. This was a teachable moment for families that had been involved in the snapper trade for generations. A number of them joined up in the Shareholders Alliance to start down a new path of carefully monitored fish populations, and regulated catches that are shared. The results have been fantastic, and their red snapper fisheries have rebounded, seeing mature, 6-8 lb snappers and great numbers. These are the folks we need to support, and that’s why we are serving red snapper.
Does this mean red snapper is now a “green light” seafood choice? No! The fact is, this is the only red snapper fishery we know of that is doing the right thing. Please ask questions of anyone who offers red snapper for sale – most often, it’s not even red snapper, but also very often, it comes from a badly over-fished fishery where red snapper is threatened or even endangered.
We still have a lot to learn about sustainable seafood, and have joined Shedd Aquarium’s Rite Bite program as a partner restaurant! Please stay tuned as we share more stories from good people who are doing the right thing for our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Chef Paul Fehribach, October 2009