When a Charleston fishing boat captain approached chef Mike Lata to say federal quotas were limiting his grouper and snapper catches, the chef told him to bring everything he caught instead of limiting himself to the popular species.
“I told him on his next trip to bring us everything he caught and we’d pay,” Lata told the Wall Street Journal.
He began cooking what some refer to as “trash fish,” a term used by fishermen who were unable to sell them, but now co-opted by some of their staunchest advocates. Lata and his cooks discovered that many fish in the grab bag of amberjack, banded rudderfish, mackerel, eel, lionfish and sea robin were remarkably delicious.
“This was great product, treated with care and attention, only the species’ names weren’t marketable,” Lata said. “So we decided to take care of the marketing side.”
Lata is one of a growing number of chefs who are exploring some of the thousands of overlooked species of fish.
Shrimp, tuna, salmon and tilapia account for nearly 70 percent of seafood consumed in the United States; in the case of fine dining, cod, halibut and sea bass have also been in heavy rotation for the past 30 years.
These once-plentiful species have remained on menus and behind fish counters long after it stopped making ecological sense, as chefs and seafood purveyors have catered to a dining public skeptical about trying fish with names such as “scup” and “smelt.”
Confronted by the copious overlooked species swimming off Massachusetts, chef Michael Leviton is working on a trash fish cookbook. At Lumière in Newton, Mass., he regularly serves such underappreciated species as Acadian redfish and porgy.
Last week, chefs from 20 of the world’s best restaurants committed to serving ocean-friendly species such as anchovies, herring and sardines on World Oceans Day, which falls on June 8.
Chefs Collaborative, a non-profit organization focused on sustainability, has organized seven Trash Fish Dinners around the country in recent years, gathering top chefs to work their magic with local invasive species, bycatch and other alien sea creatures.
The most recent such dinner took place at the Squeaky Bean in Denver, where chef Theo Adley cooks with the likes of snakehead, brown shrimp, moon snails and drum.
Trash fish advocates hope that introducing diners to a wider array of seafood will trickle down to home kitchens, although it will take time, given limited options at seafood counters.
Advocates encourage consumers to start by choosing only domestically caught fish — U.S. fisheries are regulated to protect vulnerable species — and letting the best local choice dictate the preparation method, rather than shopping to a recipe.
Cooking with the whole net offers benefits beyond the ecological; it provides novelty at the table, it’s cost-efficient, and choosing a local porgy or dogfish rather than farmed or imported options keeps fishing communities all over the country in business.
“Fishing is the last true hunting on earth,” said Michael Dimin, co-founder of Sea to Table, a supplier to top seafood restaurants such as New York’s Marea and RM Seafood in Las Vegas. “We have a duty to protect it.”