Austin Restaurants and Seafood Suppliers Work Toward Sustainability
Staying afloat with Minamoto Foods' SeaChange program
It's the calm before the storm – that is, the uncharacteristic period of quiet between lunch and dinner – and a fishmonger is prepping for service behind the polished white tile counter at Mongers Market + Kitchen. He turns away from fileting to greet a regular by name and launches into an explanation of a few market offerings: glistening filets of black sea bass from Virginia, beautiful Barnegat scallops, plump head-on white Gulf shrimp.
This past summer, Mongers relocated to the Hyde Park space formerly occupied by Vino Vino, allowing them to double their retail offerings. Now, true to its name, the space is just as much "market" as it is "kitchen." The selection is still modest compared to the seafood department of any grocery store – and chef/owner Shane Stark plans to keep it that way.
"I don't have everything under the sun; I have what's available," says Stark. "Could I buy frozen green-lipped mussels and put them in the case? Yeah, but why? Just to make my case look bigger? And do I want farm-raised Idaho trout in my case? No way."
When Stark opened the original Mongers location on East Cesar Chavez in 2015, his menu (and much smaller retail selection) was focused on fish sourced from the Gulf of Mexico. But factors like weather, labor shortages, and commercial fishing quotas all play a factor in the availability of any given species throughout the year. And "local" isn't always synonymous with "sustainable," especially when it comes to seafood. Stark – who grew up fishing on the Jersey coastline – has now evolved his supply to include products from all over the states, responsibly sourced through Minamoto Foods' SeaChange program.
"The SeaChange program is built to be a supply-based model where we aim to work as close to fishermen as possible, selling what they catch as opposed to dictating to them what we need or expect," explains Adam Brick, domestic buyer and director of sustainability for Minamoto Foods. "We believe our role is important in making key choices in what we buy and sell in this market ... It's our opinion that America has the most sustainable and intensely managed fisheries on the planet and it's our job to represent that."
Bridging the Gap
Minamoto Foods started in 2008, when Chong Choe, Johnson Ngo, and Julian Choi met while fishing with Takehiko "Smokey" Fuse, the owner of Musashino, who was constantly running into problems sourcing quality products with consistent delivery. Chong launched the importing business out of the back of his mom's Korean market but quickly graduated to a 2,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, as a growing network of chefs expressed interest, starting with the diaspora of chefs who'd worked under Fuse: Tyson Cole of Uchi, Tatsu Aikawa of Ramen Tatsu-ya, Také Asazu of Komé, Kazu Fukumoto of Fukumoto, and Moto Utsunomiya of East Side King. These days, Minamoto works with over 550 clients across Central Texas.
"As a lifelong fisherman, and a conservationist, I have seen the impact of overfishing in our local fishery," says Choi. "When we started our fresh program, it was always a goal to bring more sustainable options to the market. Ultimately, we operate a business and bring in what the market wants, but with our close connection with local chefs we had an audience to offer 'better' options for many of the species that they wanted."
While their focus had always been on sushi-grade fish, their ever-growing client list began to include more fine dining chefs who wanted more non-sushi options. Choi and Choe ran into Brick – who had been one of their clients when he was a chef at Apis – on a flight to L.A., where they hung out that weekend and brainstormed an expanded seafood program. In 2019, Brick launched SeaChange under the Minamoto umbrella.
"SeaChange is the same mindset of offering the local market better options, but with a focus on domestic, wild, know-your-captain level of sustainability," says Choi. "Hearing Adam on the phone is a mix between business and pirate banter. Logistical nightmares are the norm. Following weather from all coasts becomes more important than the local climate. Keeping open communication both ways [is essential], so chefs know what to expect from supply, and fishermen know what the demand will look like."
Brick offers, as an example, a snapshot of their relationship with fisherman Eric Hodge, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. Recent rough sea conditions have made it hard for him to get in deep enough waters to catch the vermillion rockfish he normally targets in his dayboat, so his options are to stay inshore of the islands and fish a different permit for smaller rockfish, or head north to Santa Cruz to fish offshore for black cod and kinki thornyheads.
"Either way, I've committed to buy his fish, regardless of what it is, and have already agreed to base prices so he can go fishing in confidence that we will buy what he catches," explains Brick, who also grew up fishing on the Gulf coast. "Bycatch plays a big role ... my job, as the buyer, is to set expectations of the volume we are looking for and to say 'yes' to as much non-targeted fish as possible. It's our job to make our fisherman's jobs easier and give our chefs variety and value."
Know Your Fish
Sourcing seafood sustainably does come at a higher price point for chefs, and it often brings a variety of other challenges along with it. Fish like skate and monkfish take a lot more time to clean, posits Stark, and for much less yield. Diners like what they like and they might be used to seeing their favorite fish on other menus around town. Luckily, the long bar at Mongers provides a perfect forum for the fishmongers to interact with guests and introduce them to bycatch they might not be familiar with.
"These people that require a certain fish, they have to have this fish, is what causes this overfishing," says Stark. "Remember the show Portlandia, when they asked about the chicken and the server even knew its name? Nobody ever does that with their fish. Nobody cares about where that mahi mahi came from! Our mahi is from a guy who went out and caught it with a rod and a reel and it's beautiful."
Jay Huang, the director of culinary operations for Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen, thinks Texans' distance from the ocean has caused a disconnect, and he is working every day to close that gap by educating his guests on the sustainable seafood he sources.
"Being a mostly landlocked state, the status of the world's oceans often slips our minds," says Huang. "We are simply happy when we see tuna, salmon, or lobster on the menu. However, this new generation of diners are socially and environmentally conscious. It took years for the farm-to-table movement to gain traction. I think fish and seafood will be a focus by the end of this decade."
In 2018, Lucky Robot became the first seafood restaurant in Texas to partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's (MBA) Seafood Watch program, which develops criteria and ranks fish in three different sustainability categories. In 2019, they were named the first Smart Catch sushi restaurant by the James Beard Foundation Smart Catch program, a seafood program created to increase sustainability in seafood. And in 2020, they became the first (and currently only) Smart Catch Leader.
At Lucky Robot, Huang substitutes hiramasa, or Dutch yellowtail, for hamachi. He uses American freshwater unagi in lieu of farm-raised unagi found in ponds across Asia, and he favors Big Glory Bay King salmon, ocean-farmed in New Zealand. Huang also started implementing the 200-year-old tradition of dry-aging fish, using a German-made dry ager, and figuring out how to manipulate taste and texture with it.
"Domestically caught Spanish mackerel is unspectacular until we dry age it for seven to 14 days," says Huang. "The skin goes from thick and chewy to thin and crispy, the texture transforms from slightly flakey to creamy and avocadolike. We lightly sear it with a torch to add a hint of smoke."
And though sustainability is always a priority for Huang, he doesn't sacrifice flavor when sourcing his products either. He says, "It's not terribly difficult to become part of a certification and call yourself a sustainable farm or fishery. It is another thing to be sustainable and provide a great product."
The Tide is Turning
At the end of March, Flagship Restaurant Group opened its first outpost of Omaha-based Plank Seafood Provisions in Austin, followed by Blue Sushi Sake Grill, which also has Dallas locations. The restaurants both feature a 100% responsibly sourced, traceable menu with a focus, and they are the largest sushi restaurant partner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
Chief Culinary Officer and co-owner Tony Gentile, who also grew up fishing off the Gulf coast (see a pattern?), said that responsible sourcing wasn't initially top of mind when he and his three partners launched the flagship location in 2013.
"As we grew, I really started becoming more and more interested in learning about our oceans and how I could make a difference, not only as an individual, but as a restaurateur and chef who really believed in actionable change and full transparency, along with my partners," says Gentile. "Learning about responsible sourcing may be very time-consuming and detail-oriented, but it is one of the most rewarding things that I have gotten to work on in my career thus far, and it will never stop."
As a part of their Conscious Earth program, guests can see exactly where each piece of seafood and animal protein is sourced. And MBA Seafood Watch's user-friendly database is always easy to reference from a smartphone while you're at dinner.
"The sourcing itself is the biggest challenge," says Gentile. "The Seafood Watch is constantly updating their recommendations and what used to be rated as okay may, at some point, start to have environmental concerns. This forces us to pivot and change menus."
Likewise, once a fish is deemed endangered, strict fishing quotas are enforced by the U.S. government in order to replenish the stock. Not only are these ratings always in flux, but they can sometimes be conflicting, or thought to be politically or socially influenced. For example, just this past fall, the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch gave line- and harpoon-caught Western Atlantic Bluefin tuna a positive rating but controversially retracted it in early 2021, though the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) – the government agency that issues the rating – certifies that the stock is recovered.
"Just like any process using humans as a judge ... there are obvious conflicts of interest," says Brick. "Generally speaking, I believe in keeping it as small-scale as possible. Know who caught the fish, where and how, and generally you will do well."
So next time you're craving seafood and faced with an ocean of options, head to one of the local chefs who source and cook with sustainability in mind. Dine with an open mind and let them be your guide. By doing so, we can all have a part in driving the industry in the right direction.
Sustainable Seafood Dishes (and Other Options) in Austin
When you're craving seafood, consider spending your dollars with the local chefs who source and cook with a sustainability-first mindset. And when purchasing fresh seafood to cook at home, check out helpful sources before you order to determine what kinds of seafood are best for the ocean. Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch (www.seafoodwatch.org) develops criteria and ranks fish in four different sustainability categories: best choice, certified, good alternative, and avoid. The James Beard Foundation Smart Catch program (www.jamesbeard.org/smart-catch) was also created to increase sustainability in seafood. By seeking alternatives and avoiding endangered or unsustainable creatures, you might even discover a new favorite! – V.M.
Musashino Sushi Dokoro2905 San Gabriel #200; www.musashinoatx.com
Ora King Tyee Super Salmon sashimi, sustainably farmed in New Zealand
Lucky Robot1303 S. Congress; www.luckyrobotatx.com
Hiramasa serrano: yellowtail, Asian pear, serrano, coconut ponzu, red curry oil, black tobiko
Mongers Market + Kitchen4119 Guadalupe; www.mongersaustin.com
Buttermilk-fried Maryland soft shell crab sandwich with chile, sweet and sour, and herb salad
Huckleberry Hospitality2340 W. Braker (food truck at Circle Brewing); www.huckleberrytx.com
Gulf Coast fish sandwich made with black drum fried in Barton Springs Mill cornmeal, served on a challah bun with pickles, lettuce, tomato, onion, and lemon caper remoulade
Plank Seafood Provisions11410 Century Oaks Terrace, #136; www.plankseafood.com/locations/texas/austin
Wild-caught Massachusetts sea scallops over squid ink linguine with saffron-coconut broth, curry sourdough gremolata, golden caviar, and carrot ginger puree
Otoko1603 S. Congress; www.otokoaustin.com
The bluefin tuna (hon maguro) is sourced from Kochi prefecture through the aquaculture program at Kindai University and sees a starring role in the nigiri set, dressed with nikiri shoyu and fresh grated wasabi
Fukumoto514 Medina St.; www.fukumotoaustin.com
Ankimo kobachi: monkfish liver, ponzu, momiji, and negi
Bento Picnic2600 E. Cesar Chavez St.; www.bentopicnic.com
Grilled and pulled Big Glory Bay King salmon (New Zealand) bento box (choose from salad, udon noodle, or rice)
Salt Traders Coastal Kitchen1101 S. MoPac Expy (Zilker); 2850 IH-35 N. (Round Rock); www.salttraderscc.com
Salt Traders' Cioppino: served with grilled sourdough, the tomato broth features red fish (farm-raised on the Texas Coast), shrimp (wild; Gulf of Mexico), clams (Cape Cod/ Boston), and Prince Edward Island mussels.
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