The Vanguard – Part 3: Mashiko

What problem?

What problem?

It is a frightening concept to mess with success.  The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is alive and well in our modern economy, and the seafood industry is no exception.  Many seafood purveyors, when confronted with pressure to change their ways, can be resistant – especially if they see success and growth in their businesses.  Why change, if the status quo seems just fine?

The fact is, however, that all is not well.  There are a plethora of rocks and growlers lurking in the murky waters of the seafood industry: overfishing, habitat destruction, IUU fleets, and more.  Still, it’s not common that a business owner is able to see all of these obstacles clearly… especially if ones perspective is obscured by the constant back-and-forth of a ringing cash drawer.

Chef Hajime Sato, however, is different.

A tiny revolution

A tiny revolution

Mashiko restaurant has been operating in Seattle for fifteen years, and it is by no means an unsuccessful operation.  Chef Sato has a line out the door nearly every night, and unless you arrive just as the restaurant opens, it’s almost certain that you’ll be waiting for a table.  By all standards and appearances, this is a prospering business.  And frankly, Chef Sato had all this to lose when, in August of 2009, he took his entire business model and turned it upside-down.

Mashiko is the first sushi restaurant in the world that has transitioned from a conventional operation to a sustainable one.  With only minimal help from myself and the other players in the movement, Sato turned his restaurant into a sustainable operation.  He bid good riddance to his bluefin, hamachi, eel, monkfish, and other unsustainable items.  These days, he directs his efforts towards innovation, education, and the identification of local and sustainable options.

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New moves

Moreover, Chef Sato is the first traditionally-trained Japanese sushi chef to embrace the sustainable sushi movement.  In his words, however, he is simply returning to the basic principles that gave rise to sushi over a hundred years ago: utilization of local and seasonal products, reverence for life, and interpretation of the bounty of the oceans in a respectful and reverent manner.

In the last few months, Mashiko has achieved a much greater degree of exposure than ever before.  Interviews with Chef Sato have run on any number of popular food blogs; he received a glowing review of his operation from the Seattle Times and has appeared on the Food Network’s Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, where he discussed innovation in sushi, local seafood sourcing, and the amazing bounty of Puget Sound.

Through his bravery in challenging the conventional model, his determination to hold ethics and ocean conservation over the maximization of profit, and his contribution to the nascent sustainable sushi movement as well as the overall awareness of the consumer public in the Pacific Northwest, Chef Hajime Sato has brought a new spark to the sustainable sushi movement.

Good to have you on board, buddy.

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The year in review: 2009

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Days gone by

It’s been quite a year.

As the last few heartbeats of the year 2009 fade away, it is natural to take stock of how far we have come.  It’s important to recognize our victories, as well as to isolate and examine our shortcomings.  After all, there’s certainly no need to make the same mistakes again in 2010.

I’m also happy to say that it was Sustainable Sushi‘s first birthday at some point in the last few weeks.  Over this past year, this website has afforded me with the opportunity not only to explore many  fascinating issues, but to discuss them with people commenting from all across the globe.  It has been a wonderful experience, and I thank you all so very much for helping to make it happen.

So, 2009: a tumultuous year by any standard.  The oceans have had a tough time of it, but in other ways, we’ve achieved more than we could have possibly hoped for.

There have been times over the past twelve months when things have seemed bleak.  It is beyond debate that the oceans took some major blows this year, and some of the ominous clouds on the horizon have grown even darker:

  • das

    We will rue the day

    The Copenhagen climate change conference missed the mark and fell short of setting any global reasonable emissions goals, paving the way for the increased acidification of the world’s oceans.

At the same time, we’ve seen some incredible successes this year.  All across the planet, people stood up for the oceans, bringing their passion for a better planet with them as they cooked, shopped, wrote, worked and marched:

  • dsas

    Unwanted attention

    The End of the Line, a documentary on overfishing and the state of the world’s oceans, was released.  This led to increased pressure on Nobu restaurant to discontinue the sale of endangered Northern bluefin.  This momentum manifest in celebrity petitions, dozens of articles in trade and mainstream press, and a Greenpeace campaign.

  • It's finally over

    It's finally over

    The Cove, a shocking documentary about the Taiji dolphin slaughter, was released worldwide.  Broome, Australia, discontinued its sister-city relationship with Taiji over the fiasco.  Taiji has temporarily halted its dolphin drive, but other communities in Japan continue to hunt dolphins.  The Cove has even been nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.”

  • 2009 marked the first year in a world beyond the grindadrap: the annual Faeroese pilot whale drive that had caused much consternation among environmentalists.  In response to warnings by their chief medical advisors, the Faeroese practice of slaughtering pilot whales and distributing the meat throughout the community was halted permanently in November of 2008.

The majority of these positive changes are part of a greater pattern: an accelerating increase in our overall awareness of the problems faced by our oceans.  Movies, magazine articles, and activist campaigns have brought the health of our fisheries to the headlines and to the tips of our tongues.  The amount of conversations we are having at coffee shops, in grocery stores, and around backyard barbecues about seafood sustainability and environmentally responsible fish consumption has never been higher – and rising faster than ever before.

Stand and fight

Stand and fight

Yes, it’s true that the bluefin tuna is in dire straits.  It is true that eel poaching continues unabated, that bottom trawlers still prowl the seas, and that we are on pace to empty the oceans of all seafood in less than forty years.  Still, as menacing as these threats are, they are not the most important issues at hand.

The single most powerful and meaningful thing that happened to our oceans this year is that we truly began to wake up to the truth of what we are doing to our planet.  We are more aware.  We are more alert.  And we are much more energized and focused.

Hundreds of new ocean activists are standing up every day to make a difference.  Maybe they write a check, or they buy a different kind of fish, or they have a conversation with a chef or grocer.  Maybe they simply have coffee with a good friend and spread the word.  It doesn’t matter – it all helps.  Every day we come closer to achieving critical mass, a fully realized awareness that will mobilize our true potential to save our oceans.

Brave New World

A brave new world

So let’s make 2010 the year that we redouble our efforts.  It is time to capitalize on our momentum and push even harder, accomplish even more for the sake of planet and our future.  There is still a tremendous amount of work to do, but make no mistake: we are stronger than the forces that would hold us back.  And on those particularly gloomy days, when bad news comes crashing down and the future looks insurmountably bleak, just remember: you are not alone.  We’re all in this together – you, me, and the millions of other people that are out there fighting every single day, working to make this world a better place for all of us.

Take heart — we are winning.

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Sustainable sushi in the news, Summer 2009

A quick shout-out to all the journos and bloggers that have been covering the sustainable sushi issue in the past couple of months:

Massive gratitude to Allison and Son of Sushi Day for a trio of pieces covering the Mashiko launch in August (an overview of the event, an interview with Chef Hajime Sato, and an interview with me.)  Thank you so much for your incredibly supportive and generous sentiments.

Patrick Robinson of the West Seattle Herald did a nice write-up of Eat Local Now!, a extremely well-attended Seattle event that included Chef Hajime of Mashiko and other local entrepreneurs.

Hajime was also recently featured on the Food Network’s Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, where he lovingly prepared a local Puget Sound delicacy — sea cucumber — for a squeamish host.  I don’t yet have a link to a video clip, but will put one up as soon as I am able.

There’s little out there that excites me as much as the Japanese media’s growing interest in the sustainable sushi movement, and Dani Rippingale of the Tokyo Weekender has kick-started it with her excellent piece on the modern sushi industry and our dwindling resources.

Check out Peter Smith’s excellent article for the GOOD Blog highlighting ten people, projects, and ideas that are making a difference in the world of food — sustainable sushi is number one!  Thanks Peter!

A heartfelt thank-you goes out to Bryan Walsh for including the founders of Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar (Kin Lui, Raymond Ho, and myself) in Time Magazine‘s Heroes of the Environment 2009.  We are humbled and flattered beyond words.

The Chic Ecologist had a nice shout-out to sustainable sushi, especially to the work being done by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Seafood Watch program.

Chris Mikesell of the University of Hawaii has jumped into the sustainable sushi world head-first in his thorough investigation of sushi and tuna awareness in Hawaii.  Great work.

Immediately after learning of the Time Magazine award, I was interviewed mid-gush by Jacqueline Church of the Leather District Gourmet, who was her usual wonderful self.  Thanks Jackie for believing in us from the very beginning.

On the same note, one my my personal heroes, Eddie Kohan of Obamafoodorama threw us kudos as well in a congratulatory follow-up piece on her consistently poignant muck-raking website.

Fist-bumps to the newly bluefin-free Jane Black of the Washington Post for her insightful and provocative piece on sustainable sushi for Hemispheres, United Airlines’ in-flight magazine.  Interviewees include Bamboo Sushi’s Brandon Hill and the lobster sex god Trevor Corson.  I got a couple of words in as well.  Best part is: I’m going to be flying on United in about a week, and I finally have a reason to be excited about getting on a plane.

The good people at the UTNE Reader picked up John Birdsall’s article on sustainable sushi (originally for Edible San Francisco) — they even gave it a byline on the cover of their 25 anniversary issue!  UTNE’s Julie Hanus wrote an excellent supporting piece as well, with some great accolades for both Tataki and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Thanks!

Did I miss anyone?  Do you know of a journalist or blogger that’s interested in this topic?  Maybe a chef who’s pushing sustainable seafood on his or her menu?   A sushi bar or grocery store that’s considering making the switch?  Please let me know!

It’s wonderful to see all the ground that the sustainable sushi movement is gaining in the conventional media, the blogosphere, and in popular culture.  Hopefully this will lead to more entrepreneurs, chefs, and business owners taking the plunge.

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The Vanguard – Part 2: Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar

Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar was the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the United States. When it opened in February 2008, however, it was to deafening silence from the culinary scene.  Little money was available to spend on advertising and fanfare; chef/owners Kin Lui and Raymond Ho had already put themselves deep in debt merely through attending to the bare necessities that came with opening a restaurant.  Although I was lucky enough to be involved in concept and development, I certainly wasn’t able to bring any money to the table.

The vision behind the restaurant was simple – to prove that sushi and ocean conservation did not necessarily run at odds in one another, and that in fact one could do honor to the art form and hold true to the pursuit of excellence that is part and parcel of the cuisine, while at the same time respecting and nurturing the bounty of our oceans.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Not in our house

There were some major challenges right out of the gate.  The five most popular sushi items in the United States – open-containment farmed salmon, farmed shrimp, longlined yellowfin tuna, farmed Japanese amberjack, and ranched freshwater eel were all unequivocally unsustainable choices.  They all had to go, as did the biggest moneymaker of them all: bluefin tuna.

An even bigger challenge has been the lack of a full kitchen.  Tataki has had to cope with this since day one.  Frankly, though, it has only served to show how much more a hypothetical sustainable sushi chef could do with a full suite of tools.

The Tataki menu has evolved over time, but not a single one of the aforementioned products has ever blemished its pages.  This has been a struggle in some ways, but in others, it’s actually proven surprisingly easy.  An example?  Replacing farmed salmon.

I can't believe it's not eel!

I can't believe it's not eel!

Since farmed salmon was never an option for us, Tataki has always offered arctic char in its place.  We expected some degree of resistance from our customers, but it has never materialized.  The char was instantly popular among our diners and to this day remains one of the restaurant’s best sellers.  We bring in wild Alaskan salmon as well, but as this is a seasonal product, it is a delicacy that we are not able to offer on a daily basis.

Eel was replaced with faux-nagi, Chef Kin Lui’s brainchild.  This sablefish-based dish delivers the deep, dusky sweetness and fatty texture of unagi, but doesn’t rely on an overfished product.

The chefs eschew bluefin toro in favor of the sweet, supple belly flesh of local pole-and-line albacore.  Hamachi was never an option either, due to the state of stocks and the rapacity of the industry.  Instead, Tataki’s offers farmed Hawaiian kanpachi (as well as wild amberjack, depending on the season.)

Welcome back, vegans

Welcome back, vegans

Tataki also boasts a thorough vegetarian selection.  It seemed to us that vegetarians had been severely marginalized when it came to sushi — how many cucumber rolls can you eat before the experience becomes unbearably mundane?  Moreover, vegetarians are, by definition, sustainable seafood supporters insofar as they would never order bluefin, eel, farmed salmon, or other dangerous options.  Kin and Raymond put a tremendous amount of thought into designing a menu that offers both vegetarians and vegans alike a plethora of animal-free delights.

The vast majority of Tataki’s customers are thrilled about the options.  Sure, we have the odd one or two patrons that lament our lack of unagi or toro, but we’ve found that the gains vastly outweigh the losses.

While the restaurant’s popularity has continued to grow, nothing could have prepared us for a recent event that both flattered and humbled us to no end.  In its October 5th issue, Time Magazine declared Raymond, Kin and myself “Environmental Heroes of the Year” in honor of our work with sustainable sushi.

Our little corner of the industry

Our little corner of the industry

As ecstatic as we are about this award, it is actually our hope that our little operation will soon be forgotten amidst the dozens, even hundreds, of other restaurants and grocery stores that make the switch to a more responsible method of selling sushi.  A niche restaurant may command a distinct market share, but it will not change the world; it cannot save the oceans.  A vanguard restaurant, however, defines itself by the slow demise of its individuality.  We at Tataki will know that we’ve succeeded in our mission when, from an environmental perspective, there is nothing to distinguish us from any other sushi bar.

The concept of sustainability is ballooning within the public consciousness, and with each passing day, the ideals of a sustainable lifestyle penetrate further into our daily existence.  For all of us in the Tataki family, it has been and continues to be a true honor to play a role in the development of sustainable sushi.

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The Vanguard – Part 1: Introduction

It's a long hard road

It's a long hard road

As sustainable sushi begins to gain a foothold in the United States, it makes sense to do a quick recap of how far we’ve come.

When you look at the headlines, it is easy to feel disheartened.  Traditionalists and high-end restaurants are seeing Industry staples like bluefin tuna under threat of extinction.  On the other end of the spectrum, unsustainable aquaculture and overfishing are compounded as sushi continues to backslide into the realm of quick-fix fast food.

For example, take the ubiquitous Genki Sushi, which wraps its tentacles around the globe like Kraken attacking a Norse longship.  The robotic sushi giant has long dominated Japan and Hawaii, but new installations have recently popped up in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Thailand.  The company has even managed to establish a presence on contiguous American soil, with restaurants opening their doors in New York and, most recently, Seattle.  Genki is not aimed at delivering a white-tablecloth sushi experience, but rather a quick in-and-out power lunch revolving around a gimmicky network of robots and converyor belts.

Leave no trace?

Greed on the high seas

This kind of mass-produced sushi tends to draw from mechanized fishing, as it demands large amounts of cheap fish that can be sold in massive quantities for acceptable prices.  Factory trawling operations take advantage of economies of scale by ripping staggering amounts of fish and shellfish biomass out of our oceans in single swoops. This keeps their operation costs down and allows them to undercut other fishermen in the marketplace.  Fast food sushi relies on these marine rapists – otherwise, how are they going to sell two pieces of nigiri for $2.25 and make a profit?

(I should mention that a Genki has recently announced a plan to begin incorporating seasonal and loval seafood and vegetables into their restaurant menus.  This is theoretically fabulous news, but I’m going to hold off on the fireworks until I have more information.  More on this in the next few weeks – hopefully Genki will respond to my interview request.)

It's a start

It's a start

Parenthetical caveats aside, the point of this somber introduction is not to reiterate this depressing state of affairs, but rather to highlight those few pioneers who have lit beacons in the darkness.  Indeed, there’s no time like the present for an examination of the resounding successes that the sustainable sushi movement has enjoyed in the face of this creeping malaise.

This serial piece will examine the current status of the three known sustainable sushi restaurants that are currently operating in North America: Bamboo Sushi, Mashiko, and Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar.  I will certainly include other restaurants if appropriate.

Perhaps the best thing I can do to foster the growth of this list is to expound a bit on the triumphs and setbacks of these restaurants.  Each of them has adopted a different business model and interpreted sustainability in a different way, and thus they have engendered their own opportunities and challenges.

It is my hope that these articles will encourage other sushi chefs and entrepreneurs to entertain the idea of moving towards sustainability themselves.  Many thanks to Sushihound for providing me with the idea for this piece.

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Sustainable sushi in the news, Spring 2009

I want to take a few moments to acknowledge the journalists that have been doing so much to promote sustainable sushi in the past few weeks.

Some quick thank-yous:

To Clair Leschin for her wonderfully supportive piece on sustainable sushi in the Christian Science Monitor;

To the Seattle Times’ Nancy Leson for her flame-stoking article on Mashiko, the cooperative effort of chef Hajime Sato and myself to create Seattle’s first sustainable sushi restaurant;

To Katharine Mieszkowski of Salon.com for a powerful take on sushi and the current plight of the bluefin tuna;

To Laurel House for an insightful roster of ten steps we can all take to support sustainable sushi for Discovery.com’s Planet Green;

To the Seattle Weekly’s Jonathan Kauffman for his examination of sustainable sushi and consumer habits, as well as some pomp and circumstance for the Mashiko launch; and

To Sarah Barmak of NOW Magazine for her muck-raking exposé on the sushi industry and her quest to find sustainable fish in Toronto.

I, as well as the teams at Tataki Sushi Bar and Mashiko, are grateful or your time, interest, and passion.  This movement will not succeed without interest and support from the media.  Having determined and environmentally aware journalists on board with the sustainable sushi movement is absolutely imperative as we move forward.  It has been a pleasure to work with each and every one of you; thank you all so much.

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Contest update — no snakes to be found

When this contest was first announced, I had guessed that it would result in a relatively quick and painless process of trial and error.  We’d test each entry, judge them internally (and maybe offer samples to customers who happened to be in the restaurant at the time), and announce the winner.  This really doesn’t seem that difficult, right?

Right.

The challenge came as a result of the Tataki chefs and I deciding beforehand that we would accept and test all reasonable entries, regardless of whether or not they were in our current supply chain.  I mean, this whole contest was about thinking outside the box, so we wanted to encourage that.  We wanted to be taken by surprise.

Don't tread on me... or eat me, for that matter

Don't tread on me... or eat me, for that matter.

Everything was going fine until someone suggested rattlesnake.  I mean, it’s not a bad idea.  It may have a similar consistency and texture to eel.  Who knows?  We decided that it was a smart entry and that it should be included in the contest.

Unfortunately, it has proven near impossible to get in San Francisco.  In a drawn-out six-week search, I’ve talked to our suppliers, investigated high-end meat stores and exotic importers, even went to Chinatown on a tip we got on Twitter… nothing.  So, in the interest of drawing this contest to a close, I’ve given up.

Unless anyone happens to have some rattlesnake meat and wants to drop it off at Tataki by this weekend, I’m letting it go.  The results of the contest will be posted early next week.  We apologize to Hilary, the one who suggested rattlesnake, for our inability to consider her innovative idea due to the paucity of snakemeat.

Seriously, it’s like we’re in Ireland or something.

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Why Nobu must evolve

Anyone who has listened to the radio, watched television, read a newspaper, surfed the internet, or chased after celebrity gossip in the past couple of weeks has likely heard about something about a particular sushi chain getting called out for a history of nefarious behavior.

The chain in question in Nobu, the fantastically successful joint venture of renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa, the Raging Bull himself Robert De Niro, and three other partners. Nobu is a sushi giant, with twenty-four locations that dot the most chic neighboorhoods of many of the world’s most glamourous cities, and a menu replete with dozens of price tags that would make the average recession-choked American both green with envy and red with rage.

Countdown to extinction

Countdown to extinction

Nobu is under siege from all sides for its continual disregard for the health of our planet.  The high-end chain sells a tremendous amount of bluefin tuna, much of which is critically endangered Northern bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.  Despite repeated warnings about the looming commercial extinction of this majestic fish from a vast international amalgamation of scientists, actors, conservation organizations, foodies, bloggers, aquaria, filmmakers, and even a European Prince, Nobu resolutely presses forward, offering no comment and refusing to alter its menu in the slightest.  The restaurant’s response is akin to a tantrum-throwing child clapping his hands over his ears while stomping his feet, or perhaps to a yoked horse charging towards a cliff regardless of its own life or the lives of those in the stagecoach attached to it.  Nobu’s arrogant denial of the reality of our mutual challenge — the continual decline of the health of our oceans — is a serious problem.

Not in my ocean: Elle MacPhearson is one of the many celebrities boycotting Nobu

Not in my ocean: Elle MacPhearson is one of the many celebrities boycotting Nobu

But this is not about just one restaurant.  Nobu is a symbol; it represents the old guard of restaurateurs whose lofty perches often distance them from the plebeian masses.  Moreover, Nobu is a rallying point — as an endangered species-slinging, celebrity-owned, stratospherically-priced haunt for the upper crust, it’s a perfect target for those who are itching for a greater level of corporate responsibility within the restaurant industry.

For those of you who are not yet aware, I have recently accepted the position of Senior Markets Campaigner for one of my favorite conservation organizations, GreenpeaceThis does not indicate the convergence of Greenpeace and www.sustainablesushi.net, which remains an independent forum – but the arrangement allows me to work with a large group of passionate individuals towards the greater goal of a healthy planet.  One of the ways that we can reach this goal is through the reformation of the sushi industry, and there’s no better way to accomplish this than to get some high-level trendsetters on board.  Enter Nobu.

Nobu has already been “outed” on their unsustainable practices (this interaction is featured in the forthcoming documentary The End of the Line, based on the excellent book by Charles Clover).  Nobu promised to label bluefin as an endangered species on all of their menus, but subsequently changed tactics and cut off communications.  The one menu that reflects any change whatsoever is at the London branch, which uses a microscopic footnote to indicate that bluefin is “environmentally challenged.”  This thunderous understatement aside, Nobu has done absolutely nothing to protect that very fish which has so heavily contributed to the jingling pockets of the restaurant’s owners.  Our oceans cannot endure this situation any longer.  Enter Greenpeace.

I am not a fan of direct confrontation.  I view it as an avenue of last resort, only to be used when all other tactics have been exhausted.  In this case, Nobu has been stonewalling environmental entreaty for over a year while the chain contiunues to plunder the ocean for its own insatiable greed.  To expose and spotlight this edacious behavior, John Hocevar, Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign Director, developed a mock Nobu menu — a Swiftian satire of Nobu’s reckless quest for profit at all costs.  What is the difference, the menu suggests, between Northern bluefin and mountain gorilla, Iberian lynx, or California Condor?  All of these animals are critically endangered.  Why is it acceptable to serve the former, when the presence of any of the latter three on a restaurant menu would no doubt solicit a restaurant critic’s verbal equivalent of a molotov cocktail through the front window?

Spreading the word
Spreading the word, one menu at a time

Over the past week, Greenpeace activists in both New York and Los Angeles have staged “dine-ins” at Nobu’s TriBeCa and West Hollywood locations, festooning the restaurant with mock menus, taking up table space, and demanding to speak to the manager about Nobu’s egregious disregard for our planet’s welfare.

The actions were conducted in a precise manner that was aimed at sending a message to upper management without undue disruption of other restaurant patrons.  Nobu servers were generously tipped by Greenpeace activists; after all, the  restaurant ownership’s head-in-the-sand mentality does not justify behavior that would send the waitresses and waiters, who have no decision-making power but who do have families and livelihoods, home without the tips on which they depend.  We are, after all, in a recession.

The point of all this is to take the issue to Nobu on the restaurant’s home turf.  In addition to being lambasted in the press, demonized in a documentary, and boycotted by celebrities, Nobu now must contend with activists that march directly into the restaurant to speak their minds.

The stubborn legend himself: Matsuhisa-san

The stubborn legend himself: Matsuhisa-san

Nobu is a trend-setting establishment that not only spans the globe, but wields incredible influence at the top of the sushi industry food chain. The innovative akumen and staggering talent of Nobu Matsuhisa are undeniable; he is undoubtedly capable of creating delectable dishes from both sustainable and unsustainable sources alike. Why, then, is he so resistant to use these gifts in an environmentally friendly manner?

Still, viewing this issue as “environmentalists v Nobu” is missing the point. Both groups want the same outcome: a healthy and productive ocean that can provide all the ecosystem services to foster sustainable business and healthy living. If Nobu were to drop bluefin and adopt a sustainable business model, it would be in the interest of the environmental community to promote the restaurant and encourage consumers to patronize it, rather than the unfortunate current situation.

Nobu needs to change their practices and begin to demonstrate corporate responsibility. Although environmentally rapacious and irresponsible businesses no longer have a place in this changing world, it is in everyone’s interest that sustainable and wisely managed establishments thrive and succeed.

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Update: Freshwater Eel / Unagi (CONTEST)

Please stop eating unagi.

An adult European eel, Anguilla anguilla.

A recent article in the Guardian, a prestigious UK newspaper that has an entire department devoted to environmental issues, has reported that eel populations across the European continent have dropped by 95% in the past 25 years.  Sadly, this isn’t really that surprising.

Steven Morris, the article’s author, writes that “a ban on exporting eels out of Europe – they are a popular dish in the far east – is proposed, along with a plan to severely limit the fishing season and the number of people who will be allowed licences [sic -- heh].”  Unfortunately, that is the extent to which the article discusses the connection of the eel’s dire situation to the sushi world.

Eels in captivity.  Chances are exceptionally good that they were captured from a dying European or American population.

The unagi industry is based primarily in China and relies on glass eels (babies) caught in the wild rather than hatching animals within the farms.

There’s not a whole lot I can add to my current entry on unagi.  It already ends with “Don’t eat it.”  I guess this isn’t so much of an update as it is me beating the same old drum.

I don’t mean to be preachy, but this animal is in serious trouble.  We need to give it a break.  There are other options.  Honestly, drench just about any fatty, sustainable whitefish (I suggest Alaskan or Canadian black cod) in kabeyaki sauce, broil it or sear it with a blowtorch, and serve it with sesame seeds over rice: it’s gonna taste a whole lot like unagi.

Listen, I’m not trying to be obnoxious about this.  I just am particularly passionate about this issue.  The eel is an incredible creature, and we know so little about it.  All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic swim all the way to one small tract of ocean — the Sargasso Sea — to spawn.  For the longest time, we actually thought they simply incarnated from mud and weeds in rivers because we had never seen breeding eels. There’s still so much we can learn about this animal.

Your entry will be prepared in this fashion.

Let me put something out there, as added incentive.  How about this — everyone who reads this post, please comment on it with your alternative to eel.  It could be anything you want (but black cod, aka sablefish, has already been taken, so that doesn’t count; and no unsustainable items — that goes without saying.)  I’ll wait ten days from posting.  On the eleventh day (May 15th), I’ll take all the suggestions to Chef Kin Lui at Tataki Sushi Bar.  He will look at the list of suggestions, try them out as kabeyaki-style dishes, and choose a favorite.  I’ll post a picture of the winning dish.  Whoever wins will receive a free dinner for two at Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco, as well as a signed copy of my book.

Good luck!

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The kitchen is open (finally)

My jubilance can only be properly expressed by very large balloons.

My jubilance can only be properly expressed by very large balloons.

I am so thrilled to announce that after any number of stumbling blocks — labor issues, seafood distribution snafus, menu and concept design flaws, and some rather unfortunate plumbing problems — the SustainableSushi.net virtual sushi restaurant is finally open for business!

Many of you may have noticed that strange link on the right side of the home page that reads “Virtual Sushi Dinner.”  Some of you may have even clicked on said link, only to find that it was the electronic equivalent of a fancy restaurant door painted on a solid brick wall.  It went nowhere.  What a letdown!

Anyhow, just a few moments ago on this partly cloudy San Francisco morning, my web development genie crinkled her nose just right and that door became (virtual) reality.  So, by all means, go back to that erstwhile tease of a link and try it again.

Coder, genie-coaxer, diplomat, and all-around IT superstar: It's MBA's Humberto Kam.

Conservationist, diplomat, and all-around IT superstar: MBA's Humberto Kam.

The Virtual Sushi Dinner was constructed as a collaborative effort with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, and in all seriousness, there is no way that this could have been completed without the tireless efforts of two key colleagues and friends of mine.  A heartfelt thank-you to Humberto Kam and Sheila Bowman, without whom that genie would still be hiding in the lamp.

So please, by all means — test your sushi smarts and indulge yourself.  See how your order plays out from an environmental perspective.  Plus, it’s carb-free.  You  will actually burn calories during the meal (I mean, you’re typing, right?  And clicking a mouse?  That’s gotta count for something.)

See you at the (virtual) sushi bar.

Itadakimasu!

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