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
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.
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.
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:
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.