Sustainable sushi in the news, Autumn 2009

Posted by Casson in News and Announcements

The hits just keep on coming!  Here are some new articles and posts by journalists, bloggers, foodies, enviros, and other sustainable sushi supporters from around the globe:

Much gratitude to Valentina Ryan for her generous and thoughtful review of my book Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time;

Be sure and check out the great piece on the sustainable sushi movement and the restaurants that are leading the charge that Clare Leschin-Hoar (who was also responsible for the article in the Christian Science Monitor a few months back) has written for Slashfood;

High-fives to James Wright, associate editor at Seafood Business, for lending me a soapbox in his magazine’s “One-on-One” feature.  Half of the interview is online at seafoodsource.com, and the other half is in the December print issue of Seafood Business.

Flattery will get you everywhere if you’re Brad Spear of the Sustainable Ocean Project and you write a two-part interview piece about my work — I don’t deserve it, but I’ll take it nonetheless!  Thanks!

Muchas gracias to Fernando Fernandez, owner/operator of the eco-entertainment website FernTV, for taking the time to talk with me about sustainable sushi and related issues in a short interview;

How incredible was it to see NHK, the Japanese national TV broadcaster, run a prime-time piece on sustainable sushi and the plight of the bluefin tuna?  Truly astounding.  The piece features two of my dear friends: Sushi Concierge Trevor Corson, and Chef Hajime Sato of Mashiko restaurant.

Although she’s currently based Hong Kong, California girl Krista Mahr still gives props to some hometown boys (Mike Crispino of ISSF, Mike Sutton of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and myself) in her fantastic article on the vanishing bluefin tuna in Time Magazine;

A hearty mange tak to Vibeke Petersen and the rest of the team at DR2 Udland for giving me the chance to speak to the Danish public via a televised primetime segment about sushi and sustainability;

Free drinks to the folks at sushi.pro for mentioning both my work and that of the Tataki team in their recent list of leaders in the sustainable sushi movement — thanks so much;

No prisoners are taken and no punches are pulled in a recent restaurant review by Stett Holbrook, Food Editor for the Silicon Valley Metro, who seizes the opportunity to preach the good word about the critical state of bluefin tuna;

It’s always nice to hear from Nancy Leson, food writer for the Seattle Times, who spread the word about the newly-sustainable sushi bar Mashiko in her recent article on re-imagined restaurants in the Jet City area;

Hugs to the hard-working team at Save Our Shores in Santa Cruz, CA, for writing a glowing review of their dinner at Tataki Sushi Bar (not to mention for everything that SOS does for the oceans every day);

A similarly positive review of Tataki just hit the web, courtesy of Soledad Bleu Etoile — who also had the opportunity to prepare a wonderful dinner for Hosea Rosenberg, Top Chef winner and burgeoning sustainability champion is his own right, the week before;

And speaking of Tataki, congratulations to chef-owner Kin Lui for being named one of the country’s Top 40 Chefs Under 40 by the Mother Nature Network.  It’s great to see Barton Seaver, a huge sustainability advocate and a personal hero of mine, on the list as well!

As the sustainable sushi movement gains steam, more and more progressive and innovative individuals are getting on board.  It seems like every time I turn around, there are new chefs, authors, journalists, activists, entrepreneurs, and bloggers raising the flag.  With this kind of support, I have no doubt that together we will save both the oceans and the art of sushi.

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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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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?


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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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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Radio Spot: The California Report

Well, by this time, the radio spot is already over.  I should have probably posted this a few days ago, but hey, I’ll make the best of it.

Rachael Myrow of KQED sat down a couple of weeks back for an interview with Geoff Shester and Stephanie Danner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, and invited me to tag along.  It was a great experience.  The piece was aired this morning (Feb 13th) on KQED in San Francisco, and KZOR in the Monterey Bay area.

I consider myself very fortunate to count both Geoff and Stephanie among my colleagues in the ocean conservation movement; they’re both brilliant scientists and have a great deal to teach.

But best of all… they’re huge Tataki fans!

I can’t express what an incredible thrill it is to hear representatives from the Monterey Bay Aquarium express their approval of what Kin, Raymond, Gretchen, and and the rest of the Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar family have done here in San Francisco.  I mean, this is Seafood Watch — these are the gods and goddesses of sustainable seafood!  So I’m a little humbled today… but I’ve also been strutting around down with a stupid grin on my face for the past several hours.

Anyhow, about the spot:

Rachael asked a lot of questions about bluefin tuna.  In fact, I think the piece was originally intended to be mainly focused on bluefin.  When it aired, though, it had transformed into something much broader.

Bluefin tuna is an extraordinarily important topic: an iconic fish that embodies both the awesome lifeforce of the ocean, as well as the heart-stopping peril in which our waters find themselves.  That being said, Rachael veered from what would have been a concentrated piece on bluefin (similar to the excellent recent work of Alastair Bland in the Santa Cruz Metro) and broadened her focus considerably to discuss seafood sustainability in general.

I think it’s commendable for KQED to approach this issue from such a holistic perspective.  It’s important to see the ocean not as a collection of individual fish and organisms, but as a living, interwoven fabric.  All the animals and plants of the ocean are intermingled.  The majestic bluefin tuna is incredibly important, sure, but the homely urchin, the tiny nudibranch, and even the drifting aquatic weeds of the Sargasso are equally integral to the health of our oceans.

Thanks, Rachael, for your interest, and for helping us put it all in perspective.

You can listen to the radio spot here.

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