The alarming headlines are everywhere: “Overfished and under-protected: Oceans on the brink of catastrophic collapse”(CNN); “Scientists predict saltwater fish extinction” (Huffington Post); “The end of fish” (The Washington Post). They reflect real issues, but according to sustainable seafood expert Barton Seaver, they tell only part of the story.
Seaver, who moved to South Freeport with his wife, Carrie Anne, last November, is a chef, not a scientist. Yet his pragmatic and nuanced approach to sustainability have made him one of the world’s leading voices on the issue, which he left a restaurant career to focus on in 2010.
“Sustainable seafood was started as a campaign as we became aware of the failing state of the oceans,” he said. “The campaign was: ‘The oceans are in trouble. We must save the oceans.’ Not a mention of humans. And if you identified overfishing as one of the principal causes of the detriment on the oceans … Just looking at that language: If overfishing is the problem, then the logical solution to the layperson, is underfishing. But the causalities of the issues facing our oceans and the solutions to them are far more complex.”
Seaver isn’t the first to include humans in efforts to save the environment. This approach, called “community-based conservation,” has been the focus of conservation organizations for several years. But he takes the concept further, saying that nature, culture, economics and health should all be included in the sustainability discussion (see sidebar).
Beyond his culinary background, Seaver, 35, has the resumé to back up his big, brainy ideas. He is a National Geographic Fellow; the director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University’s School of Public Health; and the New England Aquarium’s first Sustainability Fellow.
His work at Harvard primarily involves institutions, and how their food-purchasing decisions can affect human and community health. At the aquarium, he helps translate the organization’s conservation efforts to people’s dinner plates. All three appointments require him to travel extensively, lecture and serve on many boards and panels.
“It seems like an awful lot of work, but in fact it’s largely the same work sold to three different audiences,” he said. “The New England Aquarium allows me access to the very best current science under the water and understanding of the global commodity supply chain that is seafood trade. National Geographic offers me an international audience; it offers me also a key that will open almost any door. And Harvard School of Public Health allows access to a very large and very powerful community that is engaged in the public health dialogue.”
EAT FISH. NOT TOO MUCH.
In addition, Seaver has somehow found the time to write two acclaimed cookbooks: “For Cod and Country” (2011) and “Where There’s Smoke” (2013). Both espouse a practice made famous by writer and activist Michael Pollan (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), encouraging the consumption of modest amounts of protein – fish or meat – accompanied by plenty of vegetables. Moderating how much we eat is also vital to a healthy planet, Seaver says.
Two more books, published under the National Geographic imprint, are scheduled to be released in September: “Foods for Health: Choose and Use the Very Best Foods for Your Family and Our Planet” and “National Geographic Kids Cookbook: A Year-Round Fun Food Adventure.” A show for the National Geographic TV channel called “Eat: The History of Food,” is also in the works.
Seaver’s approach to sustainability was developed and nurtured in restaurant kitchens and, long before that, at the family dinner table. He grew up in Washington D.C., in “a neighborhood where everyone sat on their stoop and said hello to each other,” he said. And where his family cooked and ate dinner together every night.
“There was that sense of community that has always been of singular importance to me and has driven my entire career. Community is an extension of communion. And communion is what you create at the dinner table. My family took dinner very seriously. That was the fluency that allowed me to find a place within the culinary profession. It was that larger sense of community that I knew I was creating through food, and that’s what I really valued about food.”
Seaver traces his fascination with fish and the oceans to a touchstone event when he was 7 or 8 years old. His grandfather kept a boat in Bridgewater, Connecticut, and the family would take overnight trips on Long Island Sound.
“After a day of sailing we found a mooring in a small harbor,” Seaver recalls. “We set up to start cooking dinner and I had a little fishing reel. I dropped it off the back of the boat and bam, I had a fish. I hauled up the flounder and Dad said, ‘That will be good for dinner.’ I put my line in again and bam, I had another one. I was pulling them out one after the other and Dad was filleting and cooking them as fast as I could catch them.”
Seaver’s father cooked the fish simply: lightly dredged in flour and sautéed in butter with lemon.
“It was one of the best meals of my entire life,” Seaver said, his voice warm.
“It was also a moment where I became aware of the bounty – you see that much coming out of the ocean with that little effort. I thought it must be the same everywhere … but what I consider the baseline of bounty in the oceans has decreased even in my lifetime. Things don’t last if you keep pulling them out like I was doing.”
BEGINNINGS OF A PHILOSOPHY
After high school, Seaver headed to the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, graduating with honors in 2001. He then traveled in Spain and Morocco, where according to his website, time spent with the people of Essaouria, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, “taught him generations-old fishing methods and shaped his belief that, at its root, sustainability is both an ecological and a humanitarian issue.”
Returning to D.C., Seaver began his restaurant career as a chef at José Andrés’ celebrated restaurant Jaleo. He put his views on sustainability into practice at the stylish Hook, which he opened in Georgetown in 2006. It soon made enviable lists – The Washington Post’s Top 50 restaurants 2007, Bon Appétit’s Top-10 Eco-Friendly Restaurants in 2008. Later that year, Seaver left Hook.
“In the first year we were open we served 78 species of seafood. And that’s because I had relationships with 13 different fishermen,” he said. “And the relationship ran like this: If you catch it, I’ll cook it. With very few exceptions for species that are inherently at risk to fishing pressure.”
There were 15 different kinds of fish on the menu every day, most of which his customers had never heard of, said Seaver.
“I was selling brotula and dentex and dogfish and rainbow runner, blackfin tuna – if it came up in a net, it ended up on my menu. People came to us because they wanted to try something new.”
First, however, his staff had to be aware of what was on the plates.
“It was fun, because the servers had a story to sell. They went out there, and it wasn’t, ‘Here’s the special for tonight, blah blah blah …’ it was ‘Oh my god, we have this really cool new fish and I’ve never seen it before; we’re doing rainbow runner and it’s sort of like a mackerel but it’s got this flaky texture like snapper and it’s sort of a hybrid of the two. And we’re wood-grilling it tonight on the slow part of the grill so it’s really getting a nice smoke to it, which it really picks up nice and it pulls out the sweet ocean flavors and we’re pairing it with a nice salad of shaved fennel with a little bit of sautéed oranges in there, a slight caramelization on that to pick up on the slight crispiness of the skin … great dish.’ Are you kidding me? I just sold 40 pounds of rainbow runner.”
When talking policy and issues, Seaver is serious, earnest and intense. But as soon as the conversation veers into food and cooking, the animated, playful chef side of him emerges.
He gets especially enthusiastic as he tells “the best story I have about this. We would get boxes of fish and I knew these guys were going out reef fishing – it was the mid-Atlantic day. And I was waiting on my fish, I had 600 reservations on the book that night – it was a Thursday night. And the fish doesn’t come and it doesn’t come and I call up: ‘Michael, where’s my fish?’ ‘It’s coming, it’s coming, I promise.’ The box finally gets there and I open it up and ‘what the – - – is this? Michael, what are you doing to me?’ And of course my language was very gentlemanly and proper, I promise you … and he said, ‘Well, the guys went out fishing and they had a really bad day, they didn’t catch anything, but I didn’t want to leave you in the lurch, so I sent you all the leftover bait.’ And I had a box of flying fish. So I had to stop everybody in the kitchen – everybody – and say, ‘OK, everybody’s on fillet duty, let’s go.’ Because filleting a fish is easy once you’ve practiced it, it’s a skill, but throw in a wingbone structure! So all of a sudden I’ve got flying fish on my menu that we’ve got to sell. So I roll it up like rollmops and marinate it with a little lemon zest, chopped tarragon, olive oil, thread it onto rosemary skewers, grill it slowly, smoldering over wood smoke, serve it in a broth of summer squash and sweet onion braised in juniper broth – little bit of fresh herbs in there – put it on the menu at $24/$25, and 80 pounds of flying fish – sold out by 7:30.
“You know why? Because every single one of the servers went up to every table and said ‘OH MY GOD, you will never believe what happened … Table of four, order in four flying fish’ … ‘ ”
To Seaver, the anecdote proves that people want “storied seafood.” At the farmers market, shoppers can talk to the farmers and learn about less familiar produce. Likewise, a key to encouraging consumption of lesser-known, more sustainable species of seafood is having similar interactions with the people who got the fish from the ocean to the table.
“People want to be connected back to the fisherman. In the same way the advent of farmers markets through the efforts of groups like MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) and FarmAid have caused us to re-evaluate the social values inherent in our food production systems, so too do people want the opportunity to recognize the values of fishing communities and what they provide for our table and for our culture.”
In other words, sustainability depends on environmental measures, naturally, but also on putting into place sensible economic systems. It’s not enough to save the fish if the fisherman can’t afford to catch them because fuel or access to the waterfront is too expensive; then the fishing village becomes a ghost town, the fish-processing plant closes down, jobs are lost… The ramifications extend like ripples from a rock thrown into the water.
INTO THE FIRE
Seaver’s trajectory from rising star chef to National Geographic, Harvard and the national stage may sound like a food-world fairy tale, but his life has had some rough patches. His mother’s long illness and death when he was a just a junior in high school left him adrift, he said; he credits St. Albans, the private high school he attended in D.C., for recognizing he was in trouble and supporting him. “I am doing all I am doing now with a St. Albans education, because they taught me so well how to read, how to think strategically, how to cross-reference seemingly different bodies of information,” he said.
When Seaver left Hook, he was “wholly devastated. It was the wrong partnership; I had to leave for moral reasons. In doing so I gave up all of the blood and the identity that I had poured into the place.”
He was also very sick. It took a hospital stay and removal of a lung to cure him. Eventually, he was healthy again; he was also out of work. But he soon entered into a deal to open Blue Ridge in Washington’s Glover Park neighborhood. That gig earned him the accolade Chef of the Year from John Mariani of Esquire Magazine in the fall of 2009.
“Eat a few dishes prepared by Esquire chef of the year Barton Seaver, thirty, and you’ll feel good about living on earth: aged country ham, a perfect chicken potpie with hot rosemary-flecked biscuits, sweet-potato fritters with honey mustard,” Mariani wrote. “Listen to him talk about how to save us all from destroying America’s food chain (and ourselves in the process) and you’ll feel even better about it. He’s a voice of reason at a time when priggish, competing factions – from vegans to slow-food zealots – deal more in polemics than real solutions.”
The accolade created a firestorm from Seaver’s critics – fellow chefs, as well as D.C. food writers and bloggers who seemed to resent his rapid rise.
“What earned me chef of the year was my take on sustainability and how I delivered it, beyond pans of guilt and quinoa,” he said. “Cheffing is a competitive industry. Here I was a young kid, I wasn’t seeking four stars and yet I was getting such a tremendous amount of attention. It was hard for me even, to make sense of it all.”
Realizing “the momentum was gone” from his D.C. restaurant career, Seaver quietly left Blue Ridge. Ever the diplomat, he says that the animosity he encountered was understandable and “not due to ill will on anyone’s part.”
He was already involved with National Geographic, a relationship that began when he was at Hook – the restaurant was a favorite choice for the organization’s entertaining. Seaver’s good friend, Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, told him the organization was launching an ocean initiative.
“I called up the president, who was a good patron (of Hook) and by that familiarity he granted me an audience. I said, ‘You’ve got people that understand clouds and currents, but I don’t think you have anyone talking about seafood and people.’”
His departure from Blue Ridge was the end of one career but the start of another.
“It happened at the same time that I realized what I really loved about restaurants and what I had learned from them was that I cared about community and that food was our global communion … I was with National Geographic so I decided to throw (caution) to the wind and go explore the world.”
THE MAINE CHAPTER
“Community” is a word Seaver uses often. It’s at the heart of his sustainability mission, and it’s what he sought in moving to Maine. He and Carrie Anne, a native of Bangor who is a graphic designer, met in D.C., where her family moved when she was a child. On their third date, Barton promised he would one day bring her back to Maine. After seven years together, five of them married, they lived briefly in Boston before deciding to settle in South Freeport – “a totally idyllic location,” he said, “surrounded by easements and hiking trails and woods and neighbors with hundreds of acres who’ve opened their properties for the public to traverse. And on the fourth side by working waterfront.”
The Seavers live in a 175-year-old farmhouse they bought from a local couple who moved just down the road and have since become good friends. The property has a John Libby-built barn and well-established gardens, a large chicken coop filled with heirloom hens and at the back of the raised vegetable beds, a small outbuilding that is Barton’s office – “my E.B. White shed” he calls it.
“I’ve lived in some of the greatest cities in the world, and I’ve cooked in countries all over the place and seen things that only National Geographic explorers would see. And all of that taught me what I wanted in life was to find a home and to be a neighbor. That’s my mission here in Maine and in life. And that’s what really drives me as a person. That’s what I find beautiful and valuable. That’s why I’ve found the generous and warm welcome we’ve received here just to be overwhelming. And kind. That’s really a first step for me in finding my place here, how my career will evolve in a new place.”
For now, his career continues to take him away from Maine, perhaps more often than he would like. This past week, he spoke on a panel on the future of fisheries at Capitol Hill Oceans Week. On June 16, he will cook a state dinner for the State Department Global Oceans Summit in Washington, D.C. On the menu: an appetizer of Gulf of Maine lobster “from whale-friendly traps” and a seaweed salad; the entrée is Acadian redfish from Maine. “In my remarks during the dinner I will be promoting the success stories of the fishing community’s efforts to diversify fisheries’ efforts and to realize greater market value for species that are abundant yet not common in the culinary lexicon,” Seaver wrote in an email.
Exactly what path his career will take in Maine is still evolving, but he has projects in development to continue with his work, “creating thriving human systems” that benefit the environment. Seaver is keen to make it clear that he is “not here to fix anything,” but rather to support what’s already in place in Maine. On June 20, he and author Paul Greenberg (“Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” and “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood”) will give the Land + Sea keynote speech at Maine Fare in Belfast.
“There is a real can-do mentality and a fortitude of spirit that I’ve witnessed. And I fully understand that I am saying these words as someone from ‘away,’ someone who has not spent years here. But that’s part of what drew me here,” he said. “And as I begin to find my place among all of the people and organizations that are doing amazing work here, it’s just important that I really show what I care about. Because people don’t care what you know about until you show what you care about.”
Maine, meet your new neighbor.