Chefs and suppliers in Asia are stepping up to create delicious sustainable seafood dishes that subtly educate diners, finds Rebecca Lo.
It is a common belief that happy animals make better animals. As de facto custodians of the animals sharing our planet, we have an implied responsibility to allow every living creature its right to roam. Yet at the same time, swelling populations, increased wealth in developing countries and more sophisticated tastes have contributed to Asia’s rising demand for seafood. In developing countries where regulations and long term gains are put aside in favour of short term financial rewards, some fish and seafood have been harvested to the point of near extinction.
In recent years, a growing number of chefs and suppliers are taking matters into their own hands to offer a selection of responsibly sourced products that do not compromise on taste. As Asian diners become more aware of where their food comes from through educational meals, they are continuing the cycle with sustainable choices.
Executive chef at Hong Kong’s Nordic restaurant FINDS—an acronym for Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden—and group executive chef for GR8 Leisure Concept, Jaakko Sorsa grew up believing that sustainable sourcing was the only way in his native Finland. “It was free and easy to fish in the waters or pick mushrooms in the forest,” recalls Sorsa, who has been with FINDS since its inception in 2004. “In the 70s and 80s, when cod was overfished, the Finnish government succeeded in encouraging restaurants to use less of the fish. The initiative was embraced by the industry, and it got the cod population back on track. In 2011, FINDS was the first western restaurant in Hong Kong to introduce a sustainable seafood menu featuring World Wildlife Fund (WWF) seafood guide produce. At the time, there weren’t too many products on the market and I really had to dig for sources. I buy as much as possible from Nordic countries and I try to find out how the fish is caught.”
Grand Hyatt Hong Kong executive chef Gerhard Passrugger has worked in his native Austria as well as Shanghai, Tokyo, Sydney and London. He is just as passionate about sustainable seafood as Sorsa, and takes strides to ensure that it comes from reliable sources. “In 2014, Hyatt joined an agreement with WWF globally to ensure that more than 50 per cent of our seafood inventory is sustainably sourced by 2018,” Passrugger explains. “Our team is really committed to this, and we are happy to share that currently the majority of our seafood purchases are certified sustainable and make up for 64 per cent of our purchases of lobster, scallops, blue prawns, vannamei prawns, tiger prawns, hamachi, octopus, black cod, tooth fish, and more. We ask the suppliers for certifications and chain of custody proof. If a product is not Marine Stewardship Council or Aquaculture Stewardship Council certified but claims sustainability, we work with WWF to assess each item before purchase.”
Both chefs have their favourite sustainable products that they work with for some of their respective restaurants’ signature fare. “Our salmon six ways is a must try,” states Sorsa. “I have personally visited the farm in Norway, and saw where it comes from. My menu is very ingredient based, and it actually is not much more expensive for sustainable products. We do a lot of smoking in house, both hot and cold, and use alder wood to get its unique flavour.”
“I love our lobsters, which we import directly from a fishery in Canada,” enthuses Passrugger. “The meat is so sweet and wonderful in texture. That is why it is our most popular item at Grand Café. You will not be able to get better quality lobster from any buffet in Hong Kong. Another favourite item of mine is the octopus, which we have recently sourced from western Australia. It is braised with red wine vinegar and olive oil for two hours in the oven and then served with black cod—a great combination.”
James Calvert, managing director of Tasmania based Tas Prime Oysters, believe that sustainable products can invite better discussion. “The media and environmental groups never seem to promote sustainable seafood,” he argues. “All consumers seem to hear are stories of a few specific problematic species. Sustainability only becomes an issue once a negative stigmatism is associated with a certain species; otherwise, it is very rarely discussed. I think sustainable seafood will always enjoy a higher demand. Our product is produced on aquaculture farms in northwest and southeast Tasmania, with all seed and stock purchases coming from an onshore hatchery system.” Growing in the clean waters south off mainland Australia, each region produces oysters with distinctive tasting notes and appearances.
With FINDS’ mostly local clientele, Sorsa feels that certain customers will always be attracted to sustainable seafood. “It’s like people who seek organic produce—about 10 per cent will choose sustainable dishes and ask questions about them,” he reveals. “But in general, most Hong Kong people want dishes that are tasty and don’t care as much about where it comes from. And a 100 per cent sustainable menu will put too much of a limit on chefs, as sustainable produce is not widely enough available. More sustainable suppliers will get on board as long as more chefs and customers ask for these types of products. We still have a long way to go.”
Passrugger advises for more chefs to step up more in order to continue having great produce to work with. “It all starts with self education,” he stresses. “Too many chefs have no clue about sustainability themselves, nor are educated about the products they use. As a chef, we only spend a matter of hours with the product that nature or a farmer invested months or years to grow and cultivate. Many chefs talk about respect for the product, but only few realise what this actually means. We at Grand Hyatt have built a strong culture around education and care for products. We keep growing these subjects, and actively talk to our teams and guests about them. People look at us chefs and restaurateurs as food experts and leaders. They listen and learn from us. Hence, sharing is the most powerful tool to raise awareness.”
Photography courtesy Grand Hyatt Hong Kong | The Luxe Manor | Tas Prime Oysters