Barton Seaver wants to change the way we think about eating and its effect on our health and the ecosystem. He believes what you put on your fork has a global impact on the ocean, not to mention the land and other human beings.
A well-known chef in Washington, D.C., recognized for his sustainable seafood dishes, Seaver applied his influence in the culinary world to become a crusader for the socially responsible dinner.
“The oceans are in trouble,” says the 33-year-old Seaver, taking a break from a whirlwind speaking circuit. “We need to save the ocean. Nobody really understands.”
Seaver is trying to change that. By educating us about portion control, he hopes to help restore our relationship with the ocean. The goal is to promote a healthier eating style that encourages consumers and businesses along the seafood supply chain to take only what they need without depleting the ocean.
To that end, he suggests choosing smaller varieties of less-threatened, more resilient seafood that’s harvested sustainably. By cutting down on the amount of protein on our plates — whether seafood or another healthy source — and adding a generous dose of vegetables, the ocean and ecosystem will have time to replenish themselves, he says.
It’s a method of eating he learned from childhood, growing up in the multi-ethnic Mount Pleasant community of D.C. “My parents were intrepid cooks who knew how to make things tasty. There were always a multitude of flavors and aromas and textures” in the meals, he says. He recalls well-balanced, vegetable-based dinners inspired by the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Food was not only a way to explore the taste and flavor of the food, but to better know the people who populated my early life.”
His early “fluency” in food along with an appreciation for the communal nature of the family dinner has guided his career and passions in the culinary arena, he says.
Armed with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Seaver began his career in a small family restaurant in an impoverished section of southern Spain. There he learned the regional style of cooking that’s the backbone of American cuisine, he says. Next, he traveled to a fishing community in a seaside village of Morocco, where he gained a greater understanding of the scarcity of food.
Within five years of returning to D.C., he emerged as a sustainable cooking golden boy. One of the reasons was his unusual seafood dishes. As owner-chef of the sustainable seafood restaurant, Hook, in Georgetown, Seaver served 78 different species of fish in his first year of operation. In comparison, he says, the vast majority of seafood consumed in the country averages around 10 species.
“We had as many Audubon guides as cookbooks in the kitchen,” he says.
Seaver has attracted national media attention and won prestigious cooking awards such as being named Esquire magazine’s 2009 Chef of the Year. His restaurant made Washington Post’s Top 50 and Bon Appétit's Top 10 eco-friendly restaurants.
Despite the stardom, Seaver decided to trade in his apron for a microphone. From dealing with fish purveyors, he learned about the nation’s dwindling seafood supply. One day all a distributor could provide was a few fish and the rest bait. “It was a reason to try new things.” That night, Seaver served 80 pounds of flying fish, which sold out in two hours, he says.
Seaver believed he could have a greater influence beyond exposing patrons to non-traditional seafood. His new calling: communicating the precarious nature of our life-sustaining oceans and how consumers can change that dynamic.
“The guiding hand of natural selection is holding a fork.” And his much-quoted catchphrase: “We have eco-friendly shrimp. But we can never have an eco-friendly all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet. It doesn’t work.”
Fish is certainly one of our healthier protein options, so it’s a good choice for dinner, he says. But he cautions that the ocean is overfished by destructive methods, especially for the more popular or larger seafood species.
The problem with most fisheries, he says, is they have commercial drivers. “We have to learn to feed people with the fish we have. We have an opportunity to find efficiencies and stamp out bad practices.”
“Sustainable seafood is the goal,” he continues. But the word sustainable, able to be sustained, is passive and vague. “It says: maintain the status quo. Restorative seafood connotes a return on investment, a more actionable method that allows for improvement … that convinces people they can be part of the process to sustain.”
When he’s not touting his wholesome-eating and cooking philosophies on the speaking circuit, Seaver is leading cooking shows and increasing public awareness about ocean issues as a National Geographic Society fellow and conservationist.
As part of that mission, Seaver developed a list of ocean-friendly substitutes for popular yet depleted seafood species and co-created the Seafood Decision Guide to help consumers evaluate seafood based on health and environmental factors.
His first cookbook, “For Cod and Country,” was published last year, providing seasonal, environmentally responsible seafood and vegetable dishes. A second book on grilling is due out next year.
He also sits on the board of the D.C Central Kitchen, which fights hunger, but also teaches employable skills. And he works with such educational organizations as the School Nutrition Association and the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.
Last year Seaver received a Community Innovator Award from StarChefs.com based on votes by more than 1,000 chefs and culinary leaders worldwide.
"Barton can be a helpful voice in the public's understanding of sustainable seafood" says Laurel Bryant, chief of external affairs for NOAA Fisheries. "He understands that if natural resources are going to be sustained, they must be sustained not only biologically and ecologically, but also socio-economically.”
Or as Seaver puts it: “Linking the story behind the fish with the experience behind the plate.”
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