Seafood’s New Wave

When Shawn McClain opens his new restaurant, Spring, in Bucktown next month, the Asian-accented menu will be heavy on fish, reflecting the 34-year-old chef’s preference for lighter cuisine. But it won’t include swordfish.

“It wasn’t an oversight,” McClain says. “Female swordfish have to weigh at least 150 pounds before they can reproduce, and most of the current catch weigh less than a hundred. You don’t have to be a statistician to understand that–barring a change–the species will eventually disappear or at the very least be too scarce to be commercially viable.”

McClain, who has headed up the kitchen at Henry Adaniya’s posh Evanston restaurant Trio for more than six years, knows his stuff when it comes to seafood. “It’s just something I’ve always had a liking for,” he says. “Fish is versatile. Look at how many ways there are to prepare salmon, and how different salmon is from halibut or bass. And then there are all the new-to-the-market varieties. Black cod, skate wing. They weren’t on all that many menus until very recently.”

But these days availability and flavor aren’t a responsible chef’s only concerns. McClain is also thinking about the long term–pollution, genetic engineering, and supply. He does a lot of reading, and recently attended a seminar organized by Chefs Collaborative, a nationwide network of chefs, restaurateurs, and culinary professionals. The topic was sustainable seafood, a term used to refer to fish caught or farmed via methods most likely to maintain the long-term survival of the species and an optimal ecological balance.

“The seminar touched on a lot of issues,” McClain says. “Take farm-raised fish, for example. If the runoff from the hatcheries is polluted and it enters the water system before it can be properly treated, it’s a potential nightmare. And if the farm-raised fish are genetically enhanced and they escape into the general population, they can have a negative impact on the species’ fertility rates. And that’s just the beginning.”

Chefs aren’t the only ones who should be worrying about conservation. “Consumers have to understand the issues so they can ask the right questions,” says Sonja Tiegs, conservation programs coordinator for the Shedd Aquarium. “They also have to be willing to influence the decision makers by bypassing fish that don’t measure up.”

Tiegs runs the Shedd Aquarium’s two-year-old Right Bite program, an annual weekend of events developed in collaboration with the National Audubon Society and intended to educate the public about sustainable seafood. Scheduled for June 7-10, this year’s program will include screenings of videos about fish conservation, tastings of seafood caught using sustainable methods, and a photo lecture on Pacific northwest salmon by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore.

Tiegs frequently uses shrimp to illustrate the various issues posed by the sustainable seafood concept. Shrimp’s popularity makes it a must-have item, and the fishing industry will do everything it can to meet the demand. When nets are used to catch shrimp, they bring in four to ten pounds of unwanted bycatch for every pound of shrimp. Most of the bycatch dies before it can be thrown back into the water.

The only way to avoid bycatch is to use shrimp traps. And one way to increase the use of traps–which are less efficient than trawling nets–is for consumers to ask questions. “How people react when they get the ‘wrong’ answers is a matter of conscience,” Tiegs says. “Fish are a renewable resource–but only if we catch and consume them properly.”

McClain doesn’t plan to leave shrimp off of his menu. “There are people out there who do sustainable procedures,” he says. “Unfortunately there are also people who are greedy.” He views menu development as an ongoing process and looks forward to creating a repertoire that’s as interesting and flavorful as it is environmentally sound.

Meanwhile, he’s thankful for educated consumers. “This is something that everyone–not just chefs–has to think about. If we don’t, the scenario gets really scary.” –Barbara Revsine

The Dish

The former State Room (1212 N. State) reopened May 10 under the name 1212, with executive chef David Shea, formerly of Spruce, in charge of the contemporary American menu. iDebra Sharpe has moved Feast to 1616 N. Damen, the address previously occupied by her Commune Cafe and Bar. iOn May 16, Volare owner Benny Siddu and certified master chef Edward Leonard opened Cantare, serving regional Italian cuisine, in the space at 200 E. Chestnut previously occupied by QP. iAvenues, an upscale seafood restaurant, opens June 1 inside the Peninsula Chicago, a new hotel at 108 E. Superior.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.