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You are here: Home Features  Catch 22: the trials of testing non-traditional seafood menus

Catch 22: the trials of testing non-traditional seafood menus

By Mike Deibert, contributing editor

How many customers would order a plate of pan fried mackerel or grilled sardines in a restaurant?

Chances are they would be more willing to try branzino, Arctic char or barramundi, according to national chef surveys done this year by the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association and the National Restaurant Association in the United States.

Chefs in the two countries identified non-traditional fish as a coming trend in restaurants, and used the three species mentioned here as specific examples.

These are not radical choices. Branzino, a mild tasting white-fleshed fish is a type of sea bass popular with Italian restaurants, while Arctic char is a pink-fleshed fish that looks like salmon and resembles it in taste, although somewhat milder. Barramundi is a white fish that could be used as a cheaper substitute for tilapia.

“We noticed a blip in sales for barramundi when Dr. Oz featured it as a super food on one of his shows,” comments Bob Hiscott, spokesman for Brampton-based Export Packers. “People are paying attention and looking for healthy alternatives.”

If consumers are willing to take small steps with slightly different fish such as these, it could lead to them making the leap to even more “exotic” species, as they seek something different from the old standards such as halibut, salmon and shrimp.

To explore the matter further, ORN asked suppliers and chefs for examples of what they see as non-traditional fish that could be served in restaurants, or what some chefs were actually putting on the menu.

Albion Fisheries Ltd., a British Columbia company that supplies fresh and frozen seafood across Canada, has found a growing market for fish previous considered “bait,” such as herring and sardines.

Ontario-based Janes Family Foods, which supplies breaded or battered cod, haddock, pollock and sole to the foodservice market, is now exploring new fish varieties, although it doesn’t have any under development at the moment, says culinary director Dana McCauley.

“At this point,” she says, “we’ve noted fine dining restaurants doing a good job of experimenting with fast-growing, quick-to-reproduce fish such as sardines and anchovies.”

“We are constantly providing ‘new’ product offers to our sales team,” says Mark Hendrickson, director of business development with Frobisher International Enterprise Ltd., a B.C. company that supplies frozen seafood in Canada and other countries. “Some are certainly winners. Non-traditional fish include char, yellowtail snapper, mulloway, sea bream, Tunisian sea bass, striped bass, Argentinean prawn, ling cod, Baja scallops.”

Blue hake from New Zealand, also known as hoki, is a fish for restaurants to consider, according to Pat Collins, sales and marketing manager for Calgary-based Centennial Foodservice. He describes it as “mild, very versatile and reasonably priced.”

Whether they know it or not, many people are eating hoki in McDonald’s restaurants. It is one of the species the fast food giant uses for its Filet-O-Fish.

The people at Export Packers, which markets Ocean Jewell and six other seafood brands to the foodservice market, see basa, a type of Asian catfish, as a good alternative fish choice. “It’s high quality, versatile in the kitchen because it’s adaptable to many cooking methods, and has a relative low cost compared to traditional fish,” says spokesman Hiscott.

 “A great example of a non-traditional fish is steelhead trout,” states Carla Dougherty, senior director of marketing at King & Prince Seafood, based in Brunswick, Georgia. “It is a farm raised, high quality, mild flavored fish with a delicate flake that is an excellent alternative to salmon in taste, appearance and nutritional value.”

New flavours, new mindsets

If one is to go by the experience of Willowfield Enterprises of Surrey, BC, it’s going to take an increased willingness by operators to experiment with different species to gain wider acceptance by consumers.

“We see the market always wanting new and interesting species of fish, but a reluctance to carry new and unproven products,” says president Don Read. “We have tried pushing several unique species with little success for this reason. It’s a catch 22. The market wants new products but will not commit to them without some assurance of demand from the end user.”

The problem with “exotic” fish is that customers tend to shy away if you put unfamiliar names on the menu, notes Jac Erhardt, co-owner of Zee Grill Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar a popular dining spot that has operated for almost 30 years in north Toronto.

In Halifax, executive chef Chris Velden cooks mackerel for a bit of variety at Ryan Duffy’s, a steakhouse that also does a substantial seafood business.

He serves mackerel in season, both pan seared and smoked. He also puts the fish in potato salad flavoured with a seven-herb sauce.

He says he would love to serve herring and sardines, but these would not be an easy sell to his customers. Sometimes, Velden puts sea urchin on the menu but he says that people don’t order it much.

Frank Pabst cooked a prize-winning dish with sea urchin, a creature that might cause more traditional diners to turn up their noses. In the 2008 running of the Gold Medal Plates competition, an event that attracts top chefs from across Canada, Pabst took gold in the Vancouver area cook-off when he combined the red sea urchin with scallop in a seafood mousse.

Sea urchin is on the regular menu at Vancouver’s Blue Water Café and Raw Bar where Pabst is executive chef. It was originally introduced, as were other regulars such as sardines, mackerel and jellyfish, in his Unsung Heroes Festival, an event usually held in February in which 10 to 12 different seafood items that are not usually served in Canadian restaurants are put on the menu.

With Vancouver being right on the Pacific Ocean, these special seafood items are available “right on our front door here,” says Pabst.

Harvesting things such as periwinkles, octopus and sea cucumber helps take some of the pressure off other forms of sea life that are in danger of being overfished.

Pabst started the Unsung Heroes promotion to let diners dip their toes in the water, so to speak, sampling things for which they might develop a taste if they just try them—things that are already very popular in Europe.

“They’re very delicious in their own right but they need some marketing,” explains Pabst, adding that they need to be cooked with the right ingredients to complement their flavours.

When chefs go out to eat, he says, they like to order stronger tasting fish such as sardines and mackerel, and they really like to go back and cook these fish themselves.

“For us in the kitchen, it’s lots of fun to use different ingredients in things like salads, sandwiches, pizza toppers etc,” says Dougherty.

An environmental recipe

When Restaurant News recently asked suppliers across Canada what the latest trends are for seafood in foodservice, “sustainable” was the overwhelming response.

A number of them urged operators to promote sustainable items on their menus as a marketing tool. Two U.S. seafood chains, Guy Harvey’s Island Grill and Wyland’s Ocean Blue Restaurant, are certainly doing this in a big way.

Both are partnerships of Florida-based McFarland Management Company with two artists known for their love of the water and its inhabitants.

Guy Harvey is a Florida-based artist, photographer, diver and scientist who has made conserving marine creatures one of his main goals in life.

The restaurants bearing his name are family dining establishments that sell the artist’s paintings along with signature clothing and giftware, and fish that are not in danger of extinction.

Wyland’s is an upscale marine-themed concept, which is decorated with the work of the American artist who goes by the single name Wyland, whose murals decorate buildings in a number of countries.

The Wyland name is also on a music production company, a television show and books about marine life. The restaurants help the artist promote the idea of sustainable seafood as well as selling his art. Needless to say, no endangered species are found on the plates in these establishments.

One way for Canadian operators to let diners know they can order a dish with a clear conscience is to carry the logo of third party environmental organizations on their menus. These certify that the fish and other creatures being served were caught or raised in ways that harm neither the earth nor its waters, nor other creatures not meant to be harvested for human consumption.

Two of the most common certifying organizations are Ocean Wise and the Marine Stewardship Council.

Ocean Wise, created by the Vancouver Aquarium, lists seafood that it approves for harvesting, and also species that we should leave alone, on its website

The Marine Stewardship Council does the same thing at

Guy Dean, vice-president of Albion Fisheries, suggests that promoting sustainable can help a restaurants bottom line. People tend to feel good about it. “More and more of our business is focused on offering sustainable products,” states Dean, He says interest is strongest in British Columbia but awareness is growing across the country.

One indication of the interest of people who run kitchens across Canada was this year’s Canadian Chefs’ Conference held in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island in September. An estimated 500 people gathered for the event focused on a sustainable seafood theme.

Jack Erhardt, co-owner of the popular Zee Grill Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Toronto sees chefs, especially those in seafood restaurants, as the ones leading the way in the sustainable movement.

He doesn’t think retailers are as keen to avoid selling endangered species, especially when he goes into the stores of two large restaurant chains and see things such Chilean sea bass for sale.

Chris Velden was one of the Ocean Wise founders when he was in Vancouver. Now heading the kitchen in Ryan Duffy’s in Halifax, he only serves sustainable seafood.

He has a message: “We still have to be cautious what we eat.” Customers should ask merchants questions about how fish was caught. Is it Ocean Wise certified? If you ask fish mongers questions about whether or not their fish is from endangered species they will become more interested, he says. If you can get suppliers onside, they will offer more sustainable fish to consumers.

Restaurant staff should be knowledgeable about seafood on the menu, advises Mark Hendrickson, director of business development at Frosbisher International Enterprise Ltd.  “The consumers are asking more and more about where the seafood comes from, how it is caught and if it’s Ocean Wise or certified sustainable or not. In the future I think all the seafood you see on a menu will be certified sustainable.”

“The focus on sustainable seafood is becoming increasingly important at both the foodservice and retail levels,” says Export Packer spokesman Bob Hiscott. “Not just a trend any more, sustainability is becoming normal business practice instead of a novelty. It’s not just about what fish are caught, but how’s it’s caught, where it comes from and what impact it has on the environment and other species.”

He adds that consumers are willing to pay a little extra for sustainable seafood. Albion’s Dean comments that as more people buy sustainable products, their price will drop.

“Sustainable doesn’t mean expensive, says Hiscott. “Using a cheaper white fish such as basa or cod for a fish entrée can be an easy substitute. For example, Ocean Jewel North Pacific cod is a great substitute for halibut. Halibut prices are really high right now and the cod is an affordable and sustainable alternative.”

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