Mcfarland Springs farmed trout: raised on a vegetarian diet. (Lisa Landers)
I’m seated at a wooden picnic table overlooking the sunlit waters of Sausalito’s harbor. My paper napkin flutters in the breeze. At a neighboring table, a golden retriever lounges near his owner’s feet. I tuck into a piece of oak-grilled trout dusted with salt crystals, set atop a pile of leafy greens. Like the ambience, my meal is simple and superb. But the story behind how this superb piece of trout landed on my plate is anything but simple.
The story begins with the co-owners of Fish restaurant and market, Kenny Belov and Bill Foss. Frustrated by the fact that most trout are raised on a diet of cheap, unsustainable animal protein (fishmeal) and often loaded with unsavory additives, Belov and Foss decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed their own seafood distribution company, TwoXSea, partnered with a trout farm in Lassen County, and figured out how to raise trout on a vegetarian diet without compromising taste or nutritional value. Just over a year after the idea was first hatched, McFarland Springs vegetarian-fed trout appeared on the menu at Fish, where it has remained a staple ever since.
The TwoXSea team is now running tests on tilapia.
“We’re trying to do a vegetarian-raised tilapia, which is kind of funny because in the wild, tilapia are actually vegetarian,” Belov notes. Unfortunately, people figured out that tilapia grew much faster and that it was much more economically efficient if we turned them into carnivores.”
Like many scientists, Belov is concerned that the vast amount of wild fish caught to feed farmed fish is unnecessarily depleting our marine resources and disrupting the balance of life in the ocean.
Creating vegetarian diets for farmed fish is just one example of the hard work and cutting edge innovations that belies the aura of simplicity at Fish. These big, behind-the-scenes efforts are spurred by the owners’ desire to ensure the long-term health of our fisheries.
“We knew the oceans were in trouble, but we kept seeing things on menus that were problematic,” Belov explains. “My partner and I wanted to create a waterfront dining experience that could be part of the solution -- and offer our guests truth in advertising when it came to how our ingredients were sourced.”
Knowing exactly how seafood is sourced turned out to be no small feat. When they first opened in 2004, Belov and Foss relied solely on the guidelines offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But they soon found that the aquarium’s recommendations weren’t sufficiently watertight.
“There were a lot of red flags for us,” Belov says. “Was it really possible to get these fish caught a certain way all of the time? How could something be available every single day, 365-days a year and still be sourced responsibly, correctly and ethically? So we started going out on boats, and we saw that there were inaccuracies in the recommendations.”
Belov and Foss decided that the only way to ensure that the seafood was meeting their standards was to personally vet all of the fishing vessels which they did business with. The names of those vessels are written on a chalkboard alongside daily menu offerings like sole, salmon and sturgeon. The boat names are listed both in homage to the fishermen that make these dishes possible and to get customers thinking about where their seafood comes from.
When it first opened, Fish was one of only a few restaurants meeting a rising demand for honesty and sustainability in seafood sourcing. Today, many more restaurants, markets and distributors have joined in the quest, but these initiatives still only represent a fraction of what is happening in the industry, where fishing practices remain mostly out-of-sight and mind to retailers and consumers.
Whether you are eating barbecued oysters, Tuscan white bean and albacore tuna salad, or thick ribbons of organic pasta topped with a flakey piece of cod, you can rest assured that the seafood at Fish is fresh and sustainably caught. But there’s no rest for Belov and Foss, who continually push for new ways to better meet their mission.
Among the current menu items that reflect their ongoing sustainability efforts is the inclusion of rock crab. Abundant in California waters but normally ignored in the northern part of the state because of its lack of meat, Belov and Foss saw local rock crabs as an opportunity. After using the claw meat to make crispy tacos, executive chef Douglas Bernstein cooks the rest of the crab way down to make a rich bisque.
“We use the whole animal,” Belov says. “It’s a good substitute for Dungeness crab, which is going out of season, and it allows us to create more work for local commercial crab fishermen."
Another notable dish comes from the kids' menu. Most eateries serve fish sticks that have been heavily breaded, previously frozen and contain only a thin layer of farmed and/or minced fish. At Fish, the sticks are made with the same fresh catch served to grown-ups. Belov says it’s actually one of the most labor-intensive dishes on the menu because it takes so long to cut all the fish and prep the ingredients for the breading.
I’ve sampled enough of my daughter’s meals over the years to attest to the fact the these sticks are tastier and more fish-filled than any others that we’ve encountered (my daughter concurs). But like everything else at Fish, the fish sticks come with a higher-than-expected price tag ($14). The no-frills vibe and long lines to order your food at Fish leads customers to expect the prices to be cheaper than they are ($24 for a simple piece of trout on a salad).
Belov says that prices have been a point of contention from the very start, but from his perspective, the cost is warranted.
“We want to pay our fishermen and our farmers well. And yes, we go the extra mile to source the best, most sustainable ingredients. And that figures into the true cost of the plate of food,” Belov says.
Although the abundant portions offered at Fish may not be the most sustainable when it comes to waistlines, they do help dispel any grumbling about prices.
“We could put linen and silver and stemware and give you half the portion and not care where it comes from, but for us the food comes first,” Belov says. “One complaint I never hear is: ‘Wow, that was really good but I’m still hungry.’”