In its third year, Trash Fish Dinner continues to elevate Sarasota’s sustainable seafood scene.
Trash fish. It might be one of the most misleading names in the culinary game. The slang term was first coined to describe seafood that’s traditionally less desired by commercial fisherman, chefs and diners. It’s hardly the most appetizing name, but “trash fish,” in the hands of a knowledgeable chef, is anything but.
As the push for sustainability in the restaurant industry continues to grow, some chefs have set out to prove that many of these less-popular varieties are just as viable as their more popular, often unsustainably harvested counterparts.
Steve Phelps, a James Beard-Award-nominated chef and owner of Indigenous restaurant, is one of them. A key figure in promoting the movement locally, Phelps teamed up with Edible Sarasota magazine and national nonprofit organization Chefs Collaborative in 2014 to start Trash Fish Dinner. The event invites a handful of top area chefs to prepare meals showcasing these lesser-ordered fish and help educate Sarasota foodies.
Going into its third year, Phelps says the dinner has expanded beyond its attention-grabbing name to become an important part of the local food scene. The event has grown to include not only “trash fish,” but also invasive and aquafarmed species.
And it’s not just for the benefit of diners. A push toward an elevated, more sustainable food culture transcends competition, says Phelps, to bring chefs together. The proverbial rising tide lifts all ships — customers’ knowledge included.
We sat down with Phelps and a few of this year’s participating chefs to talk sustainability, asking the right questions and how we can all be a bit more eco-conscious.
Farmed: Wood-fired Copper Shoals red drum, summer creamed corn succotash, candied Niman Ranch pork belly, Florida peach and red-pepper relish and micro radish greens.
“I wanted to keep my dish in line with the Made menu, which is very American southern. I’m from Texas, and red drum is big there. It’s farmed sustainably, and I want to show people that farmed fish can be delicious. A lot of people have the wrong idea about aquafarming.”
“This is the second time I’ve participated. After the first time, I made big changes to my menu. I changed 98% of my meats to Niman Ranch, Joyce Farms and other places that provide natural, sustainable products. I use local as much as I can. I’m at the Sarasota Farmers Market every weekend shopping for micro greens.”
“Just looking at climate change alone and hearing about bans on certain fish, you can see the negative impact of overfishing. Just as many “trash fish” options are equally delicious. It’s about buying the right food and educating the customer correctly. It takes everyone getting involved to make this change.”
Farmed: Open Blue cobia crudo, espelette pepper, truffle yuzu vinaigrette and jalapeño dragonfruit salad
Pulled barbecue amberjack, corn cake, kale slaw and barbecue sauce
“People have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to farmed fish, and it’s just not the case. The technology and methods have advanced a lot in the last 10 years. A 7-ounce piece of farmed cobia can have triple the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon. And farming is good for the environment. If we keep fishing species like tuna the way we do, there’s not going to be any left in 10 years.”
“I wanted to do something really different and provide something familiar for newcomers to get a foot in the door. It’s a cold-smoked, pulled amberjack, which is our take on pulled pork. If you show people how versatile these ingredients are, they’ll be more open to trying them again in the future.”
“I’m really happy to be involved with this. This event has been great at educating the customer. People are becoming more knowledgeable. They want to know where their food came from and how it was raised. It’s a fast-paced world, but I would encourage people to slow down a little bit. Talk to your fishmonger. Educate yourself. Pass that on to your children. The little bit of extra time and money is well worth it for the impact you can have.”
Chiles Restaurant Group
Farmed: Caviar station with sturgeon rillettes
Trash Fish: Thai green curry mullet mousse and barbecued mullet bellies
“For me, doing things the right way is the only way to do it. You have to be a steward of your community. It’s a challenge to keep up with that and meet your price points. A lot of this industry is completely focused on the bottom line, but you have to realize there are always repercussions to that.”
“We’re big on mullet. A lot of people don’t see it as a center-of-the-plate protein. It has a challenging flavor profile, but I enjoy playing with unexpected flavors and textures. Using big bold flavors, like Thai curry, you can create something surprising and bring out the best flavors of the fish. You can also change the texture, creating something you wouldn’t expect, like a mousse, which is light and airy. The same goes for sturgeon. People mostly eat it smoked, so we decided to do a rillettes, which is a more refined spread.”
“People can make a difference by changing their mindset. People are always looking for that center-of-the-plate protein. Buy whole fish, or use cuts you wouldn’t normally use. The meat is just as good. Reuse the bones to make a soup stock; it’s much better than what you buy. Shop from local fishermen; there are so many around here, and they’re sustainably caught and treated with the best practices.”
“If you are in any way an adventurous eater or are interested in doing something good for the environment, this is an opportunity to see what the best chefs in the area can do when they get together and have some fun.”
Trash Fish: Savory griddle cake, buttermilk-fried rudderfish, Tabasco hollandaise and maple citrus syrup
“I’ve seen a lot of changes since this started. Every chef in town with a respectable restaurant is making changes. Awareness is increasing. We’re all teaching, learning and collaborating. I see my customers asking a lot more questions, and that’s exactly what we hoped to see. That’s really powerful.”
“Farmed fishing is a big focus for me. A lot of people don’t understand that it’s offshore. It’s not in some pool, where the fish are all on top of each other. They’re in 20 feet of water; they feed naturally; they don’t hurt other ecosystems. Understanding that makes a huge difference.”
“We have been earning chef trust. People are trusting the good chefs in this town now, and that’s something that goes beyond any one event.”
“We’re all working together. We’re not thinking, ‘How can we top each other?’ We’re thinking, ‘How do we do something great together? How do we improve our food scene as a city?’”
“I didn’t open this restaurant to make a fortune. I did it because I love food, I love people and I love the planet. I want to do it right, be affordable and be educational.”
“Ask questions. Ask all the time. If you don’t, you’d be frightened to know what you’re eating. If your server can’t tell you where your food is from, that’s a red flag. And with smartphones, it’s easier than ever to check for yourself. Support your local fishermen, and experiment with new types of fish. There are so many good options out there.”