Sustainable Seafood. Just Try It!

I recently flew to Oakland to take part in Oliveto Restaurant’s Oceanic dinner, a weekend-long sustainable seafood fest. The event is a big draw – Oliveto was sold out with 280 reservations all three days of the event. Items on the menu included geoduck clams, sea urchin, mackerel, skate, periwinkles, sardines, octopus, cuttlefish, sea robin, eel, sturgeon, sand dabs and Petrale sole, all purchased from the same seafood purveyor we use at George’s at the Cove, Monterey Seafood in San Francisco. We’ve tried to sell most of these items on our menu over the years with little success.

As a restaurant that feeds up to 1,200 people a day, how we structure the menus and what we offer at George’s at the Cove is important. Would we ever take the chicken soup off the menu? Of course not, I would be quickly run out of town. The same goes for the chicken strips. In the dining room, we always keep beef tenderloin, tuna and salmon on the menu, as well as halibut when in season. The challenge for any restaurant that has been around for more than five years is how to balance these standard items with newer ones. How do we stay excited about the creative process? And how do we ultimately turn people on to new items, flavors and combinations?

This is one of the most challenging aspects of any chef’s job. There are those diners that want what they had last time they dined with us and are disappointed when it’s not available. And then there are those who come to experience something new and challenge our creativity. So, how do we balance our menus to make everyone happy?

Well the answer of course is that we don’t make everyone happy all the time, but we sure try.

I dislike a preachy restaurant, one that forces their beliefs on me, yet I respect a restaurant with a point of view that influences everything they do. Our point of view is to use local, seasonal and sustainable products whenever possible, and build a reputation of consistency and quality that fosters relationships with our guests. Our hope is that when this happens, our guests will be willing to try something new at George’s they may not otherwise try.

Seafood is probably the biggest challenge for us. Most people understand the seasonality of produce, and meat and poultry stay relatively consistent throughout the year. But seafood is not only seasonal; most of it is harvested wild. There are certain times of the year where halibut is not available fresh, at which time it comes off our menu.

Seafood and produce are the two things that excite me most, but a lot of the seafood items I enjoy are difficult for us to sell. Items that come to mind are San Diego uni (some of the best in the world), local sardines, mackerel, octopus, percebes and cuttlefish. These are all seasonal items that are healthy and delicious when handled properly. They are also items we have tried to sell unsuccessfully.

There are so many good, new restaurants in San Diego, but the more I go out the more it makes me want to work with different ingredients. Everyone has halibut, tenderloin and short ribs on the menu. Why? Because it makes people happy; and as restaurateurs that is ultimately our job. Those items are our top sellers as well. What makes me uncomfortable about this is that seafood is a wild, harvested product. If restaurant patrons only want to eat tuna, halibut and swordfish, my fear is the same thing will eventually happen to them that happened to Chilean sea bass, Atlantic cod and Atlantic swordfish—their numbers will dwindle forcing stricter quotas for fishermen, less availability and higher costs.

Powerhouse dining cities seem to have better luck selling more “unconventional” items. San Francisco, New York, Chicago. In fact, the New York Times just published an article on the quality, health benefits and popularity of Boston mackerel. If we want to become a nationally recognized dining city, then we, the restaurants, need to offer a more varied selection and hopefully influence our core group of supporters to try them.

When a guest comes into George’s at the Cove, orders the halibut and says it was a great dish, we’re happy. But when they say they tried something they’ve never had before and really liked it, we’re most proud.

Because it means that guest trusted us enough to let us show them how incredible these lesser-known items can be and we have influenced that person for years to come. They will always remember George’s at the Cove for the first time they tried and enjoyed local uni, mackerel or sardines. And those memories last much longer than another halibut meal.