As leading chefs are turning away from the sea and toward sustainable hatcheries, it seems we’ve just begun to skim the surface of aquaculture.
June 3, 2016 – At Esca, Mario Batali’s highly regarded seafood restaurant in New York, customers might be taken aback to know that their fillets of rainbow trout, marinating under a pink blanket of cherry blossoms, were swimming the day before not in any lake, river or sea — but at a farm in New Jersey, where the growth of its gill-bearing inhabitants is carefully monitored. Until recently, favoring wild over farmed fish has been the obvious choice, with much of the latter assumed to be lacking in taste and texture. But with new techniques in breeding and harvesting — such as controlling the salinity of the water, and limiting the population density — forward-thinking chefs, who are as interested in preserving our natural environment as in cooking tasty food, are changing what we eat and from where it comes. And yet, many of them are doing so on the down low. “A lot of diners think that farm-raised equals crud,” says Michael Anthony of his ambivalence about listing the provenance of the dishes he prepares at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
While the general public might still need convincing, a growing number of chefs are now discussing merroir the way oenophiles obsess over terroir. One of the more popular farms is Skuna Bay, off the coast of Vancouver Island, which has spacious, glacier-fed pens and a 14-point quality check to make sure that its fish have lush red gills, intact silver scales and thick, muscular bellies. Musky Trout Hatchery in New Jersey, which supplies Esca, supports the health — and healthy appetite — of its fish with an elaborate alarm system that sounds when the oxygen levels of the spring-fed waters drop past an acceptable point.
The best farms not only give their fish a nice life, but also a merciful death, corralling them at harvest into smaller schools and sidestepping struggles in a net or on a line — to reduce stress for the fish, which can lead to a soft, sometimes chewy consistency. As with any other type of farming, Michael Costa, the chef at José Andrés’s Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., says that when it comes to fish, “the practices determine the results.” If the hamachi at Esca, paired with a tangy olive aioli, is any indication, those results are becoming increasingly hard to ignore.