If you dare mention the words "sustainable seafood" out loud while standing in front of Michael Cimarusti, you better be prepared to have a seat with the guy and engage in one of the most critical food conversations in your life.
Then again, how could the subject not be touchy? Time after time, we've reported on the dire condition of those delicious creatures from the sea that we love eating over rice, especially bluefin tuna.
Casually mention that dreaded word to Cimarusti and he will stare deep into your eyes, probably to assess if you are of the type who carelessly ignores the state of tuna fishing in lieu of enjoying the luscious flesh of the prized fish. Yep, to say that that the bearded man is passionate about tuna would be an understatement.
He has stubbornly refused to serve bluefin at his modernist seafood restaurant, which has been rated the number-one restaurant for three years in a row by Jonathan Gold, the belly of Los Angeles himself, for a decade now. Nor has he ever served it slipped into a roll at his casual New England seafood shack, Connie & Ted's. Not stopping there, Cimarusti has ventured into the seafood retail business for the first time in his life, through Cape Seafood & Provisions, a project he debuted three months ago in hopes of educating LA's seafood consumers on what sustainable seafood really means, one stunningly shimmering slice of $40 king salmon slice at a time.
I sat down with Cimarusti outside his new seafood shop to talk about why he refuses to sell farmed fish, uneducated seafood-based cultural appropriation in restaurants, sustainable fish in food deserts, and most importantly, why he is hopeful for the future of tuna.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Michael. What are you trying to do by getting into the fish retail business? Michael Cimarusti: I feel like what we are doing at Cape, Providence, and Connie & Ted's is trying to present the best-quality, high-value fish that we can find, which is the most important thing. However, those things mean nothing when the fish isn't sustainable or harvested sustainably. To me, that is the most important. At Cape, we are partners with Monterey Bay Aquarium. In order to earn that and maintain it, we have the responsibility to only sell what is listed as a yellow or green option in their seafood guide.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of fish on the red list that people covet, yet you still see those fish being served all over the world.
How do you think we can get those people—and the customers who buy those fish—to start giving a damn? To me, it is an easy choice. I probably follow the exact same people that you follow on Instagram or Twitter and you see that requisite shot all the time: The chu-toro and o-toro, especially if they are in Tokyo or something. And I say it all the time: All you have to do is just tell the chef at a sushi restaurant that you don't eat bluefin. It is as easy as that. So instead of serving you 23 pieces of sashimi or nigiri to the detriment of a great species that is on the clear path to extinction, you will get 20 pieces that are still revelatory, incredible, and possibly the best sushi you've ever had in your life.
You would think that if you could afford to eat at a nice sushi place, you gotta have a certain amount of dispensable income and therefore—on some level—a thoughtful person who is engaged in the world.
If we were talking about eating whale, dolphin, or panda bear, there would be public outrage and protesting in the streets, but because fish are difficult to empathize with, it is easy to forget about it and not think that that little piece of nigiri is contributing to the extinction of a species. If you take a step back and forget about the gustatory pleasure of eating it and think about the former point, you might make a better decision. This is a conversation that people should be having while having sushi with others or at least internally, to figure out where you stand.
At Providence, I used to serve it when we first opened, but then I got called out by a food writer in one of our reviews. She said she loved the restaurant but she couldn't bring herself to eat the bluefin tuna that we had to offer. I stepped back after this and I thought about it—she was right. I knew better but I didn't think deeply enough about it and still served it. I haven't served it since and the restaurant is still going fine.
What is your stance on farm-raised fish? We forgoed farm-raised fish years ago as well. I don't serve the ubiquitous loup de mer or branzino. Honestly, go do a roundup to see who carries that fish on their menu in this city or any other major city in this country and I bet it is on 60 to 70 percent on the menus. Have you ever eaten a wild fish next to a farm-raised fish? There is such a huge chasm between those two things. As a chef who gets up early and goes to the farmers market and calls out farmer's names on the menu, you should be making a decision to serve wild fish over farm-raised fish. Because if you make those decisions for produce, cheese, and meat, presumably on flavor, fish is no different.
There is no way you can tell me that there is a farm-raised fish of any variety that's flavor comes close to its wild counterparts.
Unless you are simply lying to yourself or you've never tasted it. There is no way you can tell me that there is a farm-raised fish of any variety that's flavor comes close to its wild counterparts. It doesn't happen and can't happen. On the other hand, shellfish is OK. They are filter feeders and their lifestyle is not going to be changed in any way, shape, or form. A farm-raised oyster and wild oyster will taste the exact same way.
What about the farms that claim to sustainably raise fish and do it right? I applaud them. They are great. The closer that they get to true sustainability where there is no escape and the fish aren't treated with antibiotics, or jeopardizing the wild population, or being fed food that is sourced in an unsustainable way, then that is great. At least it is essentially neutral to the environment. Just don't exploit the sea. I mean, look at Chile, where there are now vast dead zones all along the coastline because of improperly farming salmon.
After this, the argument becomes one about the fishermen who are trying to harvest wild fish and can't get their fish to compete with the farm-raised version that is half the flavor and half the price. This is another discussion to be had. We only serve wild fish at all of my places because it helps to keep—in some small way—American fishermen on the water.
You shouldn't ever be looking for bargains in fish or shellfish, you really shouldn't.
We are living through a time where a lot of fishermen all over the world are making the decision to pull their boat out of the water and sell it instead of making a living from the sea. This is a shame because it means that we are no longer good stewards of the ocean and that we don't place enough value on the last remaining truly wild food around the world. The irony here is that to support them, you have to eat the fish. Obviously, not to the point of a crisis state, that is.
I'm getting the feeling that you have a special place in hell for branzino. Would you care to elaborate a little more on that fish? We get people who come into Cape and ask for it all the time but the fish has no integrity and it doesn't have any flavor. It is just a fish that people have become accustomed to because it was made easy for restaurateurs to carry it. I would be ashamed if any of my places served this shit. I'm sure this will ruffle a lot of feathers, but fuck it. It is time to call a spade a spade.
I was reading a story about this chef—who is not Mexican—and just took over a Mexican restaurant. The guy put branzino on the menu and I was like, "How much more culturally inappropriate of a choice could you have made to put that on the menu?" If you have any sense of self-respect and you want—in any way—to call your food authentic, how can you possibly make that choice? Who in Mexico knows from a fuckin' branzino? We are just two hours away from the Mexican border and the country has such great fish. Use some of that; don't just use a fish because it is cheap, easy, and you can have it every single day.
I advise our customers to try our East Coast porgies instead, which keeps an American fisherman on the water. Not to mention that it is lower on the food chain.
Now, can 100-percent sustainably caught fish be affordable? We have plenty of fish over at Cape that are a lot cheaper than $40 a pound. Then again, you shouldn't ever be looking for bargains in fish or shellfish, you really shouldn't. I get really great bigeye tuna—that is responsibly harvested, shipped properly, and really cared for every step or the process—for $19 a pound, maybe $30 on the higher side. You also shouldn't want to buy your sushi at the supermarket. Sushi is an artform and it should be treated as such.
If enough people start saying they don't want bluefin tuna during their omakase and enough of it starts to rot in the chef's case, he's not going to order it anymore.
Is there then a place for seafood as a staple food? Absolutely. We have local rock cod, which is imminently sustainable and delicious, for $15 a pound. That is cheap. You should think as fish as being no different as expensive prime beef. We have sardines, too, but sardines are like the Grateful Dead or black licorice—you either love it or hate it.
How about in food deserts, where the only options are tilapia, catfish, and farmed salmon? That is tough. Chinese markets will most likely always have local rock cod, which is a good and sustainable fish. The great thing about living in the US is that we have very well-managed fisheries that is caught within quota. If you go to any seafood market and you buy wild-caught American seafood, it is sustainable. (With the exception of bluefin and a couple of other tuna species.) Just try to buy American seafood.
What would be the best and most realistic scenario for fish at this point? If anything, I hope that when we tell people about all these things at Cape, they have a lightbulb moment. I want people to know that they have the power to make changes. If you make one decision when buying fish, and make it again, and again, and again—that really creates change. Ask questions to find out where your fish is coming from and how it was harvested.
The EDF released a study claiming that with proper management, all commercially harvested, threatened marine species could make a recovery in ten years.
If enough people start saying they don't want bluefin during their omakase and enough bluefin starts to rot in the chef's case, he's not going to order it anymore. Nobody is going to die of starvation because you give up bluefin tuna. These are all first-world problems, truly. But they resonate on a much larger level than that, the extinction of a species is not just a first-world problem, it is a worldwide problem.
The ironic thing is that it is the same people who are sending checks to the EDF and WWF who are sitting at sushi bars eating bluefin tuna. It is fucking weird. To a certain extent, there should be a moratorium on fishing in the Pacific. I feel bad saying that because I am a fisherman at heart and it is difficult to think that if you were to enact something like that, it would put a lot of fishermen out of the water, but it is a species that does need a chance to recover.
At least, there needs to be enough regulation to be enforced worldwide.
Are you hopeful that we can see this change happen? It is pretty dire. Though, I did a thing in New York where some representatives of the EDF released a study claiming that with proper management, all commercially harvested, threatened marine species could make a recovery in ten years. There have been plenty of success stories, so yes, we can protect these fish. I was hopeful after hearing about this.
Thanks for speaking with me.