This story was originally published in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL in August 2016.
In order for a piece of meat or fish to end up on your plate, an animal must first be killed. It's something we don't always think about—unless we're forced to kill the animal ourselves. So why do people get so emotional about cooking a lobster? Is it because lobsters are still alive when they get delivered to the restaurant? Or is it because of the crazy stories of screaming lobsters being cooked alive?
There is still a lot of debate about this issue. An online petition from the foundation for the protection of fish to forbid boiling live lobsters has already been signed more than 6,000 times.
Scientific research on whether lobsters can experience pain is divided. A Norwegian study says that lobsters do respond to pain signals, but that the nervous system is so different from humans, that it is difficult to say. Other studies argue that lobsters can experience pain, which can be seen by observing their behavior. The difficulty is that there are no real rules for the killing of lobsters in the Netherlands. Without any rules, it is unclear what is allowed and what is animal friendly. Last week, a company from the Dutch province of Zeeland received a police warning for steaming live lobsters, which takes much longer than boiling.
Cooking and preparing lobsters evokes emotions for both animal-rights activists and chefs. We spoke to a few chefs about their experiences and what, in their opinion, is the most animal friendly way to prepare lobster.
I've worked at a company where they first cut the tail and pulled off the legs and then stuck a skewer through the animal while it's still alive.
Dimas Sastrohardjo, sous chef at Le Garage in Amsterdam The first time I had to kill a lobster, I was quite excited, as bad as that sounds. It was at the Oyster Bar at the Leidseplein, which has a lobster aquarium with live lobsters. I had to scoop the lobster from the water tank while the animal scooted from one corner to the other. It would usually take awhile before you would actually catch one.
Before cooking I always run a knife right through it, like I learned at school. We sometimes chop the lobster in half before putting it on the grill.
I've worked at a company where they first cut the tail and pull off the legs and then stick a skewer through the animal while it's still alive. Personally, I still always first put the knife through it.
Mick van der Ham, chef at Visaandeschelde in Amsterdam I first studied neuroscience, but that wasn't really my thing. Cooking has always been my passion, so I made the transition. A lobster doesn't have brains as we do—it's more like tentacles all over the body.
What annoys me is that people think that it's the same as boiling a cat, but a lobster really is completely different—it's more like an insect. We always cook them immediately, and it takes three seconds before the lobster turns hard. The problem with putting a knife through its head is that while there is one nerve there, there are still two others that remain. It's like shooting someone in the leg.
People just have too much imagination. I get it. People cannot be boiled alive, so neither can animals, but their nervous systems really work differently. The best way is to electrocute the lobster, as this is the quickest. But I'm not sure this will happen in every restaurant.
I think that every animal has senses, from mussels to lobsters. It's just that you can't hear mussels screaming.
Wouter van der Ven, sous-chef at Mossel & Gin in Amsterdam I learned the tricks of the trade from experienced chefs who just put live lobsters into a pan with boiling water. Many of them still had their heads and tails, and weren't delivered packaged. In the past, you used to see a lot more dead animals in a restaurant. A hunter would come in with a deer, which would then be left to bleed for a few days.
Before I cook the lobster, I put a knife in its head, right through the skull. Then I immediately cook the lobster in the pan. I don't feel any sorrier for lobsters than for other animals. "I believe that every animal has senses, from mussels to lobster. It's just that you can't hear mussels scream.
Sam Vreeke, chef at Mossel & Gin in Amsterdam The first time, I really had to get used to it, and it was pretty creepy. There is a living animal right in front of you. It is one of the few animals that are still alive in the restaurant.
The reason they are delivered to us while still alive is because preparing lobster takes a lot of time. Once you kill them, you need to cook them immediately. Apart from that, every restaurant has its own unique way of cooking and baking. If you're going to kill the animal immediately after catching it, you lose part of that identity.
As a chef, I think you should be comfortable with killing an animal. You will work with all kinds of meat, which has been prepared already. But I think it's important to realize that meat comes from living animals and you have to treat it with respect to make a nice meal.
The first time I killed one was like the first time having sex with a girl. It is pretty exciting to put a knife right through an animals head.
DP Arkenbout, chef at De Vluchthaven in Bruinisse A lobster has a very different nervous system than humans. Pain serves a purpose for humans, but a lobster has a hard shell, and reacts completely differently to pain. Often you will see that the advice is to cut the head in half, but that does not work at all. A lobster has several nerve centers spread out over its body, and the other nerve centers are still intact if you just put a knife through the head.
At De Vluchthaven, we keep the lobsters in large containers in the Oosterschelde, an estuary right next to the restaurant. We are very aware of the fact that we are working with live animals, and as soon as we can, we cut the lobster in two with a knife. The two halves are put on the grill immediately; it's the quickest death. Boiling the lobster in water takes longer for the heat to penetrate the nerves. I really think we treat the lobster with respect when we kill it fast.
Job Pattinasarany, chef at Ballroom in Rotterdam I think lobster is a very delicate product. It's alive, but I do simply see it as a product. The first time I killed one was like the first time having sex with a girl. It is pretty exciting to put a knife right through an animals head. Now it's just a routine. I've actually just killed four more. I always say this: when I walk into the sea and a lobster grabs my toe, it doesn't let go of me either. It is the law of the strongest.
There are two reasons why I kill it first. First of all, I think it's the most humane, and second of all the lobster's muscles tighten as soon as you boil it alive, which makes the meat less tender.
But it's also about respect. I always handle products carefully, from meat to fish, shellfish, and lobster. You treat it with care, like a good bottle of wine.