When Tim McKee talks, people listen.
Chefs, especially. The chef/owner of Octo Fishbar in St. Paul — and vice president of development for the Fish Guys, which supplies seafood to hundreds of Minnesota restaurants and supermarkets — decided to step beyond the shallow hoopla that’s ordinarily associated with such marketing-driven designations as National Seafood Month.
Yes, October is National Seafood Month. Rather than use it as an excuse to dive into Lobsterfest or some other promotional event, McKee chose to dedicate the month’s 31 days to raising awareness on the serious subject of seafood sustainability.
He decided to become a disciple of the Smart Catch program, which provides resources and support to chefs so they can purchase and serve seafood in environmentally responsible ways, through both well-managed aquaculture enterprises and responsible fisheries.
McKee started making calls and sending texts to local chefs. Before he knew it, Minnesota’s first James Beard award-winning chef had signed on more than 140 participants — most in the Twin Cities metro area — asking them to feature one menu item that showcased a sustainably sourced seafood.
“Chefs are like herding cats, but very few people declined,” he said. “It’s encouraging to hear people say, ‘That makes sense’ and ‘We can do that.’ That’s a real testament to our culinary community.”
Philanthropist Paul G. Allen created the Smart Catch program in Seattle in 2015. A year later, the James Beard Foundation stepped in. It was a natural fit. The New York City-based culinary organization’s mission is to “celebrate, nurture and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone.”
“They designed a great program,” said Katherine Miller, the foundation’s vice president of impact. “But we have the reach. We can talk to chefs without having to introduce who we are and why we’re doing it. Because of our awards and programs, we’re considered an arbiter of what’s good in our food system. Which is why we felt we had an opportunity to take our own connections in the community, to help influence and educate chefs, and consumers.”
The program has caught on, growing from 65 participants in that first year to more than 500 restaurants and counting, in 44 states. Miller attributes much of that growth to efforts like McKee’s.
“Having local chefs taking leadership positions, going to their peers and saying, ‘This is what we need to do,’ that’s what’s going to take this program to the next level,” she said. “Having a chef like Tim step up is a huge deal for the program. No one has jumped on it the way that [the Twin Cities] has. This is, by far, the biggest response by a chef community in a single city.”
There’s a reason why the foundation is trying to reach consumers — and drive the demand-driven supply chain — via chefs.
“Collectively, Americans eat the majority of their seafood in restaurants,” said Miller. “We want to be able to enjoy seafood for generations to come, and the only way to do that is to introduce new options for consumers, and diversify our plate. Who better to introduce something new — and make it delicious — than chefs?”
For diners, here’s how it works: Look for the sticker on the door or window (it was designed by Minneapolis artist Terrence Payne) that signifies participating restaurants. Order — and enjoy — the designated menu item. Don’t forget to photograph it, and post the image on social media with the hashtags @smartcatchMN or #keepoceansfishy.
Oh, and use those hashtags to search Twitter and Instagram for participating restaurants; it’s going to take a few weeks for the James Beard Foundation to list them on its website, jamesbeard.org.
For Scott Pampuch, chef at McKinney Roe in downtown Minneapolis, adhering to the program was a snap. As McKee discovered with many of his inquiries, the restaurant already incorporates sustainably sourced seafood — shrimp, salmon and scallops — into its menu.
“Cost and quality are the two questions that every chef asks of their purveyors,” said Pampuch. “Now, the third question has to be about sustainability. If you’re not asking that third question, you’re not being a responsible chef.”
Aside from menu basics, Pampuch is marking the month with weekly Smart Catch specials. Last week it was prawns, this week it’s branzino, and next week he’ll be featuring trout.
What’s going to happen when Movember rolls around, and men’s health issues replace swordfish and mackerel on the national calendar?
“This is about awareness,” said McKee. “I’d love to see more restaurants focusing on sustainability. This program will convince chefs there’s a right way to do this. It’s evolved from, ‘This is something I could do’ to ‘This is something I should be doing.’ ”