Bay Journal

How to sell chefs on new, Bay-friendly seafood items

A taste of J.J. McDonnell's chef's luncheon

  • By Whitney Pipkin on April 25, 2014
A display of some of the raw fish that were served at J.J. McDonnell's chef luncheon this week. (Whitney Pipkin) Invasive blue catfish from the Wide Net Project was served with shrimp in an Étouffée sauce at the lunch.  (Whitney Pipkin) Salmon farmed on land in West Virginia by the Freshwater Institute was served with béchamel sauce and crab meat as a Salmon Oscar.  (Whitney Pipkin )

It’s not easy staying up-to-date on the latest, eco-friendliest seafood options — not even for professional chefs.

That’s why several of them in the Washington, D.C. area attended a luncheon hosted this week by Jessup, Md.-based seafood supplier J.J. McDonnell, which featured everything from farmed cobia to invasive blue catfish from the Chesapeake Bay.

“As a business, we have to be more responsible about what we do,” George McManus III, owner of J.J. McDonnell, explained to the group at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in D.C.

Connor Boney, marketing manager for the seafood supplier, said the company organizes events like this in part to respond to growing demand for more sustainable and local products — and more information about them.

“This is a portfolio of what we’re doing as a company to source sustainable products and (work with) creative aquaculture,” he said before the five-course meal began.

“Skinny Dipper” Oysters Rockefeller sourced from a Southern Maryland oyster farm that sells exclusively through J.J. McDonnell started off the meal. With the oyster industry in the Bay watershed booming, J.J. McDonnell’s Kurt Friesland explained how difficult it can be to pair up with a promising source in this growing facet of aquaculture.

As a plate of pan-seared cobia with mango papaya salsa arrived, J.J. McDonnell’s staff explained “the unique story” of the Open Blue fish farm off the coast of Panama from which it came. The farm sought out J.J. to source and distribute its fish in the region, which is grown in nets in high currents eight miles off the coast in the Caribbean Sea.

It’s the largest offshore farm in the world and delivers cobia — a shark-like fish with firm, white meat — to the local supplier within 36 hours of harvest. The cooked fish is malleable and dense in texture, retaining moisture and offering chefs somewhat of a blank slate for creativity.

The luncheon also featured red grouper from Gulf Wild, served fried with coleslaw as sliders, that was sustainably harvested from the Gulf of Mexico. The fishermen that harvest it use identification numbers tagged to the whole fish to trace them back to where and how they were caught.

But the main attraction for Chesapeake Bay-chefs (and one reporter) was the opportunity to try two fish whose consumption could have a positive impact on regional water ecology.

The Wide Net Project’s blue catfish, sold exclusively through J.J. McDonnell, was served with a shrimp Étouffée at the luncheon. Harvesting and eating the fish helps remove larger numbers of them from the Chesapeake Bay, where they currently vacuum up a variety of native species as top predators in many of the Bay’s waterways.

The menu also included a taste of the only Atlantic salmon currently being grown with closed containment technology on land in the United States. The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute has spent the last two years growing these salmon at its facility in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and it’s available through J.J. McDonnell in the Washington, D.C., market for a limited time. (We cover the facility’s work in more depth in an article about aquaculture included in our May issue.)

The salmon came across as lighter in flavor, less oily and slightly less pink than the wild variety. The chef served it as Salmon Oscar with a béchamel sauce and crab meat to counter the lighter flavor of the fish.

Chefs and other vendors in the room had several questions about the salmon, regarding what it was fed and how the researchers, who were present, grew them in freshwater. The discussion quickly turned to the future of aquaculture and its potential — could consumers ever accept a non-pink farmed salmon?

And how would a chef serve it? 

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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