Top Chef Texas winner Chef Paul Qui (right), with his associate Chef Jorge Martinez and journalist Robb Walsh, listen as fishermen Buddy Guindon explains how better communications can be opened between fishermen and chefs. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsoom Ink
Sitting around a u-shaped conference table at the historic Hotel Gavez on Galveston Island, Top Chef Texas winner Chef Paul Qui joined 11 other Gulf chefs and a dozen other seafood industry leaders to quiz and question a local fisherman on how better communications could be established between the water and the plate.
Buddy Guindon, owner of Katie’s Fish and a board member of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, calmly and methodically answered all questions hurled his way.
The Gulf of Mexico Foundation sponsored the special event funded by a grant from Sysco Louisiana Seafoods.
Addressing Gulf’s Challenges
“My main goal for this gathering was to address the challenges and needs of our Gulf Coast fisherman,” explained Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafoods. “I also hoped to give the chefs a platform to open a face to face communication with the fishermen, to express their needs for the unique products that they are buying elsewhere that could be produced by the Gulf fishing community.”
According to Quenton Dokken, CEO of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, the organization focuses its efforts on the Gulf’s sustainability of environmental quality, as well as the productivity and economic robustness that are cornerstones to its “quality of life.”
“The seafood and fishery industries are major players in both environmental quality and economic robustness,” he explained. “By bringing the seafood harvesters and chefs together, we hope to advance more efficient fisheries and utilization of living resources taken from the sea to protect the environment and living resources and enhance the seafood and fishery industries.”
Although other fisherman from around the Gulf had been invited to attend, Guindron explained “fisherman often don’t understand the importance of marketing.” As the sole representative for seafood harvesters he emphasized, “It is important to reach out to fisherman to give them a better understanding on where their seafood ends up, and how it is prepared.”
Bringing Issues Back to the Restaurant
Chef Kaz Edwards, Chef de Cuisine for Uchi Restaurants, agreed, “ I wanted to gain more understanding of the real issues, and then in turn bring that back into our restaurant and raise awareness about the Gulf through our staff and guests.”
According to Robb Walsh, the culinary critic for Houstonia Magazine and a board member of Foodways Texas, “every seafood has a story. For fishermen to receive better prices at the dock, it is important those stories are told.”
To better prepare their menus, the chefs agreed that there was a need for better and more consistent information on what Gulf fishermen are catching. They also were in agreement that the fish they serve customer must be certified and sustainable.
Two of most important issues discussed were the destruction of the artificial reefs in the Gulf, and the concept or perception of bi-catch according to Chef Edwards.
“Oil rigs have created artificial reefs/ecosystems that supports, as well attracts, an abundance of life. They are now being destroyed because of liability and no one wants to be responsible,” he explained. “Fisherman are harvesting around a rig one day, and the next and the artificial reef would be removed and the fish gone. I can’t imagine how detrimental that would be to the ecosystem as well as the fishermen.”
Chef Edwards also found it interesting that in some areas of the world fish that in the Gulf are considered bycatch are considered a specialty fish and attract a premium price.
“It seems Gulf fishermen really don’t want to bother with bycatch,” said the Texas chef. “The question becomes, how do we get fishermen to see value in something that traditionally holds no value?”
“I would really like to see fishermen make available a “boutique service” to chefs,” said Bryan Caswell, chef and owner of Houston’s Reef Restaurant. “We would have no problem paying more for fish if we knew it was the fish we wanted and the quality we demand.”
Gossen agrees, “Increased communication is needed throughout the supply chain. Through events like this we are finding out how important it is to both chefs and consumers to know who is producing their food and where it is coming from.”
Suggestions Moving Forward
In an afternoon roundtable discussion, ideas on how to improve communications between the boat and the kitchen flowed as fast and furious as a chef preparing a complex creation.
Improvements the group agreed needed further exploration going forward included:
- Chefs on the boat while fishermen do their work
- Fishermen in the restaurant to better understand how their catch is served
- Improved communications, and establishing a way to better tell the story of Gulf seafood. Getting more journalists on boats, and in the kitchen
- Educating restaurant wait-staff on seafood, and it’s preparation
- Seasonal seafood promotions, as well as seasonal seafood lists
- Explore new sustainable seafood preparation techniques such as “Ike Jime”
- Development of a seafood iPhone application
- “Bycatch” preparation demonstrations and tastings
According to Gulf of Mexico Foundation CEO, “this was the first opportunity for many of the chefs present to talk with a commercial fisherman from the Gulf of Mexico – the people who provide the food they prepare for their customers.”
Dokken sees these meetings as opportunities for fishermen to hear from chefs what they need to provide so customers get the highest quality product.
“I believe the meeting was a great start in building a stronger communication between our local fisherman and the chefs,” said Doug Godschalk, president of Sysco Louisiana Seafoods. “We believe the gulf has a vast variety of underutilized resources that can be marketed throughout the foodservice supply chain thus allowing sustainability of the over fished population and providing the local fisherman with an avenue to take to market new species. It will be a win – win for the fishery and the supply chain.”