Chef and lecturer in sustainability, Richard Webb. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
We're obsessed with the provenance of our meat, with most restaurants listing cuts on their menus with what is practically an essay on where it's come from and how it was raised, but what about fish? Do you know the origin of that beautifully plated piece of mackerel on your favourite restaurant menu?
"Most diners are under the misconception that seafood on restaurant menus is Australian, where in around three quarters of cases, this isn't the case," says Tooni Mahto of Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS).
And that's not all; Mahto reckons many of us are also labouring under the idea that all our Australian seafood is sustainable.
Esquire's cured catfish dish. Photo: Bradley Kanaris
"There is a strong rhetoric from the Australian Government that we are all fine here. While it's fair to say that some of our fisheries are better managed than others, it's not a national truth - we have many fisheries that catch dolphins, seabirds, fur seals and turtles in high numbers, and others that have driven some species to become overfished."
In partnership with Brisbane-based chef Richard Webb, former owner of sustainable fish and chip shop, Swampdog, the AMCS has created the Chef's Charter to help drive awareness of sustainable seafood. Webb has been canvassing Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne chefs to convince them to sign up.
"There's been plenty of interest," Webb says.
Webb, an amateur fishermen and a lecturer in sustainability at the College of Tourism and Hospitality at South Bank, has signed up chefs such as Ryan Squires from Brisbane's three-hatted Esquire; Matt Dempsey of Gladioli and Tulip in Victoria; and Chris Irving of the Gantry Restaurant & Bar in Sydney. The charter includes such strictures as being able to inform a third party of where their fish has come from, using correct species names and committing to removing all red-listed seafood in the AMCS' Australia's Sustainable Seafood Guide within a six-month time frame.
But why target chefs rather than consumers?
"Chefs are opinion formers, and not just the high-profile ones. If you eat a fantastic quality, fresh, flavoursome and sustainable seafood dish at any restaurant, that influences your choice at the fish counter," Mahto says.
How difficult is it for chefs to source enough sustainable seafood to keep diners happy and for it still to be profitable?
Squires says it's about putting in effort and trying to source a wide range of fish rather than just relying on familiar standards such as snapper.
"Fish still scares the hell out of many chefs. They don't know what to do with it. They need to educate themselves about sustainability - it takes a while to learn. The first thing they need to do is to forget about having a truck deliver seafood to their restaurant door or having their menus dictated by fishmongers.
"I'd advise them to talk to other chefs who are more knowledgeable. Dive in, pick their brains and make the connection with small local fishermen. Then accept you can't submit a shopping list to them. You need to create menus around the catch."
Squires practises what he preaches; he's featuring sustainable yabbies and Brisbane catfish that he cures and turns into bacon. "The catfish are magnificent, I love them. I've been soaking them in honey and salt and curing it for four hours or so in a wet brine, then serving it thinly sliced with crushed green tomatoes. It's wonderful, but I won't see it until it pops up again."