Richard Webb, a passionate seafood sustainability advocate, is encouraging chefs to buy locally. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
It's 6.30am on a Tuesday morning and in a frigid warehouse by the Brisbane River, a group of sleepy looking chefs have swapped their kitchen whites for hi-vis vests.
Among them are Pablo Tordesillas from Ortiga, Asher Blackford of Piaf/Sardine Tin/Survey Co, Giuliano Melluso from Esca Bar & Bistro, Matthias Andersson from One Eleven and Richard Webb from Swampdog.
Potential buyers turn over the ice in cobalt-blue containers, checking out the size and condition of the seafood within. The chefs are a little more reticent, but encouraged by Webb, start to do likewise, earmarking the bins they hope to buy and running potential recipes and food costings through their heads.
Richard Webb speaks with a chef at Raptis Fish Markets. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
It seems like a simple exercise: chefs coming to the markets to buy fish. But they are here under the Better Fish Project, an initiative of Webb's – a passionate seafood sustainability advocate and chef/owner of South Brisbane fish and chip shop Swampdog.
A keen fisherman, Webb has watched with growing unease the trend of chefs purporting to embrace "local" on their menus while ignoring a good deal of the seafood on their doorstep. He concedes that part of the problem in the past has been access to it.
“Restaurant wholesalers stock around five different fish and they don't stock really local fish, so chefs don't know how to get them. Even then I don't think they really know much about our fish,” he says.
Traditionally, markets like Raptis, where we are today, haven't been particularly welcoming to chefs either, with buying dominated by large retailers such as those from Darra, Sunnybank and Inala.
For the past four weeks, Webb has been signing up chefs to his Better Fish program, leading them out here, intent on breaking down the traditional barriers that exist between supplier and end user, and in the process hoping to get chefs hooked on more sustainable choices.
His own business, Swampdog, has bucked the trend by eschewing the popular fish and chip shop standards to focus on all-sustainable seafood, as well as using biodegradable packaging and even recycling frying oil to be used as bio-diesel. He's made it his business to educate himself about some of the local species and altruistically passes that knowledge on to chefs keen to know more.
“It really is my opinion that when I show chefs more and better seafood choices they'll make a spectrum shift towards green on their own,” he says.
While there's always been a perception by chefs that unfamiliar seafood won't sell, that diners only want the big ticket fish, Webb says the chefs who have signed on have been reassured surprisingly quickly.
“What's happening so far with chefs is that the price point is such that they can afford to give all their floor staff a new special fish meal before service and then it sells itself. Fill diners in on a few facts as to why it's a good choice and everyone gets a side order of warm inner glow and has a much better, richer dining experience.”
No doubt there's a bit of a glow to be had from the cost saving too – Webb reckons chefs can pay around half of what they do now by buying local and direct, and the local fisherman benefit too.
“The fresh fish market hasn't been so popular with local fishermen as there are not enough buyers and 'ring buying' has been quite rampant, which often results in poor outcomes for them,” Webb says.
Now, the wholesalers are keen to work on winning the fishermen back, and introducing new buyers forces the price up.
Buying whole fish like this means more experience for apprentices too, many of whom have never broken down a whole fish before.
The other advantage is the seafood's travel time. While some of the more popular menu fish may have been to Sydney and back or been air-freighted from New Zealand, these local species are not only low in food miles but are super-fresh. Green prawns from the bay, the very container that Tordesilla's about to bid on, were swimming three hours ago, we're told by a bloke whose friend owns the trawler.
Moist glistening skin, bright clear eyes and a fresh ocean smell are other pointers to the benefits of a short journey from sea to sale.
Of course not all local seafood is sustainable, says Webb, but in the general scheme of things he reckons low food miles are better.
“I would say the biggest issues in our oceans are about carbon and the associated acidification. Low food miles is better than seafood that's sustainable at source then air-freighted.”