Food Matters: Net Zero?

Even chefs are conflicted about eating sea creatures

Amanda Rae
Food Matters
Baja Scallop Escabeche (served in shell) at The Little Nell Culinary Fest in June.

Occasionally, the thought trickles into my mind. I’ll be crunching through a tiny, whole baby octopus soaked in sweet chile glaze at Thai House Co. & Sushi in El Jebel or savoring a hunk of butter-drenched lobster tail at Red Mountain Grill on the Aspen Golf Course (the Saturday night special) when the notion glides through my consciousness: “Someday,” I think, “I might not be eating any seafood at all.”

Meat, neither.

The push to eliminate animal protein from the American diet feels stronger than ever. And, as Earth’s population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, “land alone will not feed us,” according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture director general Qu Donguy in UN News. The world, he says, will need to rely on aquatic species as a food source.

However, mounting evidence indicates that the global fishing industry may be largely unsustainable. The 2021 undercover investigative documentary “Seaspiracy” depicts a broken system that is destroying our oceans and has created a worldwide human rights crisis. It claims that there is no such thing as “sustainable seafood.”

Chefs, too, feel conflicted about responsible sourcing of meat and seafood. The Little Nell culinary director Matt Zubrod cites the Seattle Fish Co. Eco Score Program, which grades the sustainability of wild and farmed seafood procured for the property that includes element 47, Ajax Tavern, The Wine Bar, and catering operations. Before this summer, Zubrod explains, “I get rated … a 7 out of 10, because I’m serving king crab legs from (Russia) on the Ajax Tavern (seafood) plateau. They’re overfished. I shouldn’t be serving them. OK.”

The Little Nell banquet chef Ian Sincick grills shrimp.

Then Zubrod entertained a crazy thought: “Maybe I should take seafood off the menu for a year. What if I make a statement?”

It was just a thought; currently seafood remains at The Little Nell. But Zubrod cites the bold move by Eleven Madison Park head chef and owner Daniel Humm (who brought the EMP Winter House pop-up to Chefs Club at the St. Regis Aspen Resort in 2018-19) to launch an all-vegetarian menu at the New York City restaurant earlier this year. Zubrod and team did make a few key changes, though, including scrubbing king crab from the Ajax Tavern menu.

“I can get away with not having crab legs, but I gotta offer something else,” Zubrod notes. Now, he explains, that’s “Jonah crab, hand-picked by a fisherman in Maine. I love this crab.”

A cousin to Dungeness and stone crabs, Jonah crab is meaty with a flaky texture and sweet flavor. It lives along the Atlantic coast from Canada to Florida and was originally discovered as lobster bycatch in the 1980s.

“Tuna has been off (the menu) since I started here, six years ago,” Zubrod continues. “Right now I’m into Maine halibut — it’s a much smaller halibut. Getting good, farm-raised Dover sole (is a challenge). Portugal has it.”

Attending The Little Nell’s “An Ode to Shellfish Dinner: A Taste of The Sea” a few weeks ago sent me home full of mixed emotion. The street food-style tasting beneath a big white tent on Gondola Plaza and on Ajax Tavern’s patio was a centerpiece of the property’s first-ever Culinary Fest — conceived to fill the gap left by the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which traditionally happens that third weekend in June. (Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Classic is scheduled this year for Sept. 10-12 instead.)

Chefs serve oysters on the half shell.

Hooked on the United Nations World Oceans Day (June 8), this year themed “The Ocean: Life & Livelihoods,” the Nell’s shellfish dinner on June 19 drew chefs from its kitchens and a handful of guest chefs from other Relais & Châteaux properties, “each utilizing sustainable shellfish from producers affected by the pandemic with a shellfish farmer in attendance.”

The ticketed celebration, which sold out at 200, also served another purpose, according to Zubrod: “To focus … on the camaraderie of our food and beverage industry after a very sheltered year.”

And that’s exactly what the event — which drew oyster, crab and scallop fishermen — did. It felt like a return to normalcy this summer for the food and beverage industry and a fête for the folks who have been on the brink of losing everything.

“We’re talking about small guys — the scallop guy is the guy that’s sending me the scallops.” Zubrod says, adding that many suffered income loss this past year due to lack of demand. Only available in summer, the scallops were marinated gently then presented with “dragon apple pearls” and an herb foam back in their snow-white shells.

Oyster farmers from Martha’s Vineyard and Maine supplied bivalves for raw presentations with various accompaniments as well as a station for oysters Rockefeller. There, Zubrod used a portable propane-fueled salamander broiler for the classic dish and promptly depleted his supply. This is where I felt conflicted: consumer taste for shellfish is robust. In Aspen, as in other resort markets, diners want … what they want.

Chef Zac Ladwig from The Inn at Dos Brisas in Texas sprinkles salt on shrimp roe gnocchi.

Outsiders might wonder how popular shellfish and fish are in our landlocked Colorado ski town. Seafood is a star attraction on our downtown dining scene, particularly at Clark’s Oyster Bar, Duemani and four dedicated sushi spots (Matsuhisa, Kenichi, Nakazawa Aspen, Jing). Seafood is a staple at three CP Group restaurants (The Wild Fig, Steakhouse No. 316 and The Monarch), the major hotels (Hotel Jerome, The Little Nell, The St. Regis Aspen Resort), and Dante at Chefs Club, 7908 Aspen, Betula, Jimmy’s and others. Even Pyramid Bistro, the pioneer “nutritarian” restaurant founded in 2010 by chef Martin Oswald, features select fish and shellfish along with poultry (though no red meat) on its mostly plant-based menu. Eliminate seafood from any of these tables and a total reformulation of concept may be in order.

So, change will be subtle and incremental. “My responsibility right now is not serving things (we) can’t get because of high demand, low supply: chicken wings, lamb rack,” Zubrod shares. “On the menu right now in element 47, guess what’s the bestseller now? Rabbit tortellini, (made with) black garlic pasta.”

Before the “Ode to Shellfish Dinner,” Zubrod told me that five of six stations in the tent would showcase fruits of the sea. What was the sixth station?

“Wagyu, of course,” Zubrod quips. Working in partnership with Emma Farms in Basalt, which raises Japanese cattle and supplies all of the beef served at the Nell properties, Zubrod and chefs were fired up to do “off cuts, nothing fancy.” The resulting presentation: wagyu beef tongue and cheek tacos. Dripping with a savory red sauce and topped with crunchy garnish on soft tortillas, the “meat of the event” drew the longest line all night.

Aspen Times Weekly

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