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Interview With Seafood Watch Celebrity Chef Doug Katz

Dr. Jordan Schaul interviews Seafood Watch’s Celebrity Chef Doug Katz about the famed sustainable seafood program developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBAQ) launched the renowned Seafood Watch program several years ago with the initial intent to help keep marine fisheries robust and healthy. The Aquarium reached out to seafood aficionados across the US to raise awareness of the plight of over-harvested fish populations.

Seafood Watch continues to be educational, informing consumers in restaurants and retail markets about imperiled shellfish and fish species. The ultimate aim is to advise patrons interested in making sustainable choices in selecting seafood using continually updated scientific data.

Seafood Watch was and is ahead of its time, preceding the public’s current interest in sustainability and green initiatives by at least a decade. It was certainly one of the first zoo or aquarium sponsored environmental programs demonstrating a commitment to sustainable practices.

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Chef Doug Katz

Today, the North American-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums administers a Green Advisory Group among its conservation and science advisory programs.  Nothing of its kind existed when the Aquarium launched Seafood Watch.

Generally speaking, zoos and aquariums are now very progressive in terms of their environmental consciousness, as I’ve reported for News Watch in numerous posts.

Sustainability is deeply engrained in the cultures of zoological and natural history attractions. This is important because these living institutions serve more patrons every year than all professional sporting events combined.  Their collective reach is simply amazing. These informal learning centers are doing as much teaching as they are entertaining.

But again, the Seafood Watch program is a pioneer, as is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Aquarium is not only affiliated with a research institute, but it was the first regional public aquarium in the US to exclude conventional marine mammals (i.e. cetaceans and pinnipeds) as display animals. They do rehabilitate some injured and orphaned marine mammals like sea otters.

The Seafood Watch program was unique in the industry dating back to my early years as an animal keeper at the Cleveland Zoo. At that time, the zoo and aquarium profession was just beginning to implement and embrace recycling programs and water conservation practices on their members’ campus grounds. For the most part, green initiatives were unheard of and certainly weren’t a focus of day to day operations as they are now for many zoological facilities.

Through Seafood Watch, Monterey Bay Aquarium educates people visiting the facility and they do collaborate with other public aquariums and marine parks, but their interface with consumers and businesses on the street is really unprecedented.

It is  on the street and in markets, educating consumers where the most impact is made in respect to helping people conserve aquatic life. I say “aquatic life” because the Seafood Watch program contributes to the conservation of not just marine animals, but brackish and freshwater fish and shellfish species. More specifically, the Aquarium has managed to contribute to the sustainability of farmed, wild and domestic and imported fish species consumed as seafood.

I now live in Southern California, but happened to be visiting Cleveland over last year’s holiday season after an absence of nearly a decade. I attended a dinner hosted by my long-time friend Doug Katz, a resident of Cleveland Heights. Besides fretting over the Cleveland Browns—a popular pastime in Cleveland—I learned that the highly regarded chef and proprietor of three area restaurants was a celebrity chef with the Seafood Watch program. Coincidentally, Doug was leaving for California to meet with MBAQ staff to discuss Seafood Watch the next day..

Doug serves on the Blue Ribbon Task Force as a part Seafood Watch’s national culinary strategy. The strategy is designed to help chefs around the nation make better choices and as Doug said, “To keep the buzz going so that consumers and the seafood industry don’t lose interest in sustainable seafood. In his words—”Interest equals progress.”

I had actually posted an article for National Geographic’s website concerning Seafood Watch for World Oceans Day two years ago. In conversing with Doug, I realized there was a lot to the perspective of the consumer and the restaurant owner or retailer that I had not considered or made mention of in the previous post.

So I asked Doug if he would agree to fill me and he did. He first wanted to emphasize several points regarding the consumers role in protecting nature and natural resources. He pointed out that each person’s actions as a concerned consumer matter. And before I posed any questions, he shared just how easy it is to stay informed through the MBAQ’s web media.

The Seafood Watch program has over 2500 recommendations on their mobile app and website to help consumers and chefs make better seafood selections. The pocket guide or mobile app is available for downloading right from the MBAQ website.

If you don’t do anything he mentioned to stay informed, one thing you can do to save the oceans is to ask the following question as a patron:  “Do you sell environmentally-friendly seafood?

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Jordan: Can you briefly profile the three restaurants that you operate to give us some background on what each serves?

Doug: Fire Food and Drink at Shaker Square in Cleveland, Ohio, serves roasted meats, fish and vegetarian dishes.  We use a traditional tandoori oven to roast meats, fish and vegetables over local hard woods.  We buy as many local ingredients as possible and emphasize the importance of knowing where our food comes from.  We use only sustainable seafood.  You can learn more at http://www.firefoodanddrink.com

Provenance and Provenance Cafe at The Cleveland Museum of Art highlight foods from around the world that are cooked using authentic cooking methods.  We use a tandoori oven, a robata grill and Mediterranean stone oven to cook our food.  We use food and drink to tell stories about food culture from around the globe. Again, it is important that we know where our food comes from and we highlight this provenance whenever possible. You can learn more http://www.clevelandart.org/visit/provenance

The Katz Club Diner is an upscale diner that highlights exciting diner classics with a modern twist.  We serve local eggs, local cheeses, local meats, sustainable fish, house made pastries and direct trade coffees in a refurbished 1940s diner car.  Again, we highlight the origin of our food and attempt to educate our guest on the importance of this decision. You can learn more at http://www.TheKatzClubDiner.com

Jordan: How did you get involved with the Seafood Watch program?

Doug: I was introduced to Seafood Watch by Fedele Bauccio (Bon Appetit Management Company).  Fedele and I have worked together on several food service projects and currently partner on the food service at The Cleveland Museum of Art.  Fedele believes, as I do, in knowing as much about our food sources as possible. We also believe in protecting these natural resources, so we can rely on the availability of good food sources always!

Jordan: My impression is that the Seafood Watch program targets metropolitan regions of our oceans’ coasts. Seafood Watch is a national program focused on the popular seafood in the US market (no matter its origin), but clearly it has much greater reach if inland retailers and restaurant owners like your self participate. Can you elaborate on this?

Doug: It is important for people across the globe living in coastal communities or inland, to know about Seafood Watch.  Education is the key to our sustainability of resources.  We rely on clean oceans and reliable resources for nutritious and fresh food.  As the world eats more and more fish, we need to understand how to preserve the fish populations and the health of our oceans and fresh water.

Jordan: When I lived in Alaska, I was quite cognizant of sustainable seafood issues because the subject matter was addressed almost daily in the news media at the fishery, wholesale and retail market levels.  What kind of attention, if any, is drawn to seafood issues in the Cleveland area, for example? Are restaurants an important resource or are they one of several entities that provide information of seafood to customers?

Doug: Programs like Seafood Watch are teaching Clevelanders and others in the United States about the importance of sustainable seafood.  As you can imagine, it is an often a little known issue and one that Midwesterners may not be as mindful of, but as concern for our environment and natural resources grows, educating the public on these issues is seen as extremely important. People are passionate about these issues and want to pass the word on ways that others can help.

Jordan: Can you talk about your past work as a celebrity chef for the MBAQ and what your current involvement entails?

Doug: As an ambassador for The Seafood Watch Program and as someone on the Blue Ribbon Committee (one who furthers the promotion of Seafood Watch and current initiatives), it is my responsibility to learn as much as possible about sustainability of seafood and of our aquatic environments.  As a chef, I want to educate the public and be a responsible consumer.  I want to teach others how to be responsible consumers too.  I am an advocate for sustainable seafood and shout the message about sustainability to my audience.

I ask many questions of the experts, so I can respond reputably to their questions and concerns.

Jordan: I suspect you plan to stay involved with Seafood Watch? Are there other sustainable food practices or culinary concerns that have emerged and that you address or foresee addressing in the future that influence what patrons of your restaurants may encounter?

Doug: Yes, I believe that consumers should know where their food comes from. I am an advocate for local food.  I teach consumers that they must ask questions and understand what they are buying.  This relates to meats, dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains and processed foods.

There is so much to know, so much good information and so much incorrect information as well.

I believe that education is the key to good food choices. The more we know about our food, the better is will taste and the healthier it can be.

For more information on Seafood Watch, please watch this video.

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Jordan Schaul

For more of Dr. Jordan Schaul’s posts, visit his profile page on the National Geographic website. You can also read his bio here.