In May, cooks trawling* San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market are like 6-year-olds on Christmas morning. Fava beans, spring onions, green garlic, pea leaves, English and snap peas, artichokes, asparagus, field grown rhubarb, and (at long last) sweet-as-candy pixie tangerines. Soon we'll taste Ben Lucero's miraculous strawberries (this coming Saturday, perhaps?) and the first good cherries.
The absence of one of our region's most beloved harbingers of spring, however, has left a gash in every omni-locavore's heart. No locally caught wild king salmon for the entire 2008 season (typically May through October). The sudden, drastic, and thus far unexplained decline of the local salmon population is an immense tragedy.
Like other regulars of the Saturday market, when I heard the news my thoughts went immediately to Larry Miyamura, the local salmon fisherman who has pampered our palates with pristine fresh-out-of-the-Pacific Chinook for nearly a decade. Larry and his wife Roz of Shogun Fish are still attending the market, but this year the coolers of ice that used to hold salmon that Larry caught are now filled with the more expensive Alaskan counterpart (along with an enviable selection of other beautiful fish, some of it far more local and affordable). I urge all my Bay Area readers to please frequent the Miyamuras' stand. You won't find fresher fish anywhere else in San Francisco.
I challenge you to find a cook out there who adores the local king more than I do. The current situation breaks my heart, so much so that I woke up one night last week at 3 am pondering it. I knew then that I had to write my thoughts down on IPOS.
At Contigo I planned to feature the unctuous fish on my menu throughout the season. Granted, like other local chefs, I will fill the void by serving other wild and sustainably caught seafood. Expensive wild Alaskan salmon most likely won't be an option. Instead, my menu will focus on utilizing local goodies like petrale sole, sanddabs, sardines, anchovies, smelt, halibut, black cod, lingcod, California sea bass, squid, Hog Island clams, mussels, and oysters, and, on the off chance I get it at a great price, sea urchin and spiny lobster. You'll also find other Pacific fish, like the various tunas and Alaskan halibut and black cod. Occasionally, east coast treats will make an appearance, like skatewing, Sierra mackerel, wild black and striped bass, line-caught hake (and its roe) and cod (most likely salted), scallops, monkfish liver, maybe even Maine lobster. When you see octopus on my menu — and believe me, you will — it will likely be from Spain. Economics may even encourage me to consider some of the farmed fish endorsed by the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch. But none of these fish are as dear to my heart as wild local king salmon.
It will come as no surprise, then, that there is one fish I will not serve at Contigo: farmed salmon.** Not even Scotland's eco-friendly Marine Conservation Society-endorsed Loch Duart salmon.
My decision isn't based on holier-than-thou food snob bull shit. It comes from my heart. My decision is based on respect for and solidarity with people like Larry Miyamura, hardworking fishermen who depend on the salmon season for the majority of their income. It's a personal choice. It just wouldn't feel right to me to put farmed salmon on my restaurant's menu. Especially not this year.
Remember the name that you all helped me choose for my restaurant? Contigo. Spanish for "with you." The name places emphasis on the values of connection and community, that circle that includes people like Larry and all the other producers, artisans, and foragers who make a living by bringing us the best seasonal products our local ecosystem has to offer. You and I dwell in that circle too. What hurts Larry hurts all of us.
I'm aware there may be logical contradictions in my decision. There's a lot of gray area in the topic of sustainable fishery stewardship and I don't pretend to be an expert (but my future purveyors, Monterey Fish and Ports Seafood, are. In fact, Monterey Fish founder/owner Paul Johnson has just written the best book on the subject, "Fish Forever." I highly recommend his book and plan to make it required reading for all my cooks).
I also want to emphasize that I'm not judging any restaurant or chef or home cook who serves or eats farmed salmon. Heck, I admit I sometimes eat farmed salmon, particularly when I find myself in New York pondering what to put on my bagel.
But my restaurant is like this blog. It's my personal vision, my tiny attempt at making the world a saner place. And in my world, when the local wild salmon population has been decimated, people don't have the option of eating farmed salmon imported from halfway around the world. They try something else.
In my world, serving farmed salmon lands you on a slope as slippery as a shoal of sardines. Local king salmon is one of the iconic seasonal products of the Bay Area. If I decided to serve purportedly eco-friendly Scottish farmed salmon as a replacement for the unavailable local Chinook during our usual salmon season, what would stop me from serving conventional hot house peppers from Holland in August? What would stop me from serving ever available farmed salmon year round? By extension, what would stop me from serving tomatoes in January or asparagus in October? You have to draw a line somewhere. You have to do the right thing.
On the plus side, now maybe I'll have more success convincing Omega-3-deprived diners to eat sardines.
* Fishing metaphor intended. Word geeks: see discussion of trawling vs. trolling.
** For various reasons, you won't find Chilean sea bass, tilapia, or catfish on my menu either.