When was the last time you used the term “fishmonger?” Never, you say? Well, you’ve got company: Perhaps a handful of foodies can use the word meaningfully in a sentence, which is a shame considering the expertise it takes to become one of this rare breed. Now is a perfect opportunity to become familiar with the term—and the skilled people it represents—for the sake of your health and the planet’s well-being.
Fishmongers sell fish and seafood. They source, select and purchase it. They also handle, gut, bone, fillet, display and merchandise these fruits of the sea. Those gorgeous sea bass fillets don’t just swim into the fish case and clean themselves up!
For centuries up until about 50 years ago, most cities had butchers, bakers, green grocers and fishmongers. However, the age of the modern supermarket put all of these craft services under one industrialized roof and fishmongers have all but gone the way of the dinosaur, except in traditional fishing communities where skill sets and knowledge bases are still being handed down from generation to generation.
Now Whole Foods Market® is trying to revive that tradition by spotlighting the skill and craft of these Old-World artisans—the men and women who source and prepare fresh seafood for markets around the world. To highlight the initiative, the grocery store chain staged the first-ever national Fishmonger Face-Off at the FOOD & WINE Classic on June 14 in Aspen, Colorado. Eleven finalists squared off, capping weeks of fierce regional competitions among top Whole Foods Market fishmongers nationwide. After an impressive round of battles, the “Golden Trident” trophy went to Bob “The Fish Guy” Reany from Denver, a fishmonger of more than four decades’ standing. Experience won out over the flash and brash of his youthful, tattooed competitors.
Even better, the event educated a receptive international audience about sustainable seafood and the philosophy behind the chain’s recent, much-publicized move to become the first national retailer to stop selling “red”-rated seafood caught in the wild. Shoppers can now easily purchase wild-caught seafood from fisheries certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or rated “green” or “yellow” by the Blue Ocean Institute or Monterey Bay Aquarium (more on the color codes below).
The event was the perfect combination of celebrity, skill and enlightenment nestled in the bosom of the most elite, and perhaps most socially responsible, food event on the planet. FOOD & WINE magazine Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief Dana Cowin opened the event and introduced the emcee, award-winning New Orleans chef and cookbook author John Besh. Besh was joined by Chef Paul Qui, a recent James Beard Award and Top Chef Texas winner who judged the competition along with David Pilat, Whole Foods’ global seafood coordinator.
The air of celebrity fun-and-games faded fast when the timer started and these spirited, smack-talking men unsheathed their knives, found their zones and got down to business. In the first round, contestants had three minutes to cut and fillet huge specimens of MSC-certified wild Alaska salmon. They were judged on highest yield and best craftsmanship. Reany finished his in a cool 90 seconds. Five finalists advanced to the final round, which tested the fishmongers’ seafood prowess in a high-energy trivia quiz about seafood.
“All of the fishmongers who competed in the Face-Off are true artisans and should be proud,” said Besh. “They showed themselves to be true masters of their craft, passionate about their knowledge of seafood.”
A great event, to be sure; but what can we learn from it? For starters, it underscores the ways Whole Foods Market is trying to change the habits of consumers and preserve fisheries around the world that have become overstressed by rising global demand for seafood. Whole Foods’ effort can help you formulate the right questions the next time you find yourself hankering for Atlantic gray sole—but wondering why you can’t get it.
According to its website, since 2010 Whole Foods has worked with the nonprofit research organizations Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) to display their color-coded sustainability ratings to help customers make informed purchases of wild-caught seafood. What the color codes mean:
- Green (best choice): Species are abundant and caught in environmentally friendly ways.
- Yellow (good alternative): Species have some concerns about their status or catch methods.
- Red (avoid): Species suffer from overfishing or current fishing methods harm other marine life or habitats.
As of April 22, all of Whole Foods’ wild-caught seafood is either certified by the MSC or is yellow- or green-rated. The company no longer sells red-rated wild species such as Atlantic halibut; gray sole (Atlantic); octopus (all); skate wing; sturgeon; swordfish (from specific areas and catch methods rated “red”); tautog; trawl-caught Atlantic cod; tuna (from specific areas and catch methods rated “red”); turbot; imported wild shrimp; and rockfish (only certain species).
“The one thing I’m really proud of is that we beat our own deadline by a year to stop selling red-rated species,” Pilat said. “You won’t see any of it anymore. It was a challenge and something we’re really proud of. I think anytime we can get more customers to understand what’s going on with the oceans—any time we can raise the collective consciousness—that it’s a good thing and that we’ll see more and more fisheries who want to sell to those who care about the oceans. I think we’ll see more fisheries looking to change their gear, and make changes that can help them get a favorable rating.”
Perhaps the most important lesson of the event centers on how you can get to know your fishmonger and take advantage of his or her knowledge base. In a post-event interview, Pilat shared a few words of wisdom:
“There is nothing like taking home a fresh piece of fish,” Pilat said. “When it’s sustainable, it’s that much better. Not every grocery store has a fishmonger. There’s a lot of seafood that many retailers just put out prepackaged. Our folks are cutting to order. That’s another skill customers can take advantage of in addition to their knowledge.
The questions to ask your fishmonger are really simple:
- Where did this fish come from?
- When did this fish come in?
- What is the rating on this fish?
“A fishmonger should be able to answer all of those questions without hesitation.”
Pilat also points out that his company “has the highest standards for farmed seafood in the industry.” He advises caution when buying farmed fish, which often contains preservatives and chemical additives such as phosphates and sulfites that plump and extend shelf life of seafood such as scallops and shrimp. When buying farmed fish, have these questions ready:
- Where is the farm?
- How is the fish raised?
- What is it fed?
- Are there avian or mammalian byproducts in the feed?
- Are there pesticides in the water?
So get out there and own the word “fishmonger” today. Better yet, find one in your neighborhood or in your market and start the conversation. It’s a wonderful way to learn more about where and how your seafood is sourced and whether you’re eating responsibly.
Then match a good glass of wine with a clear conscience about what you’re eating and you’ll have the perfect bite every time.
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