In light of the social consciousness trend that's underway in the food business -- Puck going humane, Burger King following suit -- it may be prudent to bring up a book that was released late last year, The end of the Line: How overfishing is changing the world and what we eat, by Charles Clover. The agenda of the book is clear, and no one from fishermen to eaters avoid Clover's there-will-be-no-fish-left-if-you're-not-careful wrath. Included in the mix is a serious attack on restaurants Nobu and Koi, and at least two other bigtime New York chefs, Laurent Tourondel and David Bouley. The core issue: there is a hell of a lot of endangered fish on our city's best menus; with all the attention we pay to fur and and foie gras, you'd think we could have some concern for the fish too. As for the validity of the claim, we think he may be onto something, though we're not boycotting Nobu anytime soon.
We provide a couple of pages for your review below, on which you can base your own boycott or no-boycott arrangements.
· The End of the Line [New Press]
The End of the Line
Chapter 11: Dining with the Big Fish
Nobu has become a master of publicity as well as of sushi and sashimi, and he has used this mastery to expand the market for his kind of Japanese food. He teamed up. for example, with Martha Stewart to make a Webcast in the Tsukiki fish market in Tokyo, enthusing over all those beautiful tuna, before Stewart mounter her own invasion of the Japanese market with her particular brand of cooking and decorating accessories. his first cookbook, Nobu: The Cookbook, had more celebrity endorsements than any book, let along a cookbook, you have ever read.
Words of praise from Madonna, Giorgio Armani, Bill Clinton, Andrea Agassi, Robin Williams, Cindy Crawford, Leonardo DiCaprio, and other jostled for space on the back cover. Kate Winslet, for instance, said: "The food at Nobu can be described in two ways—quite simply heaven on earth and SEX on a plate." Stephen Speilberg said: "Your food is the BEST. Just don't tell my mother."
The list of fish Nobu chooses to cook may be sublime in terms of quality, exclusivity, and taste, but if you know your ecology, you would have to say he is vulnerable to criticism. Check out the recipes in his cookbook against the prevailing ecological wisdom on what not to eat, set out, for example, on the Seafood Watch Program Web site run by the Monterery Bay Aquarium in California, the guide published by Blue Ocean Institute, or the National Audubon Society's Seafood Guide. In Nobu's cookbook you wil find many species that are in very poor shape, such as abalone, Caspian caviar, Chilean sea bass, grouper (a coral reef fish), red snapper (occasionally fish with dynamite), sole, and the finest sashimi-quality tuna steaks.
In this book Nobu make no reference to which tuna he uses, describing all tuna simply toro. He does, however, say he prides himself on the very finest-quality ingredients, so the culinary world would immediately assume he means bluefin or bigeye, the most sought-after tuna. I contact his PR people in New York but they declined to provide this information. Nobu's cookbook also includes exotics such as flying fish roe (which does make you wonder what happens to the rest of the flying fish) and the notorious blowfish, or fugu. Now, the fufu can kill you, which is something Nobu obligingly draws attention to, but he never mentions anything about the lethalness to fish species of any fishing methods or management regime. To be fair, it has been the convention not to talk of such matters as sustainability in cookbooks for fish. One wonders whether that convention is itself sustainable in the reduced circumstances in which the world's fish stocks find themselves. Given Nobu's elevated status among chefs and his status as a role model among those who follow his fusion of Asian and Western cuisines, that omission is a shame...
Nobu certainly isn't the only celerity chef who doesn't tell you where his fish come from—this problem pervades the high-end restaurant industry. When I was in New York last year I noticed that one of the L.A. restaurants in the Nobu mold, called Koi, had opened a branch in the Bryant Park Hotel. Koi retails contemporary Japanese food to New York's rag trade district, mixing traditional and Western ingredients. Koi's menu is big on important shrimp, which the National Audubon Society says you should avoid. Its chef, Sal Sprufero, has a signature dish of—you guessed it—steamed Chilean sea bass and shitake mushrooms. Perhaps Sprufero has found a way to get this from one of the sustainable sources in South Georgia or Austrailia. All credit to him if he has—but his publicist declined to answer any of the questions I sent her. What gets me more worried is that the sample sushi and sashimi menu on his Web site is headed by bluefin tuna.
Nobody, I believe, should be knocking out a dozen servings a night of bluefin tuna, which is already in the anteroom to extinction. Least of all should anyone be treating the small and dwindling western Atlantic bluefin population as an unlimited resource. To put another way, how would you feel about a slice or two of mature endangered orangutan, served raw? If high-end restaurants did that I believe most movie stars would walk out rather than pose with the chef.
You'd be amazed by the number of chefs who serve bluefin tuna in New York City. There are high-end Asian eateries, such as Megu, a Japanese joint with towering prices and a baffling thirteen-page menu. There is Jimmy Sakatos, chef at teh Carlyle, a hotel favored by political dignitaries, celebrities, gliterati, and the in-the-know-travelers, according to its literature. And then there is Laurent Tourondel, one of the top-bracket chefs, whose swanky BLT Fish offers a selection of endangered and overfished species including Atlantic bluefin tuna (International Union for the Conservation of Nature listing: critically endangered), Icelandic halibut (IUCN listing: vulnerable), South Pacific swordfish (not a bad choice, sustainability-wise, but watch the mercury), and Floria red snapper, a reef fish that lives up to fifty years of age (though it is usually caught at the age of three or four). Red snapper i the fish with the longest record of overfishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
David Bouley was for many years New York's favorite chef, opening Montrachet, which rated three stars, in Tribeca in 1985 and the reliable Bouley in 1987. The latest version of Bouley has on its menu seared swordfish (though it doesn't say where these are from), Maine baby skate (can't he wait until they have spawned?), and Nova Scotia halibut (ICUN status: vulnerable). However much you admire Bouley for turning one of his restaurants into a canteen for Red Cross workers at ground zero in the wake of the Twin Towers atrocity, you do wonder if he has had time to catch up on other aspects of the news...