From a very young age, Niall was to be found ‘sneaking in’ to the kitchens and was kept busy peeling prawns under the watchful and encouraging eye of the chefs in his father’s restaurant. He trained as a chef while still in school and at age 15 went off to France to work in a professional kitchen, later moving on to train & work in various establishment across the world.
But Niall has also been born and raised with the sea. He spent his childhood raking for cockles, picked mussels and catching mackerel. It was ‘second nature’ for him to eat the fresh seafood available around him. His connection with the sea sparked a ‘mission to remind everyone that we are an island nation, surrounded by seas and amazing seafood’. Niall is committed to sustainable seafood and is on his own quest to source the best fresh fish, which eventually led him to establish a seafood wholesale business, Sustainable Seafood Ireland. In this piece, Niall talks to Chef Network how he believes chefs can move towards sourcing their seafood in a more sustainable way.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD?
The main thing we need to focus on is the variety of fish that we eat. We have a huge reliance on the same 3 or 4 species of fish and that is a key aspect of the lack of sustainability in seafood. We’re putting too much pressure on a select few species. So, one very simple change we can make to move towards more sustainable seafood is to look at varying the species we use. And of course, we need to ensure that any species we are using is not endangered or at risk of being endangered.
Fishing method is another important aspect to consider when looking for sustainable seafood. Seine fishing [Seine fishing is a method of fishing that employs a fishing net called a seine, that hangs vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats.] and line fishing are by far the best approaches. We are very lucky here, in Sustainable Seafood Ireland to have access to both a line boat that fishes hake and a seine boat that gets great mix. Sadly, there are not many of these boats in Ireland.
The origin of fish is such a hard thing to pinpoint. Firstly, when talking about the fish we eat in Ireland, we need to consider that for fishing we are part of the British Isles. The fish travel all around these islands and knows no borders. Our aim is to buy Irish as much as we can, but when it comes to items such as Cod, we buy from Scotland when we need to. This is due to the fact that some of the best cod swims in the cold waters in the North Sea.
It’s vitally important to know where your food is coming from. Frozen Scallops from the Atlantic, as an example, may sound great, but the Atlantic is a very big place. Try to familiarise yourself with the different fishing zones, this will help you weigh up if the travel is worth it for the catch method?
THE BIG ISSUE WITH SEAFOOD TODAY
The main issue is, as we said, the lack of variety of fish and seafood that’s being eaten. We need to be able to give their stock a break. Too often we see the same fish appearing on menus: cod, hake, salmon. There are so many other varieties of fish available and we need to start using these more.
There seems to be this idea that the customer only wants cod, or only wants salmon. That’s not true, the customer is open to new ideas and eating other fish, you just need to give them the option to do that. The focus here is definitely on chefs. We need to be more open to changing up our menus and adding new fish to our dishes. We can’t afford to keep relying on the same 3 or 4 fish all year round.
THE TROPHIC SCALE
If we compare the way we eat animals from the sea and animals from the land we’ll see that there’s a vast difference between the levels. The fish that we’re eating, the cod and the tuna, they’re near the top of the food chain. We wouldn’t go around eating only lions and tigers on land, would we? We need to start moving down the levels, eating some of the smaller fish. This is the more sustainable route. There are all different sizes and grades of fish, we can’t always buy the biggest and most sought-after variety.
WHAT’S IN SEASON
We have to remember that most fish are wild animals. There are so many varieties of fish available for most of the year. What we need to be careful of when we’re choosing which fish to put on our menus is that they’re not in their spawning season. Different fish have different times of the year in which they’re in roe (spawning). During this time, it’s important that we let them take a break and cease fishing of these species, so that they have the chance to reproduce. We can always go back to them after a few months, when they’ve moved on, but during that time, if we want to continue to see the species in our waters, we need to be able to move to other varieties.
There’ll be times of the year when you’ll get thinner fish, you won’t have the same yield out of fish all year round. Sometimes they’ll be thinner and less meaty, these are the times when you’ll need to consider switching to another species. Talk to your fishmonger about this, they’ll be able to tell you what the fish coming in are like and what would be a good substitute if the fish you want isn’t available or ready.
TALK TO YOUR SUPPLIERS & FISHMONGERS
Talking to your suppliers and fishmongers can be hugely beneficial, not just for finding out what’s available but also for learning about the fish. Where does it come from, what boat did it come in on, what’s it’s flavour profile like, what’s it similar to. They can tell you the story of that fish from when it was caught. Now, imagine if the staff in your restaurant had that knowledge, wouldn’t your customers love to know exactly where their fish is from and what sort of flavours they can expect in your latest dish?
Ask them about substitutes for your dishes; if you normally have a white, flaky fish as the main for a specific dish, what other fish could you use instead? How would this differ compared to what you normally use? Conversations are vital to ensuring we have enough fish and species to keep the water systems running smoothly. By talking to your suppliers you can discover new alternatives and alleviate the pressure on them and the oceans.
THE MOST SUSTAINABLE IRISH SEAFOOD RIGHT NOW
Squid – There is so much squid in our ocean and we are definitely not using enough of it.
The squid we find off the coast of Ireland is sustainable for a number of reasons. The main one being how replenishable it is. Squid only live for about a year and we would look at catching them towards the end of their life. During this year, they’ve already reproduced 3 or 4 times, they’ve already replenished the supply.
It’s the same with the octopi living off our coasts. These are superfoods, not only are the delicious but their incredibly sustainable as well. We need to start eating more of them! One of the main pitfalls we hear coming from chefs in relation to squid, is the preparation of it in-house. Most restaurant will opt to buy squid in a tube format. We should be more comfortable buying in whole fish & seafood. Think about it, nothing natural comes in that tube format, does it? It’s not good, we need to start using the fantastic resources we have, if you get used to it bringing in more whole foods, you’ll get to the point where it’ll only take 2 minutes to prepare.
Oysters and mussels are another fantastic option for menus, not only are they farmed and sustainable, but they also help to keep our waters clear. They are what’s known as filter feeders, while they are growing, they are also cleaning the environment. Wild settlings of oysters also help with erosion and can act as a storm barrier.
BUYING WHOLE FISH
Being able to break down a whole fish in your own kitchen, will not only give you a bigger yield from your produce, but it’ll also inspire you to be more creative with the different elements. There’s nothing that we don’t enjoy from the fish we bring into our restaurant. We experiment with new and different ways to use the off cuts of the different species. For example, recently we’ve been using more of the collars and tails of some of the fish. We cut open the tail, remove the bone inside and stuff them, almost like you would a chicken Kiev, and we end up with a beautiful dish that our customers love, all from a piece that would normally get tossed out. Use the fish bones for stock, the excess meat you scrape off after filleting as fish cakes, there’s so much possibility when you buy in whole, and think of the skills you’re gaining along the way as well.
IS FARMED FISH SUSTAINABLE?
Farmed fish can be a good option for sourcing fish and for the most part is an ethical and sustainable option. It’s definitely something we should be looking at more. There seems to be a stigma around farmed fish, with a lot of misconceptions around how they’re reared and treated and while for some this can be the case, for example with Salmon, that’s treated with chemicals for their colour, it’s not the same for every farmed fish. I mean, we don’t use wild cows and sheep as ingredients, do we? – Well for the majority.
We recently secured a contract with a company in Zeeland in the Netherlands for their farmed Dutch Yellowtail. The fish in this farm are kept under excellent conditions and it’s an incredibly sustainable and ethical process. They’ve developed an innovative aquaculture technology to cultivate the fish in a sustainable closed water system – without chemicals, antibiotics or vaccines – with 100 percent green energy from wind turbines and heat pumps. The main thing is that you know where your fish are coming from and your fishmonger will be able to help you learn more about this.
Conversations are the key thing to sourcing sustainable seafood. Talk to your supplier, your fishmonger. Ask them what’s coming in on the boats. Be open to new suggestions for fish, so that we’re not constantly relying on the same species and putting pressure on our water system. Your fishmonger will be able to help you with the flavour profiles of the fish they catch.
In our restaurant when I’m preparing the menu, I tend to work on the garnish of a dish, long before I’ve decided what the main fish or seafood element will be, then I’ll just slot the protein into it. For example, I’ll create something that’ll go great with a white, flaky fish, then I see what’s come in that day and place the closest type with my new garnish. We’ll put it on the menu, and we’ll see what lands with the customers. We’re not putting pressure on the fishermen to get a specific species and we’re experimenting with the different dishes we create.
The key really is communication, creativity and openness.
Supported by Bunzl McLaughlin:
Bunzl McLaughlin is the leading supplier of non-food catering supplies to businesses across Ireland, specializing in providing a reliable service and delivering value, quality and innovation to their customers. With over 5,000 items in stock available for next-day delivery, plus access to over 50,000 additional products, Bunzl McLaughlin has everything necessary to equip restaurants, pubs, cafes, hotels, and more.