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A New Program to Help Chefs Reel in a Better Catch

Katherine Miller

June 05, 2017

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Working at the James Beard Foundation, a lot of people ask me, “Can you recommend a restaurant in…?” Usually they just want to know where to find a delicious dish, or a great place to meet a friend for a drink, but more and more people are asking questions like: “Can you recommend a restaurant that sources locally? Or a place where can you trust where the food comes from?”

That’s why I’m excited to announce the national pilot of the Smart Catch program. Smart Catch is designed to help both chefs and diners access a greater variety of sustainable seafood options.

Created by Paul G. Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, this program began in 2015 with 60 chefs in Seattle. Over the last six months, our Smart Catch team at JBF has been speaking with chefs and suppliers and meeting with sustainable seafood experts to quietly test the program, and now we’re ready to open it up to the larger culinary community.

More than 100 restaurants across the country have had their menus assessed, met with a globally recognized seafood expert, and are committing to getting to a point where more than 80% of the seafood on their menu is sustainably sourced. As we grow the program we hope to have hundreds of chefs and restaurants participating by the end of 2017.

You’ll be able to access the growing list of participants, including JBF Award winners Maria Hines, Renee Erickson, Paul Berglund, and more at jamesbeard.org/smartcatch. In the coming months, we’ll also be featuring recipes and other content contributed by these leading chefs.

What does it take to be a Smart Catch restaurant? For chefs, it’s easy. Sign up for an account by emailing us at smartcatch@jamesbeard.org. You’ll then be walked through the online tool created by fishchoice.com and powered by scientific data from multiple sources including Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and the NOAA Fish Stock Sustainability Index. From there, chefs commit to removing “red list”—or endangered—species from their menus. They also get access to continuing education and resources about the changing health of the world’s fisheries so that their menus can constantly evolve and grow.

For diners: if you see the Smart Catch emblem on a restaurant’s website or front door, you can be confident that the restaurant is taking every step it can towards seafood sustainability. We hope that by the end of the year, we will have hundreds of participating chefs and restaurants from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories. This will make it easier for everyone, regardless of where you live, to find delicious and sustainable seafood.

With more than 90 percent of the world's fisheries either fully fished or overfished, preserving marine life to assure stable fishing stocks and promoting sustainable farmed options is more important than ever.

Smart Catch will help chefs and customers balance all of the different aspects of the conversation around sustainable seafood. Diners can expect to see new and different species on menus as chefs experiment with new-to-the plate fish such as lionfish or new types of farmed seafood. You’ll also start seeing more fish spreads, more use of cuts like cheeks and collars, and a greater emphasis on locally sourced fish and seafood. This new diversity on the plate will help take the strain off some of the truly endangered species.

Smart Catch goes beyond what chefs serve in their own restaurants, which is why the historic James Beard House, home to hundreds of events each year, will also be participating in the program. Our House team will work with visiting chefs from around the globe to better understand how to source seafood more sustainably. Using the Beard House as a model, we hope to see chefs continue to commit to greater diversity on their menus.

Smart Catch is also about policy change. Using the confidential data we collect from restaurants, we will work with other advocates and policy makers to better understand consumer demand and to look for ways to help improve and protect the world’s fisheries.

With the launch of this program, in partnership with Vulcan Philanthropies and hundreds of chefs around the country, Smart Catch will stand for quality and sustainability in our seafood supply chain. Please join us—chefs, eaters, and advocates—in our efforts to bring more sustainable seafood to the table.

Want to cook more sustainable seafood at home? Check out some of our recipes.

Learn more about JBF Impact Programs.

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Katherine Miller is senior director, food policy advocacy at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter.