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Derek Wagner: Local Seafood Champion

Maggie Borden

August 10, 2015

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The phrase “farm-to-table” has become near-ubiquitous, but what about boat-to-table? Derek Wagner, of Nick’s on Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island, has made it a part of his restaurant’s philosophy for nearly a decade, and aims to encourage other chefs to reconnect with regional seafood sources. In anticipation of our upcoming JBF Culinary Lab: Talkin’ Trash Fish, offered in partnership with Chefs Collaborative and led by Wagner, we chatted with the chef about his motivations for reaching out to local fishermen, the state of our nation’s seafood diet, and how both chefs and diners can help to change the landscape.

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James Beard Foundation: The notion of farm-to-table, whole-animal use in restaurants has become more mainstream now, but thinking critically about where we source our fish seems to be still a little less common. What do you think is behind this divide?

Derek Wagner: We all want wholesome, delicious, fresh food, and we want to know where it came from. We’re scared about labels not being accurate. We’re scared about the freshness of our produce, animals, seafood—everything in our diets—and it’s created this demand for more transparency and more directness. I think it started with produce because that’s a little bit more accessible. Then the focus shifted to the meat that we’re eating, and I think a lot of that has to do with health issues that were going on at certain times, whereas there’s always been a perception that eating fish is healthier for you than eating meat.

Seafood has been late to the game for several reasons: first, not everyone has access to fresh seafood (a lot of our country is landlocked), and so there’s been an acceptable level of distance from the supply chain for the public. Second, chefs and food service professionals have been disconnected from the supply chain. We’ve had to deal with distributors, who get their product from wholesalers, who get them from fish houses, who get them from fishermen. So sometimes a chef can be four or five times removed from the person who actually caught the fish. This means it’s harder to get accurate information about the product. Where was it caught? Was it farm-raised? Wild-caught? Caught in a net? There’s so many questions that you could ask. That’s one of the reasons why I started to pursue this issue, so I could get answers—which means making more direct contact and trying to shorten the supply chain.

JBF: How have programs like Trace and Trust changed the landscape for restaurant industry? 

DW: Trace and Trust is a great program. It started here in Rhode Island, about six years ago, with two fishermen and myself, and it’s expanded now into beyond just seafood and has become a national program. Back then, I was looking for fresh seafood and having a really hard time getting accurate information. 

It drove me crazy that I lived in the Ocean State, with more coastline per capita than any other state, and I knew that there were vibrant fishing communities that I’d heard about my whole life, but I couldn't get any fish. I was calling local distributors, and the conversation would just go in circles. They’d tell me they had red snapper or Atlantic salmon, and I’d ask where it was from, only to hear “Oh, the Atlantic.” And I thought, “Well, that’s kind of big. Could you be more specific?” I was getting so frustrated because I was really starting to embrace and highlight where all of our products were coming from at Nick’s on Broadway, and I would find so much local produce and meat, but I just couldn't get accurate, consistent information about seafood. So I started asking around, and then I called Chefs Collaborative, and they put me in touch with this fisherman who they knew was working on Trace and Trust. We had a meeting, and within a couple days, we had a delivery at Nick’s on Broadway, and the rest is history. Since then, we haven’t had a piece of fish that hasn’t been out of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, or Connecticut waters. 

JBF: Are there programs at culinary schools or elsewhere that are teaching chefs how to handle bycatch?

DW: Johnson & Wales is starting to incorporate sustainability into some of their educational programs. It was a minor focus called Wellness and Sustainability about four years ago, and now it’s a full-fledged concentration in their culinary degrees program. I lecture at least once a segment, mostly about traceability and sourcing, and we cover seafood quite heavily. I’m hoping to really cover similar topics in the Talkin’ Trash Fish lab: the challenges of running a business and a kitchen where sourcing is a priority, how to navigate that process, etc. 

Chefs Collaborative has also been doing a lot of work to educate chefs, culinary students, and fishermen, and bring people across the industry together to talk about some of the challenges and efforts. One of their biggest focuses is trying to present the idea that what we, both as consumers and as chefs, are what causes these gigantic shifts, good or bad, in the food landscape. The only way that we can create positive change or combat some of the negative change is through highlighting, buying, and developing a more diverse food palate. If we’re not buying the right things, then we’re not going to make the changes happen. It’s not only an environmental and ecological issue, and the solution isn’t solely in environmentalism. It’s in our consumption and in our diets.

JBF: The Chefs Collaborative website says that over 90 percent of seafood that Americans eat is imported.

DW: It’s outrageous. Here in Rhode Island, Point Judith has some of the most fertile squid-producing waters in the entire world, but so much of it is bought by the container at very cheap prices, and then shipped overseas to be processed, packaged, frozen, and sold right back to the U.S. market. It gets sold back to us, and that’s crazy, right?

I know for myself and my own restaurant, it’s just maddening. I could drive 25 minutes to the dock and grab it, but that’s not a sustainable solution to someone who’s working 100 hours a week and has to be at the restaurant all the time. The solution is creating a better supply chain. We talk about terroir and a sense of place when we talk about wine or when we talk about vegetables, but it’s the same with fish—and to support this regional diversity also highlights how many different species there are, and how wonderful this whole palate of seafood can be.

JBF: Have you done any specific lobbying in Washington, D.C., or with your local government?

DW: I try to help out whenever I can. I went down to Washington with the Environmental Defense Fund a few years ago to help lobby in support of some regional fisheries’ policies that were up for renewal. There were a bunch of chefs: Sam Hayward from Maine, Michael Cimarusti from California, and Michael Leviton from Boston, and we all met with a group of fishermen from all over the country. We spent the day lobbying Congress, talking to our senators and our representatives.

I’m also the only chef on the Rhode Island Seafood Council, where I get to work with the state department of environmental management, the department of health, and the people from fisheries management. It’s a really diverse panel: there’s one of each fishermen represented on the council, someone from wholesale, people from the University of Rhode Island, and professors from Rhode Island College’s marine life and biology department. It’s slow moving because it’s trying to bring together all these different state agencies and somebody from the governor’s office. But I just feel like I have a responsibility to do whatever I can to help move it along. I’m trying to preach what I practice, you know? 

JBF: Everyone loves their CSA box in the summer, and community-supported fisheries are becoming more popular. Do you think CSFs are a good way of changing the public’s understanding of their local seafood market?

DW: I think CSFs are a great idea, and give people access to information and fresh product that they might not otherwise encounter. When people just jump in like that and are okay with not having 100 percent control over what they’re getting and are able to just have some faith and try whatever is provided to them—I think that’s pretty special.

Seafood is really one of the last major sources of wild-caught food, so I think it’s important that we really focus on regionality. We need accurate information, which comes from staying in touch with fishermen, and making sure that the organizations that we’re supporting or getting out information from are using real science and also being transparent about when the data is that they use.

JBF: Are there any chefs or organizations working to improve sustainability in seafood that you’d recommend following on social media?

DW: @FishChoice is doing a good job. They’re working on new guides and trying to keep the information really accurate and regionally specific, which I think is so, so important. 

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The JBF Culinary Labs are a new series offering Professional Members experiential learning opportunities to increase their understanding of sustainability and food-systems issues for immediate and practical application. A series of expert-led, interactive workshops will take culinarians behind-the-scenes to explore the system on our plates. For more information, please visit chefscollaborative.org.

Maggie Borden is assistant editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.