Creating a sustainable world: An interview with Barton Seaver

By Jadda Miller

National Geographic fellow, author and chef, Barton Seaver has dedicated his career to restoring the relationship we have with our ocean. It is his belief that the choices we are making for dinner are directly impacting the ocean and its fragile ecosystems. He promotes sustainability, wellness, and community as they relate to food.

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He sits on the board of the hunger-fighting organization D.C. Central Kitchen. He also has collaborations with the School Nutrition Association, the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. They help promote a wider understanding of the human health consequences of global environmental change.

Seaver became a National Geographic fellow in 2010, working with the global partnership initiative Mission Blue. He developed a list of ocean friendly substitutes for popular yet depleted seafood species, and co-created the Seafood Decision Guide for consumers which evaluates seafood based on health and environmental factors.

His first book, For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking is a cookbook of seasonal, environmentally responsible seafood and vegetable recipes.

Why do you feel it is important to use underutilized and more sustainable fish species in your cooking?

Because, we have commoditized our seafood preferences and ecosystems don’t work that way. We demand our preferences instead of asking a fish monger or local fisherman, what is freshest? What is local? In Europe people go to the docks to buy their seafood, they have a totally different idea of the meaning, “grocery shopping”.

When I owned my restaurant I only used seafood that was fresh, local, and seasonal. It didn’t matter to my customers what variety of fish it was, even if they had never tasted it before because they always knew that it would be great. People got excited about trying a new fish species and continually would come back for another culinary adventure.

What was your motivation behind writing your book, For Cod and Country?

My intentions were to make it a tool, to help people eat different varieties of seafood. With all of the research being published lately about the health benefits of eating

seafood for everyone, (especially pregnant women) along with the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids; we slowly began to eat our way into a problem by overfishing our oceans, but I believe that if we can eat ourselves into this mess we can eat ourselves out of it too.

What is the solution? Demanding a different relationship with our oceans, communities, and fisherman, by respecting one another.

Who was the first person to inspire you to cook with sustainable products, and how are you still following in their footsteps?

There wasn’t one specific person; it was the motivation to support sustainable food and agriculture, getting in return the best ingredients from local farmers picked just for me; and building that honest relationship between the seed and table.

I read End of the Line by Charles Clover and was honored to then host him at my restaurant. We seem to share the same principals and views of sustainable agriculture: save the oceans, sustain our waterfronts, save lives, and save dinner.

What are some of the tasks you have accomplished while working with the board of the hunger-fighting organization D.C. Central Kitchen?

We address the underlying problems with education, politics, and community. We not only feed the bread line but we reduce the bread line. Providing 5,000 meals a day while helping people build a better life with a better use of their existing resources. We have learned how to better feed the hungry.

Do you see positive changes happening with the School Nutrition Association? If so what changes have occurred?

Yes I have; see what kids used to have in the 50’s that many do not have now, was a sit down family dinner that everyone was present for. Children would learn about proper nutrition, what the family used to provide for is now left up to school systems.

Due to the demand for so many after school programs these days, the school is now a part of the family unit and is expected to teach kids about food, which is kind of an unfair task; however it does give teachers the opportunity to broaden their impact on their schools, communities, and world.

How do chefs play a crucial role in the sustainability of our food systems?

We have a huge influence on the guiding hand of natural selection; we are the ones who popularized blue fin tuna, sea bass, and salmon. We also have a chance to change this by using more fish like, slime head or orange roughy on our menus instead. We can harm or we can heal. We also have the opportunity to be educators and advocates.

Do you know many chefs or foodies that are advocates of sustainability like yourself? If so could you mention how they are contributing?

Yes I know many fellow colleagues that are making a difference and creating change; for example Wendell Barry an advocate for sustainable agriculture, author, and farmer. Michael Pollan a professor at UC Berkeley, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and activist, and Alice Waters who brought small farmers into town, and is the executive chef, founder, and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. These are just to name a few.

What are your current plans for the future of sustainability? 

To borrow audiences of people and show them that caring is a small mission, and show them that they already do care about sustainability. I want to associate sustainability with health, and cross pollinate food with health, highlighting how inexpensive prevention is. Speaking of health, grill more vegetables and less meat. Invite friends or family over this summer gather outside around the barbeque spend time, lots of time, just talking, laughing, and sharing ideas.

Grilling vegetables saves money, it is healthy, and it tastes great. There are so wonderful flavors, textures, and variations reflecting seasonality. Make a vegetable spread of simply green beans grilled over a Webber, drizzled with olive oil, and chili flakes, or slice local, juicy heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with basil and mozzarella.

Enjoy an evening around the picnic table watching the sun set over the clouds reinventing the art of a meal, because delicious is a universal language everyone can speak.

Jadda Miller is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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