By Kate Frazer
This article was written in September 2009.
Ed. note: Hook Restaurant closed following a fire in June, 2011. Its sister eatery, Tackle Box, is still open for business next door.
Just as farms and prairies produce our vegetables and grains, habitats below the water’s surface — fields of eelgrass, necklaces of shellfish reefs and submerged mountains — nurture marine creatures that feed millions of people.
In fact, many Virginia and Maryland communities are more deeply rooted in ocean habitats than in their terra firma counterparts. But on the Virginia shore, and in communities dotting the East Coast, ocean habitats are showing their wear.
Jonathan Seningen, executive chef at Hook — one of the D.C. area’s hottest fish restaurants — says, “We need to consider how to better tend to our waters, just like we’re doing on land.”
For The Nature Conservancy, good tending often translates to restoration. We have dozens of projects underway with communities on the East Coast to restore healthy ecosystems. And while the Conservancy focuses on renewing habitats, people like Chef Seningen are bringing new ideas to the market.
In my quest to find out how people like Chef Seningen are helping make a difference for marine habitats and seafood consumers, I’m sampling the results of his work in the kitchen.
Hook reaches people by tempting their palettes with new types of fish — in its search to serve only fish with stable populations, Hook has dished up more than 125 species in its first three years.
Hook also sources as much local fish as possible — a task Seningen admits is challenging.
“We have wonderful options for local oysters, clams and striped bass, but many of our local resources are in bad shape. Now that people are coming together to fix the problems, I hope to be able to offer more.”
“We use purveyors who focus on sustainable products and small fishing operations that strive to be good stewards, but it goes beyond that,” Seningen says. “It requires networking, listening and vigilant research. I’m constantly checking with organizations like the Blue Ocean Institute and NOAA to make sure I’m doing the right thing. You have to get the full picture.”
Lucky for me, my search for the full picture starts with a plate lined with oysters: a small, crisp California Kumamoto; a soft, briny New York Blue Point; and a sweet, deep-cupped Rappahannock from here in Virginia.
Perhaps more than any other food, oysters reflect their habitats. Each one has a flavor defined by geography, ocean currents and the water’s characteristics.
They’re all delicious, but the Rappahannock is my favorite — buttery with a clean finish tasting of the sea. These oysters are grown in one of the region’s most pristine tidal freshwater systems, downstream from where the Conservancy has worked with local, state and federal partners to protect thousands of acres.
The next dish, Manos de Leon, features unspeakably tender scallops from Baja named “lion’s paw” for their size and golden color. Chef serves them with coconut foam, blood oranges and subtle citrus oil that let the sweetness of the tiny pillows shine. They’re hand-picked from turquoise lagoons by divers who leave the undersea flora intact, and I imagine them propelling through strands of eelgrass, waving their shells like butterfly wings.
You’d be hard pressed to find their East Coast cousins — bay scallops — in Virginia these days. In the 1930s, disease and hurricanes virtually wiped out their seagrass habitat in the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia’s coastal bays and lagoons.
But that could soon change. Through a decade-long partnership, the Conservancy, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a cadre of volunteer divers have collected and sown enough eelgrass seed to help eelgrass spread across more than 2,400 acres in the largest, most successful seagrass restoration project in the world.
Each course at Hook takes me to a different place where people are finding new ways of sustaining local resources — from using better gear or harvesting methods to restoring habitat to harvesting different kinds of fish.
For Seningen, it all circles home: “I grew up fishing streams full of perch on Maryland’s Eastern shore, and my father taught me to never catch more than I could use. Be good to what you have and it will be good to you: that’s my moral code."
Read more inspiring stories of how Conservancy projects connect to community efforts to sustain local seafood.June 13, 2012
Kate Frazer is a senior writer for The Nature Conservancy based in Boston, Massachusetts.