Barton Seaver: Chef Extraordinaire’s New Recipe for Sustainability

by Bill Chameides | September 22nd, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Chef Barton Seaver signs his book “For Cod and Country” at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, where he gave a talk yesterday on the idea that “delicious is the new environmentalism.” (Kristin Blank-White/Duke Environmental Leadership Program)

Barton Seaver, Esquire magazine’s 2009 Chef of the Year, is making environmentalism delicious one dish at a time.

Barton is not what you might expect to find in a chef: He’s fit and trim, he’s a Fellow of the National Geographic Society (not exactly renowned for fine cuisine), and he’s passionate about fish — the living ones as well as those gracing the menu.

Yesterday Barton visited Duke’s Nicholas School as part of our Fall 2011 Coca-Cola Seminar Series. His topic: “Delicious Is the New Environmentalism.” Over the space of about an hour, Barton served up a story of culinary and environmental discovery and insight. At times, his voice would deepen an octave and take on a liquid quality as he described a favorite dish he’d prepared. (I suspect I wasn’t the only one salivating a bit at times both over his talk and the sustainable food buffet that awaited us.) Even so, the most passionate moments came when the talk touched on the environment, food, family and community.

He set the context for his lecture with this quote from writer John Hersey (also the opening quote of Seaver’s cookbook): “In our quest for food we begin to find our place within the systems of the world.”

He then noted that humans are the only species on the planet that has ritualized eating, and, with the touch of the poet, added that “through dinner we feed a complicated hunger.”

With the context set, Barton went on to describe his own quest.

The Formative Years and Success at 25

Barton grew up in a tight-knit family, in Washington, D.C.’s ethnically diverse neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. It was during those early years that he learned to appreciate food — not just as a source of sustenance but also as a connection to family and community. As a frequent visitor to the seaside, he came to love fish — the catching and the eating of them.

In college Barton felt disengaged from his course work and found himself drawn to the world of restaurants. Beginning as a dishwasher and potato peeler, he worked his way up the culinary ladder. Eventually he entered the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 2001. Then, in his words, he “got lucky” and became an executive chef at the age of 25.

But All Was Not Well

Normally, that would be the end of the story — young man finds his vocation and rapidly rises to the top, and, in this case, cooks up an epicurean storm ever after.

Not for Barton. All was not well. As a chef he discovered he was unable to cook many of the fish he had grown up eating, fish like striped bass, Atlantic cod, and orange roughy. And why was that? “Because the fish were gone,” he said. “We ate them.”

He came to realize that in today’s world the consumer has become the “guiding hand” in determining survival or extinction. And so the chef, he came to think, in choosing what and how to prepare the food that’s placed before the consumer, plays a huge role in that live-or-die process.

A Path Out of the Kitchen and Into Conservation

“If we have the power to destroy,” he told the crowd last night, “we also have the power to restore. And that drove me out of the kitchen and into conservation.”

Barton’s conservation journey has taken him to far-flung places such as Morocco, where he fished daily for sardines to secure his supper, and to the Swiss Alps, where an entrepreneur harnessed geothermal energy to produce a tropical paradise in a most unlikely place. His sustainable sojourn also helped him produce the best-selling book For Cod and Country (Sterling Epicure 2011) and has given the conservationist chef a good deal of visibility.

Eating for Sustainability

Barton is not especially fond of how sustainability is framed. Why? Because it’s …

  • Too black and white. Something is either (good) sustainable or bad (unsustainable). In reality, he argues, most things fall in between. And so he advocates for a much more nuanced system, one that encourages the in-between stuff with a move toward sustainability.
  • Too static. Using the sustainable seafood guides so many of us carry around with us as an example, he argues we should not be focused on what to eat (the green list) but on how to restore what is depleted (the red and yellow lists).
  • Too product-centric. Barton asks: If someone eats a sustainable fish but does so gluttonously, is that sustainable? Probably not. So instead of focusing on getting people to buy supposedly sustainable products (like fish), we really need to be focusing on changing behavior.

In the case of eating, that change of behavior in Barton’s opinion requires that we rethink our relationship to food and the world. Instead of having an expectation of being able to satisfy all our desires at the dinner table, we need to look at meeting our needs. He also advises that we approach our meals with care (for the world) and joy (for the sustenance and for those with whom we dine), being ever mindful to nurture the connections that make it all possible.

At the end of Barton’s talk I asked what he’d had for dinner the night before. He promptly described a magnificent multi-course meal he prepared for 50, comprised of a modicum of fish and plenty of seasonal vegetables and fruits that delivered few calories and lots of protein and omega-3s. It occurred to me that I had the solution to sustainable eating worldwide: not a chicken in every pot, but a Barton in every kitchen. I suspect that Barton would say he’s not necessary; so maybe just check out the recipes in his book.

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