How and Why to Include Trash Fish on Your Menu

Serving underutilized fish will help protect seafood populations and set your restaurant apart.
Learn how serving lesser-known fish, like this grilled mackerel, could help set your business apart and save seafood populations. (Photo: warat42/Shuttesrtock)

“Chef and restaurateurs should develop relationships with purveyors and local fishermen to see if they have underutilized species or unintended catch they’re looking to sell.” – Bruce Mattel (Photo: Bruce Mattel)

Delighting your guests with types of fish they’ve never encountered serves two important purposes: setting your restaurant apart and helping to sustain wild stocks of more popular species.

“Shrimp, salmon, tuna and cod are the most popular species Americans consume, but it’s not sustainable to sell that much without depreciating wild stocks and farms,” said Bruce Mattel, a sustainable seafood expert and senior associate dean of culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America.

Serving up more obscure fish should help reduce pressure on species subject to overfishing and destructive fishing practices. It can also make use of fish, known as bycatch, caught unintentionally by fisherman targeting other species. Bycatch can end up rotting in the sea — or on a diner’s plate if chefs are willing to take on the culinary challenge of preparing them.

Here’s why you should add so-called trash fish — better called underutilized species — to your menu and how to get customers to embrace it.

Rethinking trash fish

As Garden & Gun put it in its Guide to Trash Fish, “Trash fish aren’t garbage.” Just because an obscure species might not be well known doesn’t mean it won’t make a great meal.

“I don’t think there’s anything that should be called trash fish,” said Mattel.

Serving lesser-known species not only helps sustain the ocean ecosystem, it’s also a smart strategy for your branding and your bottom line.

“Seafood is probably your most expensive raw ingredient overall. Underutilized fish are usually less costly,” said Mattel. He noted that adding it to your menu will distinguish your restaurant from other seafood joints in the area and earn your customers’ respect.

“Restaurants that do it well and with clear intentions get a marketing edge. It shows their commitment to sustainable seafood and becomes part of your business identity.” He added, “Chefs can build clientele that understands anything they cook will be delicious.”

How to procure underutilized species

Getting a delivery of underutilized seafood isn’t as easy as calling your distributor and placing an order. You’ll need to get friendly with fishermen in your area to see what’s available.

“Chef and restaurateurs should develop relationships with purveyors and local fishermen to see if they have underutilized species or unintended catch they’re looking to sell,” said Mattel.

If you haven’t formed relationships with nearby fishermen, you’ll need to do a bit of networking. Ask chefs who are serving lesser-known species if they’ll reveal their source. You can also attend a seafood show to make connections with potential suppliers.

What to expect

The species you get will vary based on season and location. Mattel recommended seeking out porgy, a medium-size fish that tastes like snapper; Spanish mackerel, a dark, oily fish that makes a decent substitute for swordfish; and Asian carp, a bony fish similar to cod or tilapia.

Underutilized seafood will present different flavors and textures than guests might be familiar with. “Most of the American public overwhelmingly prefers a firm, light or white mild-flavored fish,” said Mattel. “But a really good cook can take any fish and make it delicious, if it’s fresh.”

It’s likely you’ll end up with more oily, strongly flavored fish, but that won’t necessarily turn customers off. “Salmon has a strong flavor, but it’s so mainstream and aesthetically pleasing,” Mattel noted.

Adapting your menus

Developing an adaptable menu will allow you to use whatever species are available that week. “You can’t always order underutilized fish because if they’re bycatch, it’s very difficult to specify delivery days and amounts,” said Mattel.

Experiment with different cooking techniques and food pairings to highlight the distinctive flavors. “If it’s a fatty or oily fish, you’d want to pair it with something acidic to cut that fatty mouth feel,” advised Mattel.

Since most customers won’t be familiar with the types of fish you’re serving, Mattel said restaurants should write deep menu explanations to explain where the seafood is from, what fish it’s related to, how the flesh is textured and what the flavor is like.

It’s also critical to educate the front-of-house staff on what they’re serving so they can educate guests. Give them talking points about each fish. Servers should be able provide practical information such as flavor, texture and similarities to other fish, as well as more colorful details, like the story of the fishermen or trivia about the history of the fish.

Finally, the best way to tempt a customer to try an obscure fish is with a taste of your delectable dish.

“Do it as an amuse-bouche. Whether a person orders it that day or just gets educated, you can start a trend or a movement.”

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