In many restaurants, it’s not unusual to find whole fish on the menu: roasted branzino in Italian restaurants, crispy fried rockfish in Mexican restaurants, steamed flounder with ginger and chives in Chinese restaurants. These are showstopper dishes. By and large, a customer ordering fish in an American restaurant is used to getting a fillet or steak. But what happens to the rest of the fish? We’ve become well versed in nose-to-tail eating, but what about fin to gill?
It would seem a fin-to-gill approach by restaurants may be reaching its moment, thanks to consumers developing a more environmentally conscious mindset. According to the National Restaurant Association, one of the top trends in 2019 was zero-waste cooking. The NRA said, “The survey indicates that Americans crave foods that not only nourish them but also help sustain the planet.” They added that chefs are taking a second look at items they trashed in the past.
Could that mean, for instance, eyeing Alaska salmon collars, bellies and fins?
It does for chef Keith Lord in San Diego. Long a chef at catering company Wild Thyme, Lord, who recently launched Stratəjē Fourteen, a consultancy to chefs and restaurants, is a longtime advocate of low-waste cooking.
“I think it’s important for chefs to utilize the whole fish for a couple of reasons. And one of them, obviously, is food costs versus waste. Anything you throw in the trash adds money onto the initial costs of the salmon. The restaurants benefit by having an increased profit margin. Customers benefit by having new offerings. And then, as far as sustainability, that’s a whole topic in and of itself. The short version really is, if you’re using all of those products, you’re using the whole fish and you’re getting appetizers and entrees and soups out of that.”
Lord also said that professionally, it can benefit chefs to work with the whole fish, that it takes them out of their comfort zone and pushes them to learn new techniques. According to Megan Rider of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), patrons want to try new and exciting flavors and food, and they want to feel good about the foods they eat from a health and environmental standpoint.
“Restaurants that utilize the whole fish in different menu items offer an opportunity for consumers to try new foods and benefit the environment at the same time,” she said.
San Diego fishmonger Tommy Gomes agrees with Lord and Rider, and he pointed to various ways chefs can use an entire Alaska salmon, reminding chefs, too, that it’s not unlike breaking down a whole chicken in that the costs of the whole bird are far less per pound than one already cut up for you. And like chicken, with a whole salmon, you get far more options in how you can prepare it.
“You can stuff the stomach lining with crab and bake it in white wine. Scandinavians have been using it like a casing for years. They stuff pieces and parts of the fish into the stomach lining, tie it and smoke it like a sausage,” Gomes explained. “Or after you fillet the fish, you can scrape the carcass clean and make a tartar or a burger out of that. Cut the tail section off about three to four fingers from the tail into the body and deep-fry it. Or keep the meat on the ribs and sauté the ribs as a dish. And then you can use the carcass to make fish stock.”
Gomes’ favorite part of the salmon is the tongue, which he barbecues or smokes. He also enjoys cutting open the knuckles on the spine to dig out “that little dollop of bone marrow. That stuff is absolutely delicious!” And, of course, he and his late father, a longtime Portuguese-American fisherman, loved the salmon head, which Gomes’ father would either add to soup or split, butterfly and grill. “He would sit down with a little crab fork and a walnut pick and a cold beer and pick out all that good stuff.”
Lord has made a career of developing innovative dishes with underused foods. He said that bringing familiarity to a new product will win over dubious customers. For instance, with the fins you can make grilled salmon wings with teriyaki and yuzu ponzu, or poached salmon rillettes using salmon belly trim. Or, make chips and dips, using fried salmon skin as the chip with guacamole. And don’t forget the oil that comes from frying the skin. With that, he makes salmon skin aioli. If a chef is cutting Alaska salmon for sushi or sashimi, he noted, as you get down to the tail, the meat becomes stringier and more fibrous.
“With those pieces, you can add sugar, salt, pepper, brandy, and cold-smoke them to make salmon candy, kind of like they do in Vancouver,” he pointed out. “That’s super amazing.”
As important as using the whole fish is, another issue is integrating frozen fish into restaurant menus. And for restaurant chains or major catering organizations, Lord pointed out, when 1,000 to 2,000 pieces of center-cut salmon are needed, using quality frozen fish is the solution. And because Alaska fisheries have so refined flash-freezing, the seafood keeps its integrity.
Rider explained that flash-freezing commercially harvested seafood is done “by subjecting the product to ultralow temperatures within hours of harvest. By flash-freezing the seafood product, the processor reduces ice-crystal size and formation and limits damage to the delicate fish tissue. Flash-freezing locks in the fresh-caught flavor, texture and nutrient values, preventing quality loss through the supply chain.”
For American restaurants, including smaller eateries with no access to local waters with fisheries, using flash-frozen Alaska seafood also makes far more sense in terms of carbon footprint than looking to buy seafood from other countries. ASMI’s Rider pointed out that new technology in freezing allows harvesters and processors to sell sustainably harvested fish throughout the year, not just during peak harvest season — which also helps fishermen economically and provides a great opportunity for chefs and restaurants to satisfy customer preferences for wild-caught seafood year-round.
“People are now becoming more aware of where their seafood is coming from and where their food is sourced,” Gomes said. “Alaska seafood has an open, honest and transparent program. Utilization of the whole fish plays a huge part in sustainability on a global scale, not just within a local scale. Chefs need to know how easy it is to break down a fish and realize that it actually stays fresher, rather than ordering from a vendor already filleted. And that ordering flash-frozen seafood from Alaska is safer and healthier for restaurant customers and better for the environment, not to mention Alaskan fishermen, than buying products from overseas.”