Chesterman is the distinguished food critic at the Montreal
Gazette. For more of her favourite foods and foods for thought,
visit her website at: www.lesleychesterman.com
This past spring
will go down in my memory as the time I stopped extolling the
virtues of halibut, tuna and monkfish and woke up to the grim
reality of the world's fisheries thanks to Taras Grescue’s
book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing
Seafood (Harper Collins, May 2008).
The book --
Grescoe's fourth -- provides a much-needed wake-up call and
education not only for ethical seafood lovers, but chefs, waiters,
fishmongers, food writers and home cooks -- in short, all consumers.
Yet Bottomfeeder will not leave you shunning fish and
seafood altogether; its Montreal-based author would like us
instead to turn our focus to the more prolific and ethically
raised species, such as sardines, squid, trout, and lobster
and other shellfish.
the world, and his observations have appeared in the London
Times, National Geographic Traveler, the New
York Times and Gourmet magazine. His bestselling
first book, Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey
Through Quebec, won the Quebec Writers' Federation's Mavis
Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction, the Edna Staebler Award for Creative
Non-Fiction and the Quebec Writers' Federation First Book Award
We met for
lunch at Montreal's premier fish restaurant, Milos, where Grescoe
shunned the organic Irish salmon in favour of a plate of alabaster-fleshed
CHESTERMAN: What inspired you to take on this cause?
GRESCOE: If there was one event, it was when I was researching
my last book, The Devil's Picnic, at a seafood restaurant
in Madrid. We were eating anguilla, chopped-up baby eels that
looks like spaghetti with eyes. The decadence of the project
hit me. These eels are endangered, so I felt as though I was
scooping up generations of them with every mouthful. They sell
for 55 euros per 100g, which had me thinking how when things
become scarce their price goes up, like bluefin tuna or caviar.
CHESTERMAN: What was the biggest revelation for you when writing
GRESCOE: Tracing the fish on our plates back to the dirtiest
places -- the shrimp ponds in Tamil Nadu (India), filthy antibiotic
and pesticide-filled ponds, contaminating the groundwater of
the people who live alongside it.
CHESTERMAN: You often write about food, but would you describe
yourself as a food writer?
GRESCOE: I'm not a food writer or a travel writer. I'm a writer
who travels and eats and observes. Recently, my concerns are
social and environmental. I really believe the human species
now realizes the world is finite. We're reaching the end of
a great age of consumption. I'm now in my early 40s and I'm
thinking about the future. There were times I was pessimistic,
but now I think I have the ingenuity to change things. I'm interested
in food for what it says about society. Food for food's sake
is not what my work is about.
CHESTERMAN: What's the reaction been to your book?
GRESCOE: There hasn't been one word of criticism. Chefs' and
fishermen's reactions have been the most interesting, because
they are quite positive. The only negative feedback has come
from the animal-rights activists and vegans who think we shouldn't
be eating fish at all.
CHESTERMAN: If you could have added another chapter to Bottomfeeder,
what would it have been?
GRESCOE: Scuba diving in the Pacific to investigate the trade
in aquarium fish and the great Pacific garbage patch between
Hawaii and California, which is now about the size of Africa.
I'd also like to see vibrant coral reefs in the Pacific, because
they might soon disappear.
CHESTERMAN: When you go to a restaurant and see an endangered
fish on the menu, do you say something? Should we?
GRESCOE: Yes, especially when I see Chilean sea bass and/or
bluefin tuna. You should mention it to either your server or
fishmonger. You can also ask the chef if he knows it's endangered
or if he or she knows the source. People should ask where fish
comes from, or know if it's farmed or wild. That's just basic
CHESTERMAN: I recently spoke to one of the city's top chefs,
who had bluefin tuna on his menu. He told me that if he knew
the direct source of the fish, he didn't feel guilty putting
it on his menu. Is he fooling himself?
GRESCOE: In the case of bluefin tuna, there are so few left
in the world that it could never come from a sustainable source.
This is one fish on the brink of extinction. He may know the
fisherman, but perhaps the fisherman doesn't know bluefin is
endangered. They are now so valuable -- up to $20,000 a piece
in Japan -- that people will go to any lengths to catch it.
Worse yet, by serving that fish, that chef is putting his stamp
of approval on it.
CHESTERMAN: I'm told by restaurateurs that there is a demand
from customers for fish like Chilean sea bass. Do you think
most consumers don't care? Or is it that they're just in the
GRESCOE: The issue hasn't entered the public consciousness yet.
You have to rank your concerns. Flavour is No. 1, then health
issues such as contamination are No. 2. Conservation comes a
distant third, unless you have personal experience with it,
like your uncle was a fisherman who saw the cod fishery collapse.
CHESTERMAN: Do you cook?
GRESCOE: I do, and I'm moving into a new apartment with a great
kitchen. I've been exploring a lot of seafood recipes lately,
CHESTERMAN: Where do you buy your fish?
GRESCOE: I live near Falaro on Park Ave. They're good, but I
wish they'd stop selling Chilean sea bass and start selling
more herring. I shop at the Jean Talon Market as well. I also
like Atkins products, especially their smoked Cajun-style mackerel
CHESTERMAN: What advice would you give to Montrealers who want
to eat fish ethically at home and when dining out?
GRESCOE: Ask a lot of questions. Is the fish wild or farmed,
from an ocean or a lake, and how was it caught? Also pick up
Canada's Seafood Guide or check out their website (www.seachoice.org),
which you can even access on your cellphone, for a list of sustainable
fish and seafood.
CHESTERMAN: Where do you like to eat fish when dining out?
GRESCOE: I eat in Portuguese sardine restaurants on the Plateau,
and in Toronto at Scaramouche, in Vancouver at Robert Clark's
C Restaurant and Jamie Kennedy's restaurants, where I know they're
committed to serving sustainable fish. I haven't seen any restaurant
that follows those principles in Montreal.
CHESTERMAN: There is a huge sushi-loving population in this
city. Is sushi off-limits for you? What advice can you give
to sushi lovers with a conscience?
GRESCOE: Make sure you eat in a good sushi restaurant and try
other fish besides the usual tuna, shrimp and salmon, which
is actually very hard to find in Japan. Order hamachi, sea bream,
octopus, Thai snapper, sea urchin roe . . . there's a huge variety.
We get distracted by tuna and salmon, which really aren't good
for you, especially raw.
CHESTERMAN: Where and what was your last great meal?
GRESCOE: At a restaurant called Higgins in Portland, Ore. Everything
is locally sourced by the owner, Greg Higgins. He has a real
relationship with local fishermen and farmers.
CHESTERMAN: Are there cookbooks you're aware of that could help
people make wise fish and seafood choices?
GRESCOE: Rick Stein's Seafood (BBC Books, 2007) and
the Smithsonian Institute's One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish,
Bluefish (Smithsonian, 2003), which is filled with sustainable
fish recipes contributed by U.S. chefs. There's a Canadian version
coming out soon.
CHESTERMAN: Salmon or trout?
GRESCOE: Trout, farmed inland.
CHESTERMAN: Oysters or mussels?
GRESCOE: Oysters, because of the huge variety. Mussels can be
bland and uniform.
CHESTERMAN: Tuna or halibut?
GRESCOE: Pacific halibut, and in a pinch, skipjack tuna.
CHESTERMAN: Sardines or squid?
GRESCOE: Both, but I've been enjoying canned sardines from Europe,
especially Connetable and Saupiquet brands.
CHESTERMAN: When dining out, chances are you'll order?
GRESCOE: Seafood, lower down on the food chain.
CHESTERMAN: If we could do three things immediately as consumers
to improve the seafood situation, what would they be?
GRESCOE: Stop eating farmed salmon and shrimp. Explore your
seafood options lower down on the food chain, like whiting,
sardines and squid. And look for eco-labels like the blue and
white label from the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council). You'll
even find products with those labels at Wal-Mart.
CHESTERMAN: If you could hand a copy of your book to three people
on this planet who could make a difference, who would they be?
GRESCOE: Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and B.C. premier Gordon
Campbell. I really want to get rid of those salmon farms off
the coast of B.C.
CHESTERMAN: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future
of our oceans?
GRESCOE: Given our track record, I'm pessimistic. Given the
resiliency of our oceans, I'm optimistic.
CHESTERMAN: You've travelled the world for your books, so I
was wondering: What is your favourite food city?
GRESCOE: San Sebastian (in Spain), which is great for seafood
and tapas and pintxos. You'll find 100 great small restaurants
in one square block -- everything from Michelin-starred restaurants
to tapas places where you eat and move on.
CHESTERMAN: My children are 4 and 7 years old. They don't eat
fish yet. With such a bleak outlook, should I even bother getting
GRESCOE: Yes, definitely. Fish is essential for both fetal and
childhood nutrition, and there are enough smaller species of
fish in the sea to feed the next generation.
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