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Vol. 7, No. 6, 2008
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bottom feeder




Lesley Chesterman is the distinguished food critic at the Montreal Gazette. For more of her favourite foods and foods for thought, visit her website at:


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.

Grescoe travels 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 in 2000.

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 milokopi.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: What inspired you to take on this cause?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: What was the biggest revelation for you when writing this book?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: You often write about food, but would you describe yourself as a food writer?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: What's the reaction been to your book?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: If you could have added another chapter to Bottomfeeder, what would it have been?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: When you go to a restaurant and see an endangered fish on the menu, do you say something? Should we?

TARAS 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 information.

LESLEY 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?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY 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 dark?

TARAS 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.


TARAS 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, especially mackerel.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Where do you buy your fish?

TARAS 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 and trout.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: What advice would you give to Montrealers who want to eat fish ethically at home and when dining out?

TARAS 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 (, which you can even access on your cellphone, for a list of sustainable fish and seafood.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Where do you like to eat fish when dining out?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY 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?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Where and what was your last great meal?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Are there cookbooks you're aware of that could help people make wise fish and seafood choices?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Salmon or trout?

TARAS GRESCOE: Trout, farmed inland.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Oysters or mussels?

TARAS GRESCOE: Oysters, because of the huge variety. Mussels can be bland and uniform.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Tuna or halibut?

TARAS GRESCOE: Pacific halibut, and in a pinch, skipjack tuna.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Sardines or squid?

TARAS GRESCOE: Both, but I've been enjoying canned sardines from Europe, especially Connetable and Saupiquet brands.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: When dining out, chances are you'll order?

TARAS GRESCOE: Seafood, lower down on the food chain.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: If we could do three things immediately as consumers to improve the seafood situation, what would they be?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY 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?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of our oceans?

TARAS GRESCOE: Given our track record, I'm pessimistic. Given the resiliency of our oceans, I'm optimistic.

LESLEY CHESTERMAN: You've travelled the world for your books, so I was wondering: What is your favourite food city?

TARAS 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.

LESLEY 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 them started?

TARAS 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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Teflon and your Toxicity
Retreat from Meat
Cell Phone Users Beware
Slice and Salmon Lice
The Soya Bean Conspiracy
Can Red Meat Take the Heat

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