It was only a little peculiar to be among some living and a lot of petrified fish at the Natural History Museum’s beguiling Sant Ocean Hall Thursday night. After all, we humans were standing there eagerly consuming their brethren/descendants at a reception to mark World Ocean Week. Some of Washington’s best-known chefs worked their magic with salmon, striped bass, oysters, mussels, branzino, trout, and albacore for guests who paid $125 for the privilege, and none seemed to notice the tropical fish watching us (or maybe not) from their large aquarium, not to mention the giant right whale hanging overhead.
The reception and dinner were special even though they had one of the more clunky bureaucratic names to be applied to a festive occasion: Sustainable Seafood: Ensuring a Healthy Supply, a.k.a. “the sustainable seafood dinner.” We wondered, why not A Celebration of Seafood, or Seafood Soiree, but then a dinner partner pointed out, “This is the government, after all.” In the end, the name didn’t really matter, because it was most of all a splendid feast for foodies who love seafood and the conservation-minded who care deeply about sustainability.
At the reception there were so many choices. Mike Isabella of Graffiato and Bandolero prepared smoked sablefish bagna càuda; Ris Lacoste of Ris offered smoked trout panna cotta with smoked steelhead-trout caviar; Jeff Black of Pearl Dive Oyster Palace did branzino ceviche with squid and small shrimp; Shannon Overmiller of the Majestic whipped together a soy-yuzu vinaigrette with Thai chili, sesame seeds, nori, and daikon to spoon over Maryland rockfish sashimi. Lest anyone forget the name of Overmiller’s restaurant, she had it stamped on both her cheeks, which takes chef tat art to a new level.
Not all the offerings at the reception were seafood. Susan Soorenko, owner of Moorenko’s Ice Cream, served spicy beet ice cream with balsamic glaze. Yes, beet ice cream! It was delicious. Who knew? Several wineries set up sampling stations, including nearby Boxwood Estate Winery from Middleburg, Virginia, and faraway Faraway Farm from Stellenbosch, South Africa. Wegmans Markets, which offered a wide range of sushi, also did the cheese plates at the dinner. There were booths, too, where conservationists provided information about sustainability programs. The dinner menu included velvet-corn-and-crab soup from Jacob Williamson, chef at the Source; grilled filet of grouper with tempura soft-shell crab from Richard Hetzler, chef of the Smithsonian’s Mitsitam Cafe; and almond-and-peach tarte tatin and apricot streusel from Duane Copeland, pastry chef at the Source.
The keynote speaker at dinner was Steve Phillips, the president and CEO of Phillips Seafood. It seems everyone in his family comes from Hooper’s Island on the Eastern Shore and has a background of working with the Chesapeake Bay’s bounty, whether as watermen or processors. What today is eight family-owned restaurants, plus a number of franchises, retail products, and a global enterprise for harvesting sustainable seafood began with his mother selling crabs out of the back of her station wagon in 1956. First it was the station wagon, then a crab shack in Ocean City, and then a restaurant—and the rest is local culinary history.
Nonetheless, Phillips’s wife, Maxine, said, “I get sick of seafood. I know I shouldn’t say that tonight, but I’m always with seafood.” She met her husband in a sailboat race, and it’s been seafood—and love—ever since. “He is my hero,” she said. Oddly enough, Max, as she calls herself, grew up in the Angus beef business. “I went from beef to fish and skipped the whole vegetarian thing.” Max Phillips sat beside scientist Jonathan A. Coddington, the Smithsonian’s curator of arachnids and myriapods, who identified himself as “the nation’s spiderologist.” He oversees 40 types of spiders living in the National Museum of Natural History. This prompted Phillips to confess she’d once been bitten by a poisonous recluse spider (genus Loxosceles), and that the harrowing incident landed her in a hyperbaric chamber for treatment. Coddington wasn’t terribly impressed—until Phillips said her skin around the bite “started to turn black.” He smiled. “Now that’s getting good.” Spiderologists obviously view spider bites differently than the victims do.
But it was an interesting lesson. Coddington said overall there are 40,000 species of spiders and only 100 of them are poisonous. “But what kind of spider is Spider-Man?” I asked. “He’s a comic book character,” he said. “He’s generic.”
On a serious note, Steve Phillips emphasized the evening’s themes: that 86 percent of the seafood consumed in the US is imported, and to change that, everyone from the fishermen to the consumer has to become aware of and committed to sustainability. “My history is as a lifetime Marylander,” he said. “I think I have saltwater in my veins.” He said his early life was crabs in the summer and oysters in the winter, and plenty of them, too. “Growing up I couldn’t imagine the bay would ever be depleted.” To that end, Phillips said he is involved in programs to reseed the oyster beds and revive the crab population.
It’s Mrs. Phillips who may have had the last word, though. She said, “There’s no effort that is sustainable unless it is economically sustainable, too.”