News & Politics

The Area’s Top Chefs Come Together for Sustainable Seafood (Photos)

A dinner to mark World Ocean Week naturally featured plenty of fish—cooked, raw, even still swimming.

The Sustainable Seafood dinner in the rotunda of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where the guests included Smithsonian officials, seafood loving foodies and conservationists committed to sustainability. Photograph by Alfredo Flores.

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
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
who care deeply about sustainability.

At the reception there were so many choices.
Mike Isabella of

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

did branzino ceviche with squid and small shrimp;
Shannon Overmiller of the
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

Not all the offerings at the reception were seafood.
Susan Soorenko, owner of Moorenko’s Ice
, 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
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
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
“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
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
sustainable, too.”