Fishermen in Thailand on Andaman sea

This article is excerpted from Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas by Liz Cunningham (North Atlantic Books, September 2015)

“That was the click!” Michel spoke in English with a French accent. “I see the faces of students. This day I see that this,” he cupped his hands together and put them down on the table as if clasping something precious, “is a noble cause.”

“When we say that word in French,” Elisabeth said, “what is noble is good for humanity. It’s a good cause for humanity, and a cause is something you fight for.”

We sat around a circular table in a small conference room. To the left of us was a set of French doors adorned by ornate cast-iron railings. Elisabeth Vallet was the director of SeaWeb Europe, which supported sustainable seafood initiatives. Michel Mouisel was head of international relations at one of the most prestigious culinary schools in France—Ferrandi-Paris.

It was the next day. A series of triangulated streets with baroque, balcony-laden buildings had led me to 51 rue Le Peletier, where SeaWeb Europe had its office.

Noble in French, means respect,” Michel continued. He was in his fifties and wore a blue-gray suit.

“It’s a respectable subject to work on. It’s not elitist,” Elisabeth added. “It’s an important, beautiful thing to work towards.” Michel was talking about a conference that SeaWeb had helped coordinate. “It was not only explaining the situation then that made me see the point,” he said, “but that for children in the future, what fish will be left?” Michel was cheerful, but he didn’t mince words. “What will you do when you have no more fish! No more fish? Well, then you are not a big chef!

In the central fish market in Paris, there were once forty-five vendors. Now there were fifteen. The other stalls in the fish market were empty. Seventy-six percent of the world’s fisheries were already fully exploited or overfished. The take of the global fishing fleet was over two times more than what the oceans could replenish over time.

“At this conference there were representatives from every part of the seafood chain,” Elisabeth added. The “seafood chain” meant every person involved from the moment a sea creature is plucked from the ocean to when it gets to a plate—fishermen, wholesalers, retailers, fishmongers, chefs, consumers. “Everybody along the chain now is speaking about this instability, because they realize that it is important to the stability of their business. But a lot still needs to be done.”

“When customers buy some fish, you must inform and educate them,” Michel added. “For instance, you can suggest, ‘You can eat this fish; it’s good and not expensive,’ such as Atlantic sardines.” Atlantic sardines were still considered sustainably harvested, whereas Mediterranean sardines were gravely over-exploited.

“In the Ferrandi school,” Michel continued, “we buy not bluefin tuna, but mackerel or sardines for the tests for chefs.”

Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna stocks had been hunted nearly to the point of extinction. But sardines? Michel was referring to eating lower on the food chain. Sardines reproduce faster and reach maturity in around one year’s time. A bluefin tuna takes four to six years to mature. Its lifespan is fifteen to thirty years. An orange roughy can live to over one hundred years. And the bigger the fish and the higher it is on the food chain, the more toxins, such as mercury, have accumulated in it.

Eating low on the food chain eases the burden on natural resources. Sounds heady, but it’s like having a fuel-efficient car. Take beef—it has the staggeringly high energy-input to protein-output ratio of 54:1. Fifty-four pounds of feed are required to reap one pound of meat. Chicken is dramatically more efficient, with a 4:1 ratio.

It was really starting to hit home that it wasn’t just our cars that needed to be fuel-efficient: it was our whole lifestyle. Did we really need to eat foods flown in from far-flung locations? A tomato from Mexico travelled thousands of miles in a refrigerated truck packed in cardboard and Styrofoam. Charlie planted a vegetable garden and started saving seeds. His tomatoes travelled all of twenty yards to our kitchen. And his tomatoes were luscious.

The spigot of influence Michel had his hand on was big. Culinary institutes from all around the world approached Ferrandi for training. At any one time, there were fifteen hundred students and two thousand chefs in continuing education. Ferrandi-Paris and SeaWeb Europe co-funded the first national sustainable-seafood catering competition along with the Dinard catering school and the prestigious chefs’ association Relais et Châteaux. Awards went for the best recipes using poisson durable—sustainable fish—showcasing that it could epitomize the best of French cuisine. Awards went not only for the best recipes but also to the candidate who could best explain what sustainability meant and which criteria he or she used to select fish for the competition.

“OK, so say I’m a chef …” I said to Elisabeth and Michel.

“And,” Elisabeth picked up the thread playfully, “your customers love cod!” Cod, once a fisheries staple, was overfished.

“And whenever it’s on the menu,” I added, “it’s the favourite dish!”

For five hundred years, the cod stocks in Newfoundland had seemed inexhaustible. Then in 1992 the Grand Banks fishery collapsed and forty thousand people lost their jobs. But some cod from depleted stocks was still eaten.

“And if you don’t serve cod,” Elisabeth raised an eyebrow and flipped open a colourful, spiral-bound book, “and another restaurant does, maybe your customers will go there?” She thumbed through the pages until she got to le caillaud—cod. There was a photo of the oblong fish with rounded lips and a summary of the severely depleted stocks.

But you’re not stuck between hell and a handbasket. You can make sure your cod comes from a sustainable stock, such as Norwegian cod, or you can choose a species other than cod. The book also had a recommendation for an alternative— pollock. And a culinary student at the time, Natacha Morin, had created an award-winning dish: lieu noir rôti, sur une polenta crémeuse—roast pollock with creamy polenta.

The book was Le guide des espèces à l’usage des professionnels, a species guide for seafood professionals. Elisabeth worked with fishmongers, chefs, wholesalers, and retailers to create a guide that reflected their thinking. “To make this work,” Elisabeth explained, “people from all aspects of the chain of custody needed to engage.”

Le guide was revised every year and sent to two thousand seafood professionals in France and Belgium. It was straightforward and handy, augmented with information on fishing practices, aquaculture, fisheries legislation and sustainability certifications, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) blue label. It broke the “not knowing what to do” barrier. It gave the seafood professionals alternatives.

One of the tipping points in France was when Olivier Roellinger, the vice president of the chef ’s association, Relais et Châteaux, asked the five hundred member chefs—who came from all over the world to sign a pledge to not cook endangered species anymore. All of them moved bluefin tuna off the menu in 2010.

“Other people started contacting us,” Elisabeth continued excitedly. “They said, ‘Wow! It’s great what you have done with Relais et Châteaux, but we are just a grocery or a small restaurant in Paris. What can we do?’ ”

“OK,” Michel replied, cupping his hands on the table again. “That is the world. And you take a drop…” With a self-deprecating grin, Michel raised one hand as if to mimic an eyedropper. “That makes ripples. And now,” he pointed at me and my notebook and said,“You! We begin with you, too!”

Elisabeth grinned.

“But for me,” Michel continued, “it’s very important to inform all people, students, parents. All the time, not just during training at the school. For me this is a noble cause, because gastronomy is a vecteur de paix.”

Vecteur de paix?” I asked. Elisabeth translated, “A vector for peace.” “There’s a respect and curiosity about each other,” Michel continued. “It contributes to peace,” Elisabeth added. “There’s an exchange between friends.” “It’s like an honour.” “A presentation.” “To connect.” “OK, OK!” I interjected. “So what is gastronomy really?” Michel grinned and paused. He had a thoughtful look on his face, like he was rubbing his hands together in his mind. “It’s like a painting. You have the painting, the products are your paint.” He gestured as if he were holding a paintbrush. “With this product you make some colour, some harmony between the colour and shapes. When you’re a baby you drink milk, after that you must eat. That’s not art! But you can transform a meal into a communication.”

“A communication?” “Yes!” Arman—the Bajau chief. The delicious fried fruit and hot tea. I told them about Arman. The water village. How Rikardo and I were adroitly served the tea and teacakes. “So, Arman was telling me, as best he could, you are welcome here?” I asked. The question was obvious—food can equal hospitality, but Michel was digging deeper. “Yes, yes!” Michel said. “The definition of art, for me, is to transform something very basic into something beautiful. And good!” They had been the most beautiful tea and teacakes I’d ever had. “The art of cooking,” Michel continued, “began with the art of the table.” “There was an evolution….” Elisabeth piped in. “But the meal wasn’t so good.”

They burst into rapid-fire French, so fast I couldn’t follow. I caught a few words like histoire and développement like errant sparks. They were debating the history of gastronomy.

Could food lead the way to a new way of living? Well, the Eat Local movement certainly was propagating sustainability ideas. The number of farmers’ markets had ballooned. Kitchen gardens were back. Urban gardening was flourishing—herbs and salad greens were growing in folding planters mounted on fire escapes.

Elisabeth and Michel were still debating. Laughter peppered the feverish exchange. Humour seemed built-in to this work, like calcium to bones. Got an intransigent problem to solve? Keep a sense of humour handy.

On that front, Elisabeth and I had gotten acquainted on an accelerated basis. On my way to our first meeting, I grabbed an espresso at a café. I spilled it on my pants. Then I got lost on the metro. When I had set my alarm the night before, I’d given myself two and half hours to have a leisurely breakfast and make the thirty-minute trip to her office. In my frenzied state, it took all of that to arrive smack dab on time.

Elisabeth greeted me with gracious calm, elegantly dressed in silky black slacks and a blouse. “It’s so nice to meet you face to face,” she said, shaking my hand. As I followed her down a hallway to the conference room, she asked, “Did you have any trouble getting here? You’re right on time!”

Did she notice the espresso blotches?

I plopped my weathered knapsack down on a circular table. The room was pleasantly warm. I started to pull off my sweater. Something was tangled as I pulled it over my head. I pulled harder.

“Liz,” Elisabeth inquired gently, “I think you’re having a little trouble… with your shirt?

I looked down. I was pulling up not only my sweater but also the shirt under it; my bra and money belt were in plain view.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It breaks the ice.” Two guys who rented office space on the same floor as the SeaWeb office came in. There was a espresso machine in the room. And of course, an espresso machine to the French is like a salt lick to deer. We would have frequent traffic.

“Olivier,” the first fellow said, pointing a finger at his chest proudly.

The second fellow did the same with greater emphasis like a stand-up comic, “Olivier!” His name was Olivier too. We laughed.

“Elizabeth!” I said, tapping a finger to my sternum. I looked at Elisabeth.

Her eyes grew round with mischief. “Elisabeth!” she enunciated slowly as she tapped a finger to her chest.

Elisabeth and Michel had finished their debate. Switch: English! The short form of the developmental stages of la gastronomie: first a nice table setting, then a delicious meal, then the shape of the plate became important—rectangular plates, square plates. And now stage four: the food is going to reflect a sustainable relationship with the Earth.

“You mean,” I asked, “sustainability is the next stage of gastronomy?”

“Yes, to save the planet!” Michel said emphatically. “And the fish problem is an international problem.” His voice grew even more serious in tone. “It’s a similar problem with drinking water around the world.”

“So it’s parallel to how architecture is evolving?” I asked. “For the future, a building that’s more energy efficient, that’s better designed, is more beautiful?”

Yes, yes, yes. Elisabeth and Michel beamed at me: beauty was evolving.

“We need to hurry or we’ll be late!” Elisabeth said, gathering her things. We’d said goodbye to Michel and were going to speak with a highly esteemed chef, François Pasteau, at his restaurant, L’Epi Dupin. We rushed down the hall and slipped into the elevator. Elisabeth pushed the button for the lobby. The doors closed.

Silence.

“You can write about your fear now,” Elisabeth said, looking straight ahead.

My fear? Snakes. Drowning. Paralysis. Death. How could she know?

“Yes,” she deadpanned, “Your fear that when you are in public, you will pull your shirt up by accident.”

Liz Cunningham is the author of Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age (Praeger). She has written for Earth Island Journal, East Bay Express, the Marin Poetry Center Anthology and has collaborated with institutions such as the Academy for Educational Development and the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Visit her at: lizcunningham.net.

This article is excerpted from Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas by Liz Cunningham (North Atlantic Books, September 2015).

image: Fishing ship in Andaman sea via Shutterstock