At Sincere Blue, a restaurant inside the newly opened Jingumae Comichi dining complex, dinner unfolds like an edible ode to the bounty of the sea.
An opening salvo of raw albacore tuna, rolled into cornets atop whipped celeriac, is followed in quick succession by a delectable array of piscine-focused plates. There’s a basket of golden beignets made with pangasius (a freshwater fish from Southeast Asia), oysters sauteed in brown butter and scallop croquettes served on a bed of dried nori (seaweed). They serve as a prelude to the main dish — a fish-shaped savory waffle stuffed with sea bass, swimming in a pool of clam-infused cream sauce.
Seafood sustainability is central to the restaurant’s concept, and owner-chef Shinsuke Ishii takes great care when sourcing ingredients. The tuna is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a global nonprofit organization that sets standards for sustainable fishing, while the oysters, scallops and pangasius are approved by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), which establishes best-practice protocols on farmed seafood. The sea bass comes from purveyors working with scientists and nongovernmental organizations to improve fishing practices.
“All of the information is written on the menu. We’re happy to answer questions, but we don’t want the guests to feel like they’re studying,”Ishii says.
The aim, he says, is to encourage people to eat a wider variety of fish, instead of relying on species in decline, such as Pacific bluefin tuna.
Annual landings of seafood in Japan have plummeted from a high of 12.8 million tons in 1984 to 4.39 million tons in 2018, according to a 2019 report from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. While several causes contribute to the problem, experts agree that overfishing is one of the main drivers behind depleted fisheries.
The restaurant’s name, Sincere Blue, is a reference to Chefs for the Blue, a group Ishii helped establish in 2017 to raise awareness of marine resource preservation among the restaurant industry and consumers. Comprising more than 30 chefs and industry professionals, the organization works with international research groups and entities such as NGO Sailors for the Sea and consulting firm Seafood Legacy. Since its launch, Chefs for the Blue has held 25 public events, including a seminar last October featuring renowned French chef Olivier Roellinger.
Thanks in part to the efforts of advocacy organizations, consumer awareness about sustainable seafood in Japan is increasing gradually, says Chefs for the Blue co-founder Hiroko Sasaki.
“When we started out three years ago, hardly anyone came to our events — including members of the press,” she recalls, noting that media interest in the topic has skyrocketed. “That’s a sign that the general public is listening.”
As the director of communications for Chefs for the Blue, Sasaki receives messages daily from chefs and concerned individuals asking what they can do to improve the situation. She directs consumers to online resources, and tries to find opportunities to involve chefs in Chefs for the Blue events.
More crucially, the sustainability movement is gaining ground in governmental halls of power. In December 2018, the Japanese government revised the Fisheries Act for the first time since 1949, granting itself the power to regulate fishing, with a mandate to “ensure sustainable use of marine resources.” Under the revised act, fishing quotas will be expanded to cover a wider range of species, and cap-and-trade-style quotas will be introduced. It’s a significant acknowledgment from the government that it has the responsibility to push the industry to be more sustainable.
Where do chefs fit into all this? As Ishii points out, chefs in charge of restaurants and industrial kitchens can also influence food systems by creating a market for sustainable products.
“When I was a young chef in my 20s, I was focused solely on technique and making food delicious. But these days, restaurants have to change (with regard to sustainability). My goal is to increase the number of sustainable seafood restaurants in Japan. It’s difficult for one person to make a difference, but as a group we can have a real effect.”
For Chefs for the Blue, the long-term goal is to help fish populations return to levels of stability.
“Today, the self-sufficiency ratio for seafood in Japan is only around 55 percent. In the ’70s, it was 100 percent, and I want to see it come back to that level in my lifetime. Some species can recover in as quickly as 10 years if we set proper limits,” Sasaki says.
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