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3-course interview: Chef Michael Nelson of GW Fins 

On cutting down waste and eating "trash" fish

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GW Fins executive chef Michael Nelson has been tapped to participate in the James Beard Foundation's annual Boot Camp program, where chefs from around the U.S. discuss and learn food policy and advocacy skills. This year's event focused on waste reduction. Nelson advocates eliminating food waste in the kitchen and incorporates less commonly used cuts of fish on his menus. Nelson spoke to Gambit about the benefits and methods of eliminating food waste and how using different cuts of fish can benefit restaurants and diners.

What got you interested in food waste reduction?

Nelson: For several years I've been thinking about fish going in the direction of the nose-to-tail movement, the way chefs went with pork several years ago. I feel like there's so much wasted product when it comes to fish because most people are so focused on eating just the fillet off the side of the fish, but there's so much more opportunity there. At GW Fins, we only buy whole fish, so I think we think a little bit differently about it.

  Over the years we've found ways to increase our yield because we've developed our own ways to utilize that product. I've tried to think of ways to utilize all of the fish and market it in a way that the guest can get really excited about it. It's not an easy process, and it's a slow process to get people comfortable with parts of the fish they're not used to.

  Elsewhere in the world, this isn't even spoken of because people eat the whole fish. In a lot of Asian countries, people are going to fight over the head of the fish, and here nobody wants it. I have plenty of employees who, throughout the years, would beg to take those parts home, and part of my learning curve has been through them. They taught me a thing or two about how to enjoy more of the fish.

  For instance, I take the collars off all the fish we get, whether it's snapper, drum, sheepshead — any of those sized fish — and I remove them and trim them down to where all that's left is a piece of meat with a small fin that kind of sticks out. Usually I just quickly tempura fry it. The idea is that you can hold it by the fin and eat it just like a chicken wing. I haven't thrown out a fish collar in maybe a year and a half. I've gone to the fish houses and trained them how to remove the collars so that they can sell me their fish collars just so I can keep up with the demand.

  The idea for all this — and the reason why I approached the James Beard (Foundation) — is that I would like to find a platform where I could share these ideas and get more chefs interested in what I'm doing and what can be done.

  As far as sustainability is concerned, everybody wants to talk about targeting this fish or targeting that fish. What happens when you target a fish? It becomes no longer sustainable. I'm trying to get people to back up and think about utilizing more of the fish that we already have. There are so many options in there and room for creative genius for chefs to figure out how to make delicious fish dishes.

What are the benefits of cutting waste in a commercial restaurant kitchen from a food cost perspective?

N: From a chef's perspective, as much as we'd like to tell you that it's all about sustainability, a lot of this gets started with (food cost). We're all about our food cost and utilizing the products that we get, especially when we get really beautiful things. Of course, we're paying good money for them, but we really want to utilize it and respect it.

  The way I train my fish butchers at the restaurant, we typically get a better yield than any fish house. We're always cutting for yield and not for speed. I think that, just by doing a few things like changing they way you're cutting the fish and harvesting things that people aren't usually eating, you can get five to 10 percent more fish out of what you already have. I went to some of the fish houses and I asked them how many pounds of a particular species they had purchased last year as well as how many pounds of fish they sold. Based on the conversations I've had, I'd say an average of over 60 percent of all the fish that these places purchase goes directly into the garbage.

  There's not much of an outlet for this. It goes directly to the landfill. It's pretty frustrating to the (fish houses) too, because they're paying somebody to take it away. So they're pretty receptive about these ideas and what they can do to reduce waste. I've even had to train the fishermen how to treat my fish. For example, the red snapper is a fish that's gutted right on the boat. If (the fishermen) aren't doing it correctly, they're ruining the belly and the wing. They just had no idea that it would ever make a difference to anybody.

How beneficial is using so-called "trash" fish in promoting sustainable seafood use at restaurants?

N: We use a lot of trash fish, but I think that word is kind of losing its meaning because I think people are starting to realize how great all these fish are. At our restaurant, we're always going to have at least 12 fish on our menu. We really love any fish we can get our hands on. Locally, sheepshead is one of the greatest fish you can get, and it just gets a bad rap. I think the reason it's considered trash fish is because of the fishermen. Some of these fish are a little bit more difficult to cut, and because of that, I think they shy away from it. It's not that these fish taste bad at all. It's just that they are really hard to clean. It's just a stigma a lot of these species get that is undeserved.

  Every fish can kind of be cut the same. They all have a similar structure, and I think everyone gets into the habit of treating them all the same way. There are different species where, if you just do it a little bit differently, boom! All these really beautiful pieces of meat show up.

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