A royal pardon

by Casson Trenor

July 14, 2010

In the embattled world of sustainable seafood, it’s always nice to see positive change in a major public venue. As heartwarming as it is to hear from someone who has pledged to stop eating Chilean sea bass or unagi, it feels even better when a restaurant — or even better, an entire seafood distributor — drops it altogether in the name of environmental preservation.

In this vein, I’m thrilled to see a spark of light appear in the otherwise relentlessly dismal saga of the bluefin tuna.

Many readers are likely familiar with Food Network’s Iron Chef America, a culinary contest wherein a visiting chef races against time to prepare an assortment of gastronomic delights for a panel of judges. At the same time, one of the resident masters — a star-spangled group known as the Iron Chefs — embarks on the same task in an effort to defend his or her title against the upstart challenger. The dishes are linked by the requirement that they must all involve the day’s secret ingredient, which is revealed only moments before the contest begins. The entire exercise takes place in front of dozens of cameras and a few quirky announcers in a regal arena known as “Kitchen Stadium.”

Iron Chef America is a interesting show, to be sure, but it has historically concentrated on strict gastronomic hedonism — it seems that no ingredient is too expensive (or too endangered) to be included in the Stadium’s massive inventory. I remember one particular episode of its forerunner, the Japanese TV cult smash Iron Chef, where a chef cooked down half a dozen lobsters with a few stalks of asparagus only to subsequently serve the lobster-infused vegetable and throw the crustaceans themselves in the trash.

Anyhow, the reason I bring this up is to highlight what I consider to be significant shift towards ocean conservation in the highest levels of the modern American foodscape. Iron Chef America has catapulted any number of victorious challengers into the spotlight — perhaps it can now do the same for a fish.

On Monday morning, a well-known food blogger and sustainable seafood enthusiast named Richard Auffrey threw his cyber-gauntlet at the feet of culinary celebrity and TV personality Alton Brown. Mr. Brown, the host of Iron Chef America, is known to be a vocal advocate for seafood sustainability. He has, in fact, gone as far as publicly announcing that until sushi kingpin Nobu Matsuhisa removes bluefin tuna from the menus of his eponymous restaurants, he will not set foot in any Nobu anywhere.

So why did Auffrey take aim at someone who seems to be a natural ally in this “Battle Bluefin”? (apologies to the Chairman)

Last week, Kitchen Stadium was visited by Makoto Okuwa, the former sous chef of Iron Chef and sushi icon Masaharu Morimoto. Over the course of the contest, Chef Makoto prepared five dishes, all containing the day’s theme ingredient (which, auspiciously for the sushi chef, happened to be sea urchin.) One of Okuwa’s offerings was his “uni surf and turf”: urchin-kissed wagyu beef paired with a ribbon of otoro, the belly flesh of a bluefin tuna. Brown did not raise any objections or offer any comments on the unsustainability of the dish, and Auffrey reamed him for it.

I’m proud of Auffrey for sticking up for the flagging bluefin, but that’s not why this is so interesting to me. The fascinating thing about this is what happened immediately after Auffrey posted his rant: Brown responded. Like, right away.

Brown fenced with Auffrey a bit over the aggressive and accusatory tone that the blogger had adopted, but he also admitted that the use of bluefin in Kitchen Stadium was lamentable and unnecessary. The two traded barbs and questions for a bit, but in the end, Brown took action and the oceans got what they needed. According to Brown, bluefin tuna is now banned from Iron Chef America.

This is fabulous. Iron Chef America is both one of the pioneering shows behind the recent explosion of food porn in the United States as well the American rendition of a classic Japanese TV program. To have the pseudo-traditional otoro excluded from the Kitchen Stadium arsenal is an extremely powerful statement about the reality of our ailing oceans and the need for immediate action if we are to save them.

There are so many things about this story that I like. I like how Auffrey stood up to Brown and called him out. I like the prompt, gentlemanly, and constructive response Brown offered in spite of his indignation. I like the quick decisive action that Brown took to rectify the situation. I love the fact that bluefin tuna is now pisci non grata on a major Food Network television show. And the icing on the cake? Chef Makoto decisively lost the battle to Iron Chef Michael Symon, who didn’t use any bluefin at all.

Score one for the oceans.

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