By/Por Leah Bergman
The first time I heard about sustainable seafood was at a free seminar in Whole Foods. I originally decided to attend because my culinary skills with fish needed improvement, and the seminar was going to be featuring Chef Andrew Gruel, who would cook about five different seafood dishes. The dishes were delectable, and I was captivated not only with the taste, but with the idea of utilizing different species to keep our oceans from being over fished (which is the depletion of species faster than it can reproduce causing its eventual extinction.)
This meeting led to a story covering the program Chef Andrew Gruel was launching for the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific called “Seafood for the Future”. (To see the original story please click here). I have stayed a fan of the program through the years, so I was delighted to hear that Chef Gruel partnered up with Jethro Naude, environmental economist and financier, and was taking sustainable seafood to his own kitchen, a new restaurant named Slapfish.
Chef Gruel explained how he was making the restaurant sustainable, “We partner with ‘Seafood for the Future’. They assess all of our seafood. Having started that program for the Aquarium, it affords me the opportunity to really have all the network set up, so we know everything we bring in is sustainable.” Naude concurred with, “So the traceability of our seafood is without a doubt some of the best in the industry. No one can really compare with us. We know exactly who is catching it, where they catch it, and how they are catching it at all times.”
Naude gave an example of the quality and sustainability with the shrimp they are using at the restaurant, “We are now bringing our shrimp in from Ecuador. It is a highly sustainable farm and we visited them ourselves… Everything is completely managed from the ground up.” He went on to explain, “It is highly organic feed. They don’t use ash. There are no chemicals, no antibiotics, and no artificial bi-products put in the feed whatsoever. “
Shrimp is imported into the United States from Southeast Asia, Mexico, India, China, and sometimes Canada to name a few. “After much research we found this farm in Ecuador that is leagues above what other guys are doing. It is a little bit more pricey… but we pay their premium because we know their shrimp is harvested, raised and fed sustainably from everything from the larvae, when they are actually produced in the growth pens, to the actual shrimp in the pens,” said Naude.
Naude grew up in South Africa and remembers how his experience in the seafood industry began at a young age with his mother’s seafood restaurant. Naude detached for a short while from seafood when he studied economics and went into finance. “When I came to California and met Andrew Gruel, I started importing sustainable seafood, and then trading it in and around California, “ said Naude and continues with, “I always dreamt of putting my seafood on plates and serving it to customers and cutting out everyone in between. It made financial sense. Andrew helped me realize that dream, and the two of us had a similar long term vision of what we wanted to do. Take sustainable seafood and deliver it to the masses. Show people that sustainable seafood doesn’t have to be more expensive. Doesn’t have to be something that is unattainable. Thirteen months ago we started the paper work and the business plan, and thirteen months later we are standing in it.”
Before they opened Slapfish they had a mobile Food truck. Naude talks about the purpose behind the truck, “It was really just to build the brand, test the concept out, and test the menu out.” He continues with, “A very interesting business, not for the faint of heart. It has a low start-up cost, but don’t let that fool you. The operating cost can grow very easily.” He laughs when he thinks back on some of the mishaps on the truck, “Running out of gas, your engine failing, your hood is just not working, loosing lights, not charging electricity, and having no water for your fridge. It rains, and there are no sales. No one comes to a truck in the rain.” He concludes with, “It really allowed us to fine tune the business model. We knew exactly what we were doing when we opened the store. We knew what was going on the menu, and the staff knew what was expected of them. It came down to buying the plates to put the food on.” Chef Gruel added, “We launched the food truck,… and looked for the right location for the restaurant, and here we are.”
Their plans on teaching consumers about sustainable seafood will continue into the future because they will be opening four new restaurants throughout Orange County this year. Chef Gruel commented on why he was involved with this project. He said, “That is why we love sustainable sea food it is about teaching people how to eat responsibly.” Their passion in teaching people about sustainability does not end with the restaurant. Chef Gruel said, “We are still involved with the aquarium. A dollar out of every sale of our wild albacore tuna goes back to the ‘Seafood for the Future’ program.”
Chef Gruel and Naude are an example on how two people’s passion can combine to form a powerful liaison. Their desire to make a difference will echo into the future and help the ocean that they both love. Chef Gruel summed it up perfectly when he said, “The ocean is our passion. It is a balance between eating more seafood because it is so healthy, and taking care of the ocean.”
© 2012 Leah Bergman
To visit the restaurant or read more about it, go to http://www.slapfishsocal.com/index.html