Coastal Seafoods Turns 30: Chef Chat, part 2

The life of a chef is very glamorous. It must be so, or there wouldn't be 10 gazillion TV shows on the subject. Coastal Seafoods' general manager, Tim Lauer, had been a chef for years, living the high life, when he was mysteriously lured away by the siren song of seafood. Goodbye, celebrity appearances! Hello, rubber boots and fish guts!

What happened, in fact, was this. When Lauer's wife, Suzanne (yes, his wife has the same first name as his business partner, Coastal Seafoods president Suzanne Weinstein) was pregnant with their first child, it occurred to him that his 90-hour work weeks as head chef at Nigel's would not allow him to be the kind of baby daddy he saw himself becoming. He decided to leave Nigel's and do a bit of catering, then maybe start his own restaurant some day.

But the Fates had other designs. They planted the idea that Lauer and Weinstein (see our Chef Chat, part 1) should work together to transform the way Midwesterners eat, and Lauer joined Coastal Seafoods.

What do you like best about the fish biz? The seafood business is dominated by small, independent operators. When I first started, an old fisherman I worked with told me, "This is the last of the hunting industries." It's not a corporate attitude at all. Sturgeon fishermen, for example, fish when they want to fish, and when they don't, you don't get any sturgeon.

I like how fast things move in this business. It's not like meat: The window of opportunity for fresh fish is very narrow. Meat, you can butcher it and keep it around for a long time. With fish, it's very fast from water to table.

Fish are subject to legal, seasonal, and environmental changes. You have to stay on top of everything. We joke about how few things we have control over. Gas prices, quotas, weather, everything can create problems. Delta Air Lines just added a 36-cents-per-pound surcharge for everything they ship. The weak dollar is a huge disadvantage. One supplier from New Zealand doesn't even want to sell to us anymore--it's less hassle to sell to Europe, where the currency is more reliable.

And then there's regulation. Halibut, which have been on a strict quota for the past 80 years to prevent overfishing, suddenly are way more restricted. This year the quota of halibut is half what it was last year. So it's expensive and hard to get. I mean, that's good, that the regulators are looking far into the future to protect the halibut, so it will still be around generations from now, but it makes it hard to meet the demand.

Wait, I asked you what you like about the business. This sounds like a total nightmare. Well, I like the challenges. And I like that a big part of the business is finding new fish, and learning new things. It's a challenge to find underutilized fish and introduce them to the public.

What "underutilized" fish do you utilize? Chilean sea bass was underutilized a decade ago. It cost $2 a pound, so it was a great deal. I tried to sell it, but most restaurants weren't interested in something they'd never heard of. Then Café Un Deux Trois tried it, featured it on their menu, and next thing I knew it was hugely popular. Now it's overfished, and it's $16 a pound. Crazy.

What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the past decades? Just in the last five years, there's a new emphasis on sustainability in fisheries. Ten years ago, no one was talking about it at all. There was a conference here about eight years ago on sustainable aquaculture, and the press and the public paid no attention whatsoever. Now, here in the store, we field at least 20 questions a day about sustainability: Where was this fish caught? Where was it raised? Of course, that's around here. Most of the country isn't like that yet. We deal with a Boston company whose philosophy is, "the less people know, the better."

Another big change is in attitudes toward fish farming. For a while, people thought fisheries were going to be the savior of wild-caught fish. You could just plant fish in the ocean, then harvest them a few years later. But it turns out you have to grow more fish to feed those fish. When you have too many fish in close proximity, they get diseases. All kinds of problems started becoming apparent.

Then came the period of "all fish farms are evil." The truth is, it's a matter of how the farming is done. The challenge for the industry is to figure out how we can augment this scarce resource by farming fish without having negative environmental consequences.

That's all very well and trendy, but here's one trend you can't hop on: locavorism. True. In the five-state area, it's illegal to fish commercially. Native Americans have some commercial fishing rights, but there's very little of that. So we can't even sell local walleye--our walleye comes from Canada. It's legal for Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais to catch herring and sell it, because herring isn't a "sport" fish, so we get that sometimes, and we get whitefish and lake trout from the Great Lakes. That's as local as it gets.

What's your current favorite fish? Icelandic haddock is great. It's got a mild flavor profile, but it still tastes interesting. Only 1,000 pounds of it are imported to the U.S. each week, and I buy 300 of those pounds. I think it's going to build loyalty among our customers.

Mild flavor profile, huh? That sounds classy. It is. Tilapia fills that niche, too, but it's not so great. I never eat it. Tomorrow, Lauer worries about China; Weinstein reveals her secret passion.

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