When saving the environment is delicious

Contributed by Michael Di Paola

There is a certain joy in watching a world-class chef harvest his food in the wild.  Recently I accompanied the ebullient kitchen maestro José Andrés on a dive off Grand Cayman, where local restaurateurs and divers are on a mission to turn a looming environmental disaster into an edible delicacy. Their quarry: the lionfish.

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 8.59.12 PM“The lionfish does not belong here,” says Andrés, suiting up on the dive boat. “You have a fish in a territory that no other fish like to eat so they reproduce like crazy and in the process they kill all the local fish.”

The lionfish hunt was a small part of a very tasty event on Grand Cayman, which was celebrating its annual Cayman Cookout, a long weekend of food and drink, made somehow even more delicious by the opportunity to schmooze with some of the world’s best-known chefs. Le Bernadin’s Eric Ripert, mega-chef Anthony Bourdain, eponymously famous Daniel Boulud, and Emmy-winning Italian cuisine maestra Lidia Bastianich were just a few of the culinary royalty in attendance.

Among them, only Andrés went on the dive, and he is right, the lionfish does not belong here. It is an interloper from the Indian and southern Pacific Oceans, first spotted in this hemisphere in 1985 off the southeast coast of Florida. In less than 20 years, it has spread through the southern U.S. coastlines and throughout much of the Caribbean.

The problem here is the invasive species has no natural predators in these waters, a problem compounded by its devastating fecundity: females can lay thousands of eggs every few days.  With nothing on the reef willing to risk a toxic stab from one of the spiny projections on the fish’s fins, the creature treats the ecosystem as a buffet table, eating through just about everything that moves.

They feed on young fish, like juvenile grouper or red snapper, which are menu staples throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere. Many people, of course, are dependent on fish for gainful employment.

“There are thousands of people that live off the sea,” says Andrés. “If we have no fish, we’re going to be having thousands of people with no jobs.”

There are eight of us in the dive party, including a small crew.  When Andrés is ready to step off the boat, he is handed a small fishing spear with three prongs.  He takes the plunge and down we go. It’s a fairly shallow dive–we bottom out at 56 feet–and though it is a windy day and the small boat had to fight through some foamy chop on the way to the site, the water is clear.

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 8.59.28 PMI hang back from the hunters, not wanting to interfere with the photography or scare away the fish.  The small reef looks mostly healthy, but it is not teeming with life. After a few minutes one of the divers spots a lionfish.  It is not a big fish–that’s the good news.  Apparently the aggressive hunts in the Caymans have put a dent in the population. Underwater it is quite a beautiful organism.  When threatened it puffs up like a peacock, its fins armed with spiny darts of neurotoxin. There’s a reason nothing else in the ecosystem will mess with it, but the divemaster spears the animal in a smooth and practised xiphoid thrust, then stuffs it into an old water bottle retrofitted for the task of collecting and carrying the venomous beasts back to the boat.

We get an even dozen of the little monsters.  Andrés does not manage to spear one, but he was a most competent spotter.  After much photo-opping on the deck of the dive boat, the fish are unceremoniously dumped into an ice chest.  I won’t see one again until Saturday night at the table of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, a Camana Bay eatery participating in the Cookout.

Lionfish Invasion & Population Explosion

Back on dry land — specifically the beach in front of the Ritz-Carlton resort on Seven Mile Beach, I get to watch the chefs in action. The crapulence is exhausting and wonderful. Andrés entertains a crowd with a paella presentation that is one part cooking lesson and five parts performance art. Later I’ll arrive too late at a beach pavillion to appreciate Bastianich’s garbanzo bean flour tagliatelle, but just in time to sip her Sgropin, a confluence of prosecco, grappa and lemon sorbet. Dean Max will conjure fish tea out of snapper and callaloo. Chocolate wizard Jacques Torres will fashion confectionery masterpieces. I learn from Boulud that “You cannot make a Frenchman eat a watermelon or a honeydew, but you can make him eat a cantaloupe,” although I’m unconvinced this information will have practical application.

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 8.59.47 PMNutritionally, the lionfish stacks up nicely against other food fishes. It is especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids.  I’m not entirely sure what that means, but you won’t find nearly as much of the stuff in bluefin tuna, grouper, or tilapia.

I like the idea that we are addressing an environmental need– the presence of an omnivore fish with no natural predators–by declaring ourselves the predator. We are such a voracious and usually destructive species, it is refreshing to see our predation used for the good of the world for a change. It is refreshing and in this case, delicious.

There is some disappointment on Saturday night.  Andrés was scheduled to lead the lionfish dinner, but he is called away on urgent business: First Lady Michelle Obama had a 50th birthday to celebrate and the presence of D.C.’s finest chef was required.  The subs who covered for Andrés showed the assembled crowd how to hold and clean the lionfish (carefully), and then sauteed a bit for a tasting.  Bourdain approved: “Wow, that’s really good!”

Although the Caymans have been out front of the War on Lionfish, not all the chefs at the Cayman Cookout are enamored of the fish, gustatory-wise.  “It has no flavor,” says Ripert flatly.  Accordingly, he has no plans to introduce the fish to the refined palates at Le Bernadin or Blue, his Ritz-Carlton joint.

I would not dream of contradicting Ripert’s assessment. He’s the expert after all.  However I will say that the kitchen at Michael’s Genuine managed to assemble a most pleasing concoction.  Even if the lionfish has no flavor, as Ripert claims, when wedded to confit in olive oil, shallots, vierge sauce and heirloom tomatoes, well let’s just say there was nothing left on my plate.

Just doing my part for the environment.