A Taste of Change — From COVID to Climate

As our climate changes, so does our seafood — and it might be telling us something. Here’s what we’re learning from our oysters, supply chain and taste buds as we battle the pandemic and our biggest environmental crisis.

If you eat oysters as often as we do, you know how delicious, diverse, and delicate they are. Oysters are the wine grapes of the sea — where unique flavors, shapes, colors and sizes are cultivated by the smallest environmental factors. Off-bottom cultures battle gravity and pressure, the briniest oysters filter the saltiest waters, and the life of a bed can begin or end with swift changes of acidity and temperature. Oysters live and breathe the health of our seas. We shouldn’t be surprised they can tell us stories too. Here’s what we’ve heard on the half shell.

A New Challenge for Shellfish

Pre-pandemic, our Spring 2020 menu was destined for a focus on oysters. The theme was “Climate Cuisine”, highlighting the impact of regenerative seafood — food that not only preserves the health and biodiversity of our oceans, but restores it. Regenerative seafoods are farmed shellfish and sea-greens such as oysters, mussels and kelp which filter surrounding water and provide new habitats for other marine life when grown. Our initial menu tastings consisted of red curry mussels, kelp-centered dips, kombu Reel Deal sides, and an array of local oysters with special preference to New York farms such as West Robins. It was time to start serving our first environmentally net-positive menu. But 2020 quickly derailed our big plans and the world.

In the early days of the pandemic, all NYC restaurants were forced to close for the first time in history. As our city mourned the loss of a vibrant hospitality community, restaurants received incredible support from loyal diners who deeply missed their kitchens away from home. But our suppliers did not, suffering from a lack of public presence and major losses— oyster farmers most of all. Local growers almost exclusively rely on restaurants like us to move their product. Guests who live in tiny apartments can escape to their seafood havens, order a Chablis and enjoy freshly shucked shellfish at the bar. Oysters have always been an exclusive addition to a dine-out experience. As raw bars closed, this vital food for ocean health disappeared from our diets. When we finally reopened our shuttered doors and delivery became king, we still faced the oyster problem: New Yorkers don’t shuck oysters at home. The fate of a beautiful, dying industry was in our hands and we struggled to find a solution.

An Old Challenge for Seafood

Sadly, the pandemic was not the first hurdle shellfish farmers and the seafood industry have had to encounter. They’ve been fighting another kind of pandemic — a world diseased by carbon dioxide. Climate Change has notably affected every food system on our planet, but too often we forget to talk about its effects on our seafood. In the past 20 years, our oceans have changed too rapidly for current ecosystems to adapt. From ocean acidification to warming water temperatures, previously stable oyster cultures now face mass larval death, battle MSX disease in new areas, and must survive their habitats turned upside down. Sporadic and aggressive weather makes their survival even more unlikely — uprooting entire farms and spreading polluted runoff which can shut down a farm for days.

I have customers that laugh at me when I say “Look there’s another rain closure. They can’t harvest the shellfish this week”. They ask “well how often is this going to happen?” and I’m like “I don’t know — how often is it going to rain more than three inches in a week?”. Climate Change is on every person’s mind in the seafood industry, whether they acknowledge it or not. — Vinny Milburn, Seamore’s Fishmonger

The effects of Climate Change destroy far more than oysters, but these bivalves play a special role in how we address them. Oyster vulnerability is our canary in a coal mine and their restorative properties are an irreplaceable solution. If we listen to our shellfish growers, we can tackle local environmental issues before we reach dreaded points of no return. If we increase demand for oysters, we can influence the planting of more. The Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition at The Nature Conservancy has made listening to growers a priority, pulling together the first group of politically active ocean farmers to share their environmental challenges and influence congressional policy. Young and old growers have a chance to create public presence, discuss oncoming issues, and develop solutions together. With increased communication by the SGCC and increased demand from restaurants and diners, we not only can save our oyster populations but revitalize our oceans just by eating them.

Seamore’s is listening to oysters too. As a proud restaurant partner of the SGCC, we’re sharing our stories from the kitchen in Heard on the Half Shell — SGCC’s podcast campaign for political change. Originally a platform for growers, Heard on The Half Shell expanded its reach across the supply chain and to the table in conversation with our Executive Chef Rob Eggleston and longtime fishmonger, Vinny Milburn of Greenpoint Fish & Lobster. Listen in as they recount the challenges of Climate Change on species availability in the restaurant, oyster health, and how we all can eat our way towards restoration.

The Power of Food & Hospitality

Reflecting on our closure and preparing for reopening, we found a way to continue our oyster story. We had to teach by experience — bringing oysters directly to New Yorkers and the skills required to shuck them. Our Finish @ Home meal kits featured our first Oyster Shucking Kit which included 24 east coast oysters, a training video, instruction card, oyster knife and glove. Turns out bored seafood lovers were up to the challenge — spicing up their home-cooked dinners with half-shell appetizers. Customers across the globe inquired about gifting kits to family and friends, asking for expansion.

Seamore’s Finish @ Home Oyster Shucking Kit enjoyed by guests at home. IG photo by Junita Siagian

In an effort to grow our impact, we opened up our outdoor patio at Brookfield Place for Oyster Shucking & Wine Pairing classes — led by our Executive Chef and Bar Manager. These booked up immediately by couples and friend groups excited to leave their homes and eager to learn something new.

Our classes gave me the unique opportunity to stand in front of a packed patio for ten weeks, educating a captive audience. People were eager to learn about where our oysters came from, they’re lifecycle and the effect of climate change on shellfish. Typically in the restaurant industry, you’re serving oysters from the kitchen, but this year I was able to get that one-on-one connection. — Seamore’s Executive Chef Rob Eggleston

Guest shellfish farmer from Barnegat Oyster Collective showing shucking techniques.

Swamped with requests, our events grew to twice a week. Featured growers used the series to share their craft, product, and pass their skills on to new shellfish knife owners. We marveled at the space we created for oysters, for fun, and for education in our most challenging year to date. Though our restorative menu never debuted, we witnessed the power of hospitality to merge personal experience with lasting consumer change.

Making a Habit of Resilience

So where do we go from here? How do we continue to use food as a force for good? Our oyster story speaks to our seafood story. Climate Change has made our oceans unpredictable. The rules of fishing and harvesting as we knew them no longer apply, and our fishermen and growers are struggling to meet quotas of the past — quotas we as consumers, seafood purveyors, and restaurant owners set and can change. This was the Seamore’s mission from day one, but we are only one — one of 26,000+ restaurants that serve New York City. The hospitality industry needed a push to expose more people to diverse seafood. Strangely enough, 2020 delivered that pressure.

The pandemic like Climate Change, brought severe unpredictability into the kitchen. Restaurants with single-species dishes on their menus of 30+ years found themselves unable to consistently serve their fish of choice. Forced into flexibility, menus became fluid like our oceans — changing with food availability and sparking chef creativity. If there was one good thing about last year, it might be the change in our sourcing and consequently, our dining habits. We are less picky. We are valuing local. We are more resilient. That is the core of sustainable seafood — adaptability.

It’s not uncommon in Europe to grab 18 oysters and a glass of wine and say “that was a good lunch” and head out. In The States that is completely unheard of. I have a finite amount of oysters I can buy because I only have a finite amount I can sell. And I want to sell more! The best thing we can do is get people to eat more oysters. — Vinny Milburn, Seamores’ Fishmonger

With the re-introduction of indoor dining and the end of a cold winter in sight, we have a responsibility to bring oysters back to life — on our menus, in our events, in your homes, and in your hands. We’re always open to what comes our way, and we hope you are too in 2021.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can help local growers, farms and organizations, check out the SGCC for more grower stories and how they are influencing policy during the pandemic. If you’re an NYC resident, visit our partners at the Billion Oyster Project for many restoration success stories to tell on the half shell.

Follow Seamore’s on medium for more stories on food culture and seafood or on Instagram @seamores.

#seamores #shoretodoor #oysters #shellfish4climate

Written by Giovanna Kupiec, Sustainability & Communications Manager

Born to satisfy, built to sustain, bettered by stories. seamores.com