Taking the Bait

Sustainable fish is a theme at this year’s Auckland Restaurant Month, and it’s encouraging creativity in the kitchen

Picture / NZME.

Ben Barton is on a crusade. The Scarecrow cafe owner and chef is championing Nemo’s less popular cousins — the fish you’re more likely to see sold in petrol stations for bait than on fine-dining menus.

Black snapper, for instance, is regarded as little more than a bycatch of flounder. It hangs out in mangroves and its gut lining is black.

“It can be off-putting for some people,” Barton says. “If you’re not careful when cooking it the texture can go mushy. It’s not suited to baking. People think of it as a “rubbish” fish. But pan-seared with butter, salt and lemon juice, like most fresh fish, it’s really delicious.”

Barton is one of several top chefs promoting sustainable fish in Auckland Restaurant Month, to “challenge our perceptions about what’s considered good fish”. The idea is that by eating lesser-value varieties, we’ll put less pressure on high-demand products. It’s a movement the chefs involved hope will inspire consumers to be more mindful, much as we are when buying seasonal produce, foraging and head-to-tail eating.

Although our Quota Management System is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, preventing us from over-fishing and allowing us to export more than 90 per cent of our seafood, some fish varieties, such as snapper and bluefin tuna, are considered less sustainable than others.

It’s a complex subject, as sustainability takes into account fish population according to region, not to mention fish size and age — and how fishing some species affects others. But consumers can find a succinct snapshot in the Best Fish Guide, which Forest and Bird updates every few years.

The guide ranks our most sustainable seafood in green (mussels, kahawai, salmon), okay choices in orange (red gurnard, Pacific oysters, john dory) and the least sustainable and “best avoided” in red (snapper, bluefin tuna, scallops).

That may put a dampener on moods at the fish shop but Ben says sustainable eating is not necessarily about consuming less. It’s about mitigating waste by eating bycatch and the abundant varieties of fish that we traditionally think of as bait.

“You can eat something delicious and it doesn’t need to cost $30 a kilo. If you widen your horizons, it doesn’t have to be elite.”

He’s excited to be working with jack-knife prawns, for instance, a bycatch of the scampi industry. The catch, of course, is that such varieties aren’t always available at the fish auctions. But the higher the demand, the less pressure will be placed on other products, says the keen fisherman.

Pilchards, (or sardines) will make an appearance on Ben’s seven-course degustation, where they’ll be served cooked slowly in onions and clarified butter, sous vide, with a simple gremolata, and lightly pickled with sugar, salt and spices, and fennel seeds.

The small herring is New Zealand’s favourite bait but they were ironically hard to come by as an eating fish until three years ago when sustainable fish suppliers Yellow Brick Road began supplying them. The local company works predominantly with fishermen who catch using long-lines (one fish per hook) on day boats. It also works with people who farm and harvest oysters, mussels and clams by hand, rather than using the controversial trawl-fishing method.

Blanching at the thought of dining on species you’d normally dangle over the side of your boat? Don’t be surprised if some of these dishes become delicacies. When Japanese superstar chef Nobu Matsuhisa put black cod on the menu at his New York restaurant Nobu, the fish went from zero to hero and the dish is now replicated around the world.

Closer to home, when Martin Bosley rebranded the bottom-feeding red cod as Southern Bastard Cod, it became a best-seller. In Britain, pilchards experienced a boom in popularity when they were rebranded as Cornish sardines. The Waitrose supermarket chain reported a 19 per cent rise in sales of the once-forgotten fish, and high-end restaurants owned by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein have put them back on the menu.

“In Portugal, sardines are celebrated — people catch them right off the beach and grill them up fresh. It’s the same in Scandinavian countries, and the US. Many Asian cultures are happier to eat bones and deal with small fish whereas we’re less accustomed to it, possibly because of the fishy flavour.”

Skate is another interesting perception test, as it’s often sold as somewhat scarier eagle ray or stingray. Ben plans to wrap it in bacon, as you would scallops. Depending on what’s available at the fish market auctions, bait fish such as mackerel and fresh anchovies could also make an appearance as scorched sashimi with citrus and macadamia oil.

Elsewhere, sustainable and ethically caught fish, such as tarakihi, Akaroa salmon, trevally and kingfish, will turn up on Auckland Restaurant Month menus. Lucky Buddha has a blue moki pan roasted with XO sauce, caramelised parsnip, green apple and asian herbs.

The Cut on Federal has Chatham blue cod with tomato consomme, tortellini, red onion and sultana compote. And Fish at the Hilton will do green-lipped mussels with tom kha sauce, oyster mushroom and confit cherry tomatoes.

“Diners should be aware of the journey their food takes before it hits the table,” says Gareth Stewart, perhaps best known as one of the judges on the New Zealand version of My Kitchen Rules; he’s the new national executive chef for Nourish Group (replacing Simon Gault), which includes Fish, Euro and Crab Shack. He believes consumers’ concerns over free-range chicken and pork, and a food item’s carbon footprint should also apply to the fishing industry.

“There will inevitably be a worldwide shortage of protein, so the more we do now the better it will be for our future generations,” he says. “We should be fishing for tomorrow, not just for today. There are so many more species of fish out there on offer. We should be utilising everything that comes out of the ocean and stop being so wasteful.”

Experimenting with less popular varieties is good for chefs, consumers, the fish and future generations. “If chefs are restricted to the every day snapper, dory and hapuku it limits what we can do. If diners are more open to new species of fish, we can open up our repertoire and expand the choice on offer.”


Twice a year Gareth Stewart heads to a friend’s bach and each morning they go netting for garfish (piper). Depending on their success, they’ll use at least 30 per cent for bait; the rest they’ll use for lunch or a dinner entree — often a ceviche with lime, chilli, coriander, olive oil, sugar and salt.

“The flesh is beautiful and you don’t need to do too much to it,” he says. “I’ll also cook some on the barbecue by simply brushing with olive oil, seasoning, and cooking in two to three minutes over charcoal. I’ll serve it with a salsa verde and wedge of lemon. I also love to cook southern boarfish, which is a bycatch of hapuku. It is packed with flavour and cooks up well with a crispy skin. Trevally is another fish that is amazing served as either sashimi or ceviche. Simple preparation works well with it as its flavour is already stunning when fresh.”


Good Fish dishes will be available as part of the participating restaurants’ special Restaurant Month in the Heart of the City menus from August 1-31, including Ben Barton’s seven-course degustation, designed to showcase varieties of fish Kiwis would more likely think of as bait. Tickets $65, at Scarecrow Pop-Up, L1, The Metropolis, 1 Courthouse Lane. For more info, see heartofthecity.co.nz.

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