Barton Seaver: Sustainability Superhero

by Laura Curtis
Vicky Wasik
October 2010

When StarChefs.com recognized Barton Seaver as a Rising Star Chef in 2006 he had a devoted following and a clearly developed style that emphasized local ingredients. Seaver has since worked as Executive Chef of Hook, Sonoma, and Blue Ridge restaurants in Washington D.C., where he championed underutilized fish species and an ingredient-driven menu. His conscientious cooking caught the attention of media bigwigs like Oprah and Esquire Magazine, which named him Chef of the Year in 2009. While Seaver has harnessed the "power to guide by popular taste,” more people are becoming interested in what Seaver has to say along with what he has to serve. In the past year Seaver has turned toward advocacy roles outside the kitchen. We sat down with Seaver to find out about his newest ventures and why he thinks Tuesday night dinner is so important.

Laura Curtis: What’s currently on your plate, professionally speaking?
Barton Seaver: I’m working on two television series and a radio show, creating content for the Blue Ocean Institute, contributing to Cooking Light, developing an iPhone application, and scheduling public engagements. I’m also publishing a new cookbook. Most recently, I’ve joined National Geographic as a fellow, focusing on everyday sustainability and how we impact our ecosystem.

LC: You didn’t list “chef.” Are you officially out of professional kitchens?
BS: Yes. My contracts with Sonoma and Blue Ridge ran out. More opportunities opened up outside the kitchen, so I took a leap.

LC: Has hanging up the apron been difficult?
BS: It has not been a difficult transition. It was a way of life I enjoyed. My reception was kind and generous, but chefs pay a cost. As a chef you don’t get to see much while you’re running, but you do end up somewhere. I have a great marriage now, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to use food in a new context.

LC: Are all of your new projects going to be unified under your website, www.bartonseaver.org?
BS: No. There’s a reason you haven’t seen me on Top Chef or Food Network. What I do is not about me. I am repositioning myself behind the message and working on a new website. It’s called For Cod and Country. I want to repackage issues so that they fit in people’s daily lives—to inject meaningful conversation into the arenas in which people are already talking. I’d like to generate a massive, reciprocal content vehicle between the website, social media, and recipes and articles from the TV show, print, and radio.

LC: As a chef, you educated guests through local, ingredient-based menus. How do you plan to make ocean sustainability relevant to American families?
BS: Chef is an executive title. It creates distance from your guest. Being a “cook” opens up a universal audience. The average American family serves four people for less than $20 a day. While there’s nothing wrong with $20 entrees, they are not part of the vast majority of Americans’ Tuesday night dinner options.

I want to create opportunities to reflect on the cost of our actions. This is advocacy using food to tell a story of how our environment works, and on how we interact with resources through our forks. Most of us are unconcerned about ocean conservation. Have you thought about primary production today? Probably not, but you probably have thought about tonight’s dinner. Fishing issues are really dinner issues.

LC: What changes do you recommend?
BS: Americans have a “protein problem.” We need a vegetable-centric diet, not just to save the oceans, but to save ourselves. We also need to learn to manage resources regardless of price or availability. In the loaves and fishes parable, Jesus fed an unexpected crowd with a few fish and pieces of bread. The crowd took what they needed, ate the crumbs, and everyone was satisfied. We don’t need to find more fish. We need to learn how to use what we have and be satisfied with less. There will be no lasting social behavioral change unless we start eating according to our need, not our desire. The world can provide our needs, but it can’t continue to keep up with our desires.

LC: The conservation conversation has evolved from organic to local and sustainable. Is there a new concept we should be embracing?
BS: We’re talking about sustainability now. We need restoring. Instead of the tragedy of the commons, we should work toward the redemption of the commons.

LC: What has inspired you to devote your career to environmental advocacy?
BS: I want to be happy. As a moral person, I don’t want to see starvation or resource extinction. There are all these apocalyptic movies showing the end of the world, but nature’s going to be just fine. Nature can take care of itself. What’s in jeopardy is our reality, not nature. We rely on the ocean for resources, cultural heritage preservation, community development, jobs, health, and social structure. We do not need to save the ocean for the ocean’s sake. That’s a concern of charisma. We need to save it for our sake.

LC: How can chefs and restaurant professionals promote good stewardship?
BS: Offer smaller portions of protein, a diversity of product, and beware of local or sustainable claims. Serve more vegetables, and smaller fish. As Rick Moonen says, “eat bait.” If you’re going to catch a striped bass with a herring, eat the herring instead. It’s less toxic, it tastes great, and it’s cheaper. Isn’t this what chefs care about most? Chefs need to be sensible. You can buy shrimp that has been sustainably raised, that promotes a healthy ecosystem, that creates jobs in developing countries, and that has been transported on a cargo ship, leaving a negligible carbon footprint. But if you put it on an all-you-can-eat buffet, you’ve lost the point.

Also, front of house staff need to be educated so they can sell the story. At Hook the menu always had ten relatively unknown fish species. The servers knew what we had and knew how to present it. The iPhone application I’ve been working on helps by offering wine pairings for recipes with underused, mostly green list fish.

LC: You said in a 2006 StarChefs.com interview that in five to ten years you would still like to be involved in the "art and joy of creativity" in daily cooking. What are your new five to ten year goals?
BS: I don’t want to have to advocate for the ocean in ten years. If I do, we’re in trouble. I want to be watching families engage in healthy patterns. The purpose of every non-profit is to put itself out of business.