Michael Leviton, A Guardian For New England’s Fishing Community
For Chef Michael Leviton, sustainability—more than any ethos, mantra, or conviction—is all about the community. When it comes to purchasing product, local is important, but supporting the local fisherman and farmers is paramount. “Twenty-something years ago, there was no word sustainability; there was sustainable development, but there was no sustainable food or sustainable restaurants,” says the New Englander, who makes sustainable seafood his mission. “We have centuries of fishing tradition here [in Massachusetts], and if we don’t support [the community], the only people who will be left doing the fishing will be the ones doing the wrong thing.”
This focus on community started with Leviton’s two most influential mentors, Chefs Joyce Goldstein and Daniel Boulud, who instilled in him a serious appreciation of quality product. Earning his chops at Goldstein’s San Francisco institution Square One, Leviton was introduced to the West Coast’s “otherworldly” products. Sourcing at Square One came from local artisans, farmers, and purveyors, but “we got great ingredients and the search was not for sustainable ingredients; the search was for the best possible ingredients,” explains Leviton. “All of that stuff came out of that pursuit of ingredients.”
And it was in Le Cirque’s “war zone,” that Leviton learned the power of taking these simple ingredients and executing them à la technique Francaise. More than a decade later, he marries the two schools of thoughts at his Cambridge-based Area Four. It’s here, and at his award-winning Lumière in Newton, where his simple approach to big, bold flavors unites with great products, sourced from the New England community Leviton champions.
Big flavors have helped make his success, but it’s that history of using quality product, along with his New England roots, that has Leviton really passionate about sustainable seafood. His viewpoint, however, strays from the typical farmers market credo.
“A big pet peeve of mine is the local seafood here,” he says. Surrounded by the Massachusetts and Maine communities that depend on long-established fishing cultures, Leviton struggles with the standards set forth by organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. “Those cards are great if you happen to be land-locked in the middle of Iowa or something,” he explains. “But I have access to fishermen where I know the boats. I know how they fish. I know they are trying to do the right things.”
As far as he sees it, sustainability, especially when it comes to seafood, has as much to do with the community’s economy as it does with how a product is farmed or caught. Leviton’s response to customers pointing out cod’s “avoid” status on sustainable seafood charts? “You’re right. You shouldn’t eat cod if it’s caught by a mid-ocean trawler and there’s tons of bi-catch. But if you get beautiful hooked cod from a day boat off of Cape Cod, those folks are not doing the wrong thing. They are doing the right thing.” And being a Newton native, Leviton understands firsthand the importance the fishing industry plays on the community. “Families have been doing this for generations,” he explains passionately. “You can’t just take away that livelihood. It needs to be looked at in balance, and that part of the message gets lost.”
Of course, sustainable standards are set for a reason (Monterey Bay primarily promotes well-managed populations and fish that are caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways). But Leviton thinks like a chef who’s lucky enough to have fresh fish available right at his doorstep. “If you want to have local fish on the menu, when do you draw the line between local and sustainable from Alaska?” Those fish from Alaska may be days older than fish from New England, he says. “If you keep your doors open by serving the best, freshest quality food, what do you do?” he ponders. “The first rule of a sustainable restaurant is to keep your doors open. You can be committed as hell, but if you can’t keep your doors open, you aren’t any good to anyone.”
But Leviton also understands that not every chef is as lucky as he: “Not everyone can do that; if you have 300 seats, or you’re a big institution, maybe you can’t just get day boat-hooked haddock. Maybe you have different economic pressures, or different supply pressures.” It’s all about starting, he says, even if slowly at first (this is a key topic at the Chefs Collaborative, for which Leviton is board chair). “Just get on the path and make some baby steps. You’ll find that the more you know, the easier it is to make decisions that have beneficial impacts.”