“You wanna talk about something interesting, let’s talk about that,” says Tom Douglas, the legendary Seattle chef and restaurateur, gearing up for a rant about wild salmon. He’s seated in a conference room here at Food Republic headquarters, fresh off a night of wine chugging with his old pal Mario Batali, and now Douglas is riffing on his recent experiences eating in some of NYC’s best restaurants, where he found, to his horror, that most chefs are using farmed salmon rather than wild-caught.
It’s a passion point for Douglas, who opened his first restaurant in Seattle, Dahlia Lounge, way back in 1989, and now helms a lineup of more than a dozen establishments, some, like Etta’s (opened in 1995) with a focus on fresh Northwest seafood. It’s a focus that has helped bring him fame (Iron Chef and other TV appearances), awards (James Beard first recognized him in 1994) and probably a bit of fortune, but it also means he’s had to spend much of his time outside the kitchen becoming an activist.
“Why is it that all the fancy chefs in New York City can’t get their shit together on wild salmon?” he asks during our interview. “It doesn’t fly, because the fishermen are going out of business, because the farmed salmon is taking over all over the world. If the fishermen can’t make a living, then the indigenous people in the area can’t make a living. Do you know what they do? They turn to mining.”
“The fishermen are going out of business because the farmed salmon is taking over all over the world.”
Douglas isn’t just ranting, though. He’s become so passionate about the subject of wild salmon that he’s started making documentary films about the salmon industry. The first, The Breach, came out in 2014; it traced the decline in Alaskan seafood stock and detailed a Canadian mining company’s plan to build an open-pit copper mine in sockeye salmon–rich Bristol Bay.
The film’s two years old, but Douglas is still incensed. “They proposed mining the headwaters at Bristol Bay — 50 million fish a year come back to Bristol Bay, all certified sustainable, and they’re going to put in a copper and gold mine!” he says.
The cruel irony is that people think they shouldn’t eat endangered seafood, which leads them to believe even sustainable fish should be off limits. Douglas repeats his oft-cited slogan: “You have to eat wild in order to save wild.” He allows that there are nuances: Chefs and home cooks need to treat wild salmon more carefully than farmed varieties to experience the full flavor of it, and there is a price factor. You will pay a bit more for wild salmon, but even those prices have been reduced, according to Douglas. “There are fishermen getting 50 cents a pound for their product because they can’t sell it, because they can’t compete on price with farmed fish.”
I’m personally in Douglas’s camp on this issue. I lived in the Pacific Northwest for a decade, and I’ve rarely had delicious wild salmon prepared for me in a restaurant since moving back to the East Coast in the early 2000s. I traveled back to Seattle this spring, and the first salmon I was served at a restaurant was outstanding. Why the disparity, I wondered.
“It’s a laziness issue,” Douglas insists. “The chefs have not researched it. They [say], ‘I’m buying this farmed fish.’ Why? Every place I’ve been to [in New York] buys this farmed fish. But why? Because it’s easy. For some reason, grass-fed beef is getting traction, but why not wild salmon? It’s no further away than Scotland. Then [chefs] write on the menu ‘organic salmon.'” Douglas trails off.
“I’m just frustrated,” he continues. “Like I said, you have to eat wild in order to save wild. I think that’s a hard thing to grasp because people think they’re doing a favor by not eating it. [But] native Alaskans can’t make a living, so they’re going to do something that they can make a living off of, which is copper and gold, deep down with all that arsenic.”
Now that doesn’t sound like what the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch would call a “Good Alternative.”