When it comes to the content on the SarasotaFoodies blog, Jill and I are reluctant to write about events after they’ve taken place, unless it’s an annual event our readers can enjoy in the future. After all, our mission is to promote Sarasota’s incredible restaurant scene, which includes no shortage of annual dinners, festivals and tastings.
So when we heard about the Trash Fish Dinner, a first-ever Sarasota event, we didn’t know if this would be an annual event, or one of those “one-and-done” affairs. Any concern we had went out the window when we learned The Trash Fish Dinner was sold-out, so there we were, ready to cover this ground-breaking event that has only taken place in four cities before . . . those cities being Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas and Portland. Add our small mecca of Sarasota to that list, and wow! Have we hit the big time or what!
But before I go any further, it’s time for a little “trash talk.” I’m betting a number of you wonder why anyone would pay good money to eat something with the word “trash” in the name. Am I right? Not to worry friends. “Trash fish” are simply those breeds that a commercial fisherman did not intend to catch in their nets, also known as by-catch. When a Commercial Fisherman sets out to sea, he’s looking to catch whatever the local fish monger is buying – typically swordfish, salmon, grouper, and tuna. So, as Mr. Commercial Fisherman pulls up net after net of swordfish, salmon or tuna, any other fish, even tasty fish like amberjack and mangrove snapper, which aren’t on the order he’s trying to fill, get tossed back into the sea, or trashed once the boat comes back into port. Hence, the term “trash fish.” Steven Seidensticker, family patriarch of Louie’s Modern and Libby’s, told us these are the same fish your average sports fisherman brings home to feed his family.
Now that “that” concern is off the table, let us acquaint you with the Chef’s Collaborative, a national movement of acclaimed chefs that teaches sustainable food sourcing and preparation. Local Chef Steven Phelps, of Indigenous, has built his reputation on sustainable food sourcing, and is a leader in the farm-to-table movement here in Sarasota. When he heard of the Trash Food Dinner concept, he turned to the lovely ladies at Edible Sarasota Magazine and a group of all-star Sarasota chefs, to bring the Trash Fish Dinner concept to Sarasota, to show that by-catch are often “the best seafood you’ve never tasted.” And WOW, did they deliver! And here’s a twist — we learned that the Chefs had no idea what trash fish they would be preparing until the night before the event! That had to feel like opening the basket of secret ingredients on Food Network’s Chopped or competing on Iron Chef!
The evening started with an hour of cocktails, fantastic passed hors d’oeuvres prepared by Louie’s Modern Chef Keith Dougherty (please, please keep the English Pea & Shiitake “Spring Roll” on your menu!) and an eye-popping, over the top spread of the most amazing cheeses, fruits, nuts and sauces from The Artisan Cheese Company. Being a self-confessed cheese-a-holic, and an all-time champ at chasing down the waiter passing out hors d’oeuvres, I had to remind myself (over and over) that there were six courses on the Trash Fish Dinner, so reluctantly I backed away from the cheese display, in full anticipation of the main event.
Each of the courses of the Trash Fish Dinner was served family style, and fortunately our “family” on this night were Chelsea, Meghan, Dana, and Maryssa, four amazing ladies from the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, here to support awareness in the Chef’s Collaborative and sustainable fishing. Not having been to Sarasota before, we had a great time telling them about our amazing town, and encouraging them to come back for an extended weekend and more great dining!
Our appetizer course was prepared by Darwin’s on Fourth, home to the best Peruvian Chef in America! Maryssa had never tasted ceviche or Peruvian cuisine before, so I’m happy her first introduction to the national dish of Peru was Chef Darwin’s Clasico Ceviche, featuring corvina “cooked” in lime juice, with red onion, cilantro, leche de tigre, and Cuzco corn. Each table had a large basket of fried plantain chips and a delicious chimichuri to scoop up the ceviche, all in all creating a new fan in our gal Maryssa.
How lucky were we to sit with the gals from Florida Aquarium! They had the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app downloaded on their phones so whenever a Trash Fish was presented, they could pull up the fish on the app and show us a photo or drawing of the fish, and how the fish is ranked on the Best Choice, Good Alternative or the list of fish to Avoid when ordering out at restaurants or fish markets. Those on the Avoid List are becoming endangered, and I was surprised how many of my personal favorites were on that list. Go to seafoodwatch.org to download the app on your phone! In addition to becoming more educated, our table decided to individually rate each dish on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, which is a great way to get the conversation started among friends who were just strangers only minutes before. . . more on that later.
Our “First Catch” in the presentation of trash fish was a Pan Roasted Porgy & Myakka Cress Salad, masterfully prepared by Chef Randall Roulette of Owen’s Fish Camp. As a perfect accompaniment, it was served with sea vegetables, watermelon radishes, citrus vinaigrette and fennel. Our entire table’s serving came on one large plate, and we happily took turns serving each other. We couldn’t help but laugh at the mention of this being a dish of “Porgy and Cress” . . .
Chef James Baselici of Louie’s Modern prepared the “Second Catch” of the night, a quick poached Mangrove Snapper Moqueca, which included a pickled mango sofrito, fish roe rice, and a young coconut broth. Scoreboard spoiler alert: this dish drew unanimous “oohs and ahhs!” from our table, and Jill scurried over to Chef Baselici and begged that it be added to their regular menu. Again, we had Maryssa eating fish roe, which she swore she never liked, and asking for more. Gotta love those award winning Sarasota chefs who worked shoulder to shoulder to make sure this dish, and every one served at the event, was representative of the Chef who created it. Truly a Chef Collaborative!
The “Third Catch” was a Pink Porgy Steamed in a “Brown Bag” from Chef Christian Hershman of State Street Eatery, and served up with lightly pickled spruce tips (yes, tiny little Christmas tree tips!) sweet potato dumpling, chili salt, olive oil and grilled lemon. I can’t say enough about the drama of the presentation, but I will say that since two of the chefs worked with porgy, I will henceforth be looking for porgy on our local menus. . . just saying!
The “Fourth Catch” was the course I was personally looking forward to, as it was being prepared by James Beard Foundation Award nominee Steven Phelps. Steven presented an Amberjack “Okonomyaki Style,” served atop a wildly savory cabbage pancake, with cucumber, basil, curried roasted nori peanuts, fish sauce aioli, and sweet soy. As full as everyone was getting, this was still blissfully “eye-roll” worthy. Another dimension was added to this course with a beer pairing from none other than local JDubs Brewing Company and their oh-so-satisfying Up Top IPA craft brew! Did I mention that each of the Trash Fish courses was large enough to be a meal unto itself? Wow! How was it that I was seated with a table of ladies and there weren’t any leftovers? The food was just that good!
But wait! There’s more! Chef Steven and his sous chef from Indigenous put a big beautiful bow on the feast with a crispy Hushpuppy atop lime curd, with spiced macadamias and a coconut chocolate. Jill was by the kitchen taking photos as they were coming out of the oven, and rightfully raved about the tantalizing aroma! This doughnut inspired morsel was the perfect end to a sumptuous meal — Trash Fish or not! So I ask you – anything even remotely “trash worthy”so far? I didn’t think so either.
It would be worth mentioning that the pacing of the courses was served by Louie’s professional service staff, as each course was punctuated with a few short words from each chef, Jason Delacruz of co-sponsor Gulf Wild, as well as well as Maryssa Hill of The Florida Aquarium. Chef Phelps even got the lovely Tracy Walsh Freeman, editor of Edible Sarasota who helped spearhead the event, up to say a few words. It was nice to see such a nice turnout for what we hope will be a regular, and possibly a bi-annual event featuring fish that are common in the Gulf during the winter and those that populate our area during the warmer months.
As for the final scores? It would be splitting hairs to award gold/silver/bronze on this occasion. Suffice it to say that the average score across all courses approached 5. Yup, it was that good. With the promise of more evenings of trash fish, and perhaps a tantalizing variation using land-dwelling sources, you can be sure that Jill and I will be ever-vigilant in checking those events out and letting you know about them ahead of time via our Facebook page!
For more information on the focus of the evening, check out www.chefscollaborative.com, and www.mygulfwild.us/GW/, and get on board!