The Chef and the Sea: Kathleen Blake on Seafood and Sustainability

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Get Kathleen Blake talking about sustainability, be it agriculture or fisheries, and you’ll immediately get a sense of her passion for the topic. As the chef-owner of The Rusty Spoon in Downtown Orlando, Blake rebuffs any claim that her farm-to-table commitment is her restaurant’s “concept” — it’s just the way things should be done. After years of working alongside local food icon Melissa Kelly of Primo, Blake opened her restaurant on Church Street in 2011. While it was one of Orlando’s first restaurants to source local products for its menu, Blake considers her regular interaction with local farmers and fishermen as just part of running a restaurant.

But Blake is always open to expanding her knowledge, so when she was selected by the James Beard Foundation to attend the Spring 2014 Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change, she jumped at the chance. Held at Costanoa Lodge in Pescadero, CA, the sustainable seafood-focused symposium brought together chefs from all over the county for an intensive, multi-faceted program taught by industry luminaries.

“I learned a lot of about the seafood system and the worry that were not going to have any fish left by 2050. There is concern that the ocean is getting wiped out,” Blake says. “Assessing the fish population is very difficult but this sort of dialogue gets us thinking in the right direction.”

Over the course of the retreat, Blake and fellow chefs talked about the impact they can have on national and international food systems. “Chefs can really affect change in our communities by getting in involved. We have a voice and we can use it not only to educate our diners but also our local governments.” Blake sites previous bans of swordfish and blue fin by chefs as prime examples of how restaurants can pioneer change.

In terms of seafood sustainability, Blake feels her local culinary colleagues are actually doing quite well. “Chefs in Central Florida are really in touch with issues of local and sustainability,” Blake says. “We’ve been doing this over the last 10 years and are being responsible about our sourcing and paying attention to where things are coming from. I need to know that what I am serving is safe and that it’s not having a negative impact on the environment. I ask a lot of questions.”

“Because I am in Florida and I serve a lot of seafood, I have close relationship with those supplying me,” says Blake, who works closely with Cape Canaveral Seafood Company and Wild Ocean Seafood Market. “They are very focused on sustainability and they work hard to educate chefs.”

Back in her restaurant, Blake passes on that knowledge to one diner at a time. “When you come to my restaurant, you will rarely find salmon because it’s not indigenous. But you’ll see a lot of Florida fish, maybe a few varieties you’ve never heard of or tasted before,” she says. “I try to encourage people to give less popular varieties—such as local catfish—a try. There are a lot of great choices in sustainable seafood in Florida, including cobia and mahi. You can come in and put your faith in us that we’re going to be responsible but we’re also going to serve you great tasting food.”

Image credit:  Wild Ocean Seafood Market

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