Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Last Fish: Blowup at Sustainable 'Hook'

The concept of a seafood restaurant that serves only sustainably-havested seafood is starting to look not very sustainable.

Chef Barton Seaver rose from neighborhood cook to international prominence by helping to create Hook, a trendy Georgetown eatery that seemed to be the one place where you could reliably order fish and know that it was caught in an earth-friendly manner.

Seaver went to great lengths to seek out sustainably caught fish, to the point of developing personal relationships with small-scale fishermen at ports around the globe. For his devotion to this novel concept--respecting the limits of mother nature, rather than merely plundering in the usual food service industry fashion--Seaver was heaped with awards and accolades and invited to speak at seafood conferences on an international level.

But that all came crashing down just days ago, and in a typically ugly restaurant business fashion. First, the staff allegedly was ready to walk out over a pay dispute at Hook's fledgling sister restaurant Tackle Box, a kind of attempt at an urban lobster shack incongruously washed up on the tony shores of Georgetown. According to the Tackle Box's then-chef Robert Bechtold, the staff at the recently inaugurated restaurant had been shorted one week's pay.

The dispute so angered restaurant owner Jonathan Umbel, according to a report in the Washington City Paper, that he fired four of the restaurant staff on the spot, including Bechtold, who had been imported from Louisiana to develop the Tackle Box's menu, and his sous chef, Roger Lemus.

Bechtold laid low for a while, but then started sending e-mail messages to the press saying, "“Tackle Box in Georgetown is unsustainable to families. After working 6 months for Barton Seaver and giving him every recipie for tackle box, I was let go for asking about the pay for my staff."

The menu Bechtold had developed for the Tackle Box was ditched and quickly replaced by one put together by Seaver. But shortly after this dust-up with Umbel, Seaver let it be known that he was splitting as well. Lawyers apparently had to be called in to work out details of the breakup, and Umbel comes off looking like a complete ass, a sort of caricature of the greedy, self-important restaurant overlord.

Seaver, who got his chef-ing chops at Cafe St.-Ex, a popular environment-friendly bistro just down the street from us, has not said much, but one senses utter disgust with the way restaurants are managed in the high-flying Georgetown scene.

In fact, Seaver's flameout as the poster boy for sustainable seafood has a rather saint-like aura about it. The Washington Post quoted him as saying he has no intention of leaving Washington and might just devote more time to D.C. Central Kitchen, a charity operation that specializes in turning restuarant leftovers into food for the needy.

"It was great to have a stage to formulate a lot of these ideas about sustainability and drive the business" at Hook, Seaver told The Post. "But I really believe that sustainability is not about a few white-tablecloth chefs providing an example. It's about making it accessible to everyone."

To which we can only add our usual advice: If you want to keep seafood sustainable, don't order the fish.

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