Chef Allen Susser has made a bit of a name for himself in south Florida. Okay, that might be a bit of an understatement.
The New York native and longtime South Florida resident has won numerous awards and accolades: James Beard Foundation's Best Chef 1994, southeast region; one of the top ten in Food & Wine Magazine's top 10 New Chef's in America. He was deemed "a New World Marvel" by Time Magazine; The New York Times called him "the Ponce de Leon of New Florida Cooking"; he received an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales University.
And that's not even the full list. I think we can say he's had some success.
Chef Allen chatted with us about Flavors of Fort Lauderdale, his sustainable seafood efforts, and more.
Clean Plate Charlie:Let's start with the basics. Why did you decide to get involved with Flavors of Fort Lauderdale?
Susser: I liked the idea of creating an event that got the chefs together to showcase the local talent and lifestyle. In Miami there are coordinated efforts with fundraisers and getting the chefs together, eating in each others restaurants. I would like to see more of that in Fort Lauderdale. What I see with events up here is that so many chefs show up to events and then disappear. It seems like everyone is in their own little world. I want Flavors to become a bonding program, where people come together to discuss issues that are important to chefs and get them involved.
Obviously, you're well-known for your efforts with sustainable seafood. Was that a huge determining factor in your involvement with the event?
I've been working with sustainable seafood for eight to ten years now. So far, we've been sort of behind the times here, in terms of awareness, but I think we're really starting to get it. Luckily, a lot of local chefs are doing local and farm-to-table cuisine, but not so much with seafood. This is our natural resource. We're on a peninsula. Fish and the oceans are not only a livelihood for many people, but a huge recreational activity, as well: fishing, diving. We need to make the connection that out water systems aren't as durable as we make them out to be. I want to use this event to draw attention to the issues surrounding this natural resource.
Why do you think sustainable seafood is such an important issue? You mentioned that our water systems aren't as durable as we think. Can you expand upon that?
These are tough times with different elements putting pressure on water systems. Sometimes Lake Okeechobee is too low. Sometimes it's too high, then we have to let water out which creates problems with red algae. We're seeing food sources start to disappear. Global warming and warmer water temperatures are changing the fishes and other marine life's natural environment.
Many chefs have issues that they try to defend. Why did you choose sustainable seafood?
I always liked fresh fish in cooking and I always enjoyed fishing. I feel like using fish is a great way to display local, regional cooking.Chef Allen's focused solely on local seafood. That actually made me different from the rest. I never sold salmon; yeah, people would get upset, but everyone else had it on the menu. I really got into about 15 years ago with swordfish--they were dropping like flies. When I started serving it you would get a center cut the size of this table [he gestures to the round table at which we were seated--about two and a half feet in diameter]. They dropped to about half or a third of that size. Chefs around the country got together in a national campaign, refusing to buy swordfish. We put up a strong stance and made a difference. About three or four years ago, they reopened the fisheries, and the swordfish were back to the same size. I saw that you really could affect change--which is really cool.
Besides the swordfish campaign, how have you been involved in sustainable seafood?
I got involved with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium about ten years ago. I love the program. They started Seafood Watch about twelve years ago. Originally, it they created a chart for restaurants and patrons to see what they should and should not order. Now, they have gotten a lot more sophisticated with regional pamphlets. You can download a southeastern pamphlet, which will tell you what is ok to eat out of gulf waters and the south Atlantic up to the Carolinas as opposed something in California, or Washington, or Maine. We have different fisheries and they've nailed it down to that, which makes a lot more sense. I'm on the seafood and aquaculture advisory board for the Florida Department of Agriculture. I've been helping to guide them into encouraging more acquaculture. Aquaculture is not necessarily bad. It could be bad, but there is aquaculture that makes sense as long as you have respect for the volume and where you're doing it. I also got involved with some folks at the Smithsonian in D.C. when they opened an exhibition focusing on the worlds oceans. They wanted to get involved with sustainable seafood and I helped them get involved with some people locally and nationally. I had known the head curators from the museum for quite a while. When they opened the museum, we did a nationwide food exhibit. We did a dinner right in the museum, it was the first time they had ever done that.
José Andrés, Rick Moonen, Jeffrey Buben, Michel Richard, Larry Forgione: a lot of big name chefs. They were the leaders of the pack. We're on second and third generation chefs now.
We hear a lot of negative press on aquaculture. Which fish farms are doing it well?
A company that started probably 7 or 8 years ago, growing sturgeon, and sturgeon yields caviar. That's also something totally endangered, the sturgeons of the world. That came under CITES--international trade organization that banned the catch of beluga sturgeon. With the break up of the soviet union, all of a sudden, all of the countries surrounding the Caspian sea and the Black sea where all of those caviar and sturgeons families come from had a black market hey day. Practically wiped out the species. I've seen this go on. Now most of the caviar we get is farm-raised. Farms in California, China, Uruguay, Central America. There are farms in Florida raising fish sustainably, responsibly--raising caviar, raising cobia. Cobia is a beautiful fish that does very well in captivity, as long as they aren't overcrowding them. Tilapia, a flavorless fish, which I'm not a fan of that probably most people extent of farm-raised except for the salmon. They got way over their head with the salmon and killed the market for a long time--it still is a problem. The difference between $3 fish and $11 or 12 if not more for wild salmon. There are good examples and bad examples out there.
One more question, for now, are you feeling concerned about any other food related issues?
Yeah, we're still not convinced about genetically modified fruits and vegetables. Don't ask me why we're not, but we don't have as much money as some of those bigger corporations. They put more money where it's needed in order to throw their weight around. Genetically modified foods I just don't get. I think, like 90%, of the corn being grown has been genetically modified by now. It goes into processed food, cattle feed--although there is some grass-fed out there--feed for pork and other animals, feed for fish, gas production with ethanol. Do we really know what the long term effect of this is? The thing is you lose the more flavorful varieties, because the idea is to grow heartier elements. Meanwhile, it's sort of like making robot food. You're controlling too much. There're things that are meant to be in nature and you shouldn't touch it. That's why we like heirloom tomatoes. That's why we like varieties of fish. Say you come up with a robot fish that can feed everybody, but then you have one fish. Why cook? Why eat? I have trouble with that still. That's why we're going back to the small farmers--the local--even more so than organic. Organic is strong, but local is almost more important; because local farmers are keeping the economy close to the source. They are not going to be using as much chemical--even if they are using some. They won't be using as much free-flowing chemicals as the monster corporations. Organic from California or Europe sounds good, but carbon footprint-wise, I don't see the benefit.
Okay, you brought up another point. Do you think California's Prop. 37 is going to pass? You know the bill requiring mandatory labeling.
California is strange. You would think they would be advanced enough to watch out for their people. Politics today. I don't know where people's heads are at. I think what happens just like here in FL, we have like seven or nine amendments to our constitution this year. A--who cares? Most people should care. We don't. We don't have time to care. Meanwhile, the constitution is going to change one way or another and it's kind of ridiculous, because all we're hearing about is the fight for president There are a couple people bringing it up, I'm not saying nobody, and I'm guilty as anybody. It's weird. Thing is you can't do everything everywhere. You can try to get involved, but there's limits to what we can be involved in. And that's the good and the bad of it. There's not one clear direction that everyone wants to go and there shouldn't be. That's why diversity is great. There're different things that are important to different people. I do think that we get the wool pulled over our eyes way too often. Why didn't we allow it until it was tested? They didn't test it well before it was released. Someone had their hand in the till real early to allow that into our farm bills ten, twenty years ago.
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