One Week, Four Fish | Civil Eats

One Week, Four Fish

It’s my first week on the job at Bon Appétit Management Company, and Helene York is across the hall, yelling into the phone about tuna fish.

To be more exact, she’s making some heads roll because I found a recipe for bluefin tuna posted on one of our cafe’s Web sites. It’s not like every dish, on every Web site, at every cafe can be policed, seeing that we have over 400 cafes equipped with fiercely autonomous chefs. But clearly, Helene expects more from our chefs—a lot more.

I feel sort of bad for the chef in question, but am relieved to hear I didn’t get the poor guy fired. It would be unfair, considering that just two days prior, I’d have been happily munching my bluefin tuna sushi without a second thought. But for two days straight, I’ve been immersing myself in the world of “Helene the Seafood Queen,” ravenously digesting the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guidelines, PBS documentaries that make me cry at my desk for fish and fisherman alike, and the haunting article “Tuna’s End” in New York Magazine (an excerpt from Paul Greenberg’s new book, Four Fish).

Two days ago seems like a lifetime ago.

You might think that I am a babe in the woods when it comes to sustainable food. I wish I could claim that I didn’t know arugula from my asparagus when I started this job, but that would be a big fat lie. The fact is, I’m the founder of a sustainable, educational urban farm and have been working in academia and non-profits in the intersecting fields of nutrition, food system change, and sustainable agriculture for close to a decade.

This is my first and only corporate job. And even though I did my homework about Bon Appétit’s long-standing commitment to sustainability before accepting their offer, I was still pretty nervous coming in. After all, we food activists are universally convinced that corporations are incapable of being part of the solution, and that real activists don’t “do” corporate work.

I held that belief walking in the door on my first day. I kept wondering: How long before I will be asked to compromise my values? How long before I realize that it’s all just a song and dance? An inner voice was admonishing me for daring to go to work for “The Man.”

I certainly never guessed that Bon Appétit would have anything to teach me about living or eating sustainably; I was pretty darn convinced that I was there to teach them how it’s done. After a month on the job, I’m starting to come to terms with my new employer’s seriousness about moving the needle in the foodservice industry. I’m also coming to terms with my own blind spots: fish, water, farmworker’s rights. I’m sure there are more. It’s funny, I spend so much of my time, energy, and heart working to help small farms thrive and to educate kids—including my own daughter—about growing, cooking, and eating for the future. And yet, my experiences at Bon Appétit have humbled me.

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My first week also brought dinner with my new coworkers. We all cooked, each of us taking one element of an impressive five-course meal. Talk about humbling experiences, as I strived to keep up with a roomful of sustainable chefs. Think of an episode of Top Chef where the judges throw the self-taught cooks to the wolves. Then, cut the counter space in half.  My nectarine crisp wasn’t topped with cucumber-essence whip cream or plated with a swirl of raspberry coulis, but it was pretty darn good. One of our chefs, Kim Triplett, debuted a new recipe that night: Pacific halibut (Seafood Watch’s “best choice”) with curried fennel and pear. Even though I don’t consider myself much of a fish eater, I broke down and asked her to share the recipe with me, after trying (and failing) to reverse-engineer the dish. I’m grateful that my newfound love of seafood is paired with newfound knowledge of sustainable choices.

Since taking this job, I’ve resolved to become aware of my own shortcomings, and of learning new things in unexpected places. I’m not saying I’ll never roll my eyes again when a company tells me how “green” they are, but I also won’t ever think of such claims in the same way. In a sense, I’m more up in arms than ever. I’ve learned that this movement sometimes places more value on “street cred” than actual information, and that I’m guilty of helping to cultivate this selective dismissiveness. I’ve learned that false claims made by unscrupulous companies can damage the reputations of the corporations that are actually making progress. I’ve realized how difficult it is for corporate advocates to enter the sustainable food conversation, no matter how much they might have to say.

Watching Helene York explode into action to come to the aid of some tuna fish? That taught me a lot more than the warning, “Don’t eat bluefin.” It taught me that passion is contagious, and that we all need to continually inspire one another and support what everyone’s doing right in order to really turn the tide (pun intended) in our oceans, on our farms, and with our children.

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Liz Snyder is a food activist and author. After getting her Master’s in nutritional anthropology from Oxford University, she went on to found Full Circle Farm, an 11-acre educational, organic farm on public school land. Now, she serves on the board at Veggielution, an urban youth-run farm, while working to promote healthy, sustainable food in our education and healthcare systems. Her benignly neglected blog can be found at: Read more >

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  1. christy
    Great article.

    There are corporations out there who are doing the right thing; even when the right thing has nothing to do with their business objective. (i.e., A software company with a giant compost pile on their premises?)

    I'm also happy to see someone address the default position that activists, liberals (I myself am a liberal), etc have about corporations just being generally bad. True, there are some ugly companies out there. But when do you start to dislike a big company? They were small at one point; do they become a problem when they have 100 employees instead of 10, or is a problem when they build another office across town? Many successful small companies become successful big companies... hopefully more of them can be convinced to use their weight and successful business strategies to support the right thing when it comes to the environment.
  2. Thank you Liz, for admiting (without too much embarrassment :)) that corporations MUST be part of the gazillion solutions that it will take to redirect our food system.

    At foodprint, we work daily with local, sustainable growers AND large manaufacturers and distributors that are all finally getting a clue that they have to work together to feed an ever-hungrier market that wants to eat in a different way.

    Bon Appetit continues to set the standard.
    Have a ball with with your new job.

    Janine Oberstadt
    foodprint, LLC
  3. David Kane
    I too thought I knew about food sustainability, so I was surprised to learn about our fisheries. The San Mateo County Food System Alliance taught me about fish, and my friend who works at NRDC taught me about water. Who knows what will be next?

    This tale of your journey is inspiring. And cool!
  4. If only Bon Appetit would translate that commitment to sustainability into the pages of its magazine. Conde Nast replaced my beloved Gourmet with a subscription to Bon Appetit. I could only stand three issues before I had to cancel my subscription. Gourmet had it's flaws, that's for certain (mainly, pretensions) but Bon Appetit doesn't even seem to try. My last issue was all about meatballs. Really? For a magazine that purports to be all about food and cooking, it sure assumes that most of its readers can't cook.

    Okay, sorry. End rant.

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