EAST BAY — Five years ago, shortly after he moved to Bristol, Rizwan Ahmed took his wife for fish and chips at Quito’s along the Thames Street waterfront, then watched some nearby anglers cast for bass in the Bristol Harbor.
What he saw next troubled him deeply.
“I saw this guy reeling in a skate,” said the Pakistan-born Mr. Ahmed, owner and head chef of Hourglass Brasserie, just a short walk away from Quito’s. “He took a baseball bat, hit it over the top of the head, chopped it up into little bits, put it back on the hook and threw it back out.”
Baffled by what he had just witnessed, Mr. Ahmed asked the angler why he didn’t keep the skate.
“He said, ‘Skate is a nuisance fish — it tangles up the reel. We just use it for bait,’” Mr. Ahmed recalled him saying.
If the angler had actually bothered to try the skate, however, he’d revise his opinion, according to the chef.
Not here, though. Despite it being plentiful in Narragansett Bay, skate’s still considered mere bait fish by most seafood lovers in these parts. But Eating with the Ecosystem, a program initiated earlier this year by part-time Warren resident and shellfisherwoman Sarah Schumann, aims to change all that.
The program works with local chefs like Mr. Ahmed and community-supported fishery purveyors in incorporating an ecosystem-based seafood philosophy. It also educates the public about sustainable practices through workshops and menu plans.
The 32-year-old Ms. Schumann, who has a degree in marine affairs and built her own shellfishing skiff — F/V Nushagak, named after the Alaskan river where she spends summers working at a salmon cannery — said the program acts as a bridge between the existing sustainable fish program and the local food movement in Rhode Island.
“It educates people on what it means to eat sustainably from specific places in the ocean. It frames it by the ecosystem, rather than a species-by-species basis,” she said.
What’s happening now, she said, is that most people are eating what they’re familiar with and what they know they like — cod and lobster, for example — which puts a strain on the supply of these popular species. Getting people to try fish that’s less familiar is a big part of the program, she said.
“When people target one or two preferred species and throw back the rest, it allows the unwanted fish to grow. It’s like picking the good stuff form your garden and letting the weeds grow,” said Ms. Schumann. “We encourage people to eat a wider swath of what’s in the ocean.”
It was only natural that Mr. Ahmed signed up for the program. He received a degree in marine biology from the University of Maine and was involved in the marine fisheries in Florida before succumbing to his cooking passion by opening a restaurant.
He met Ms. Schumann at the Mt. Hope Farmers’ Market in Bristol, where he was selling soups from the restaurant and she was working for Local Catch, one of the local seafood providers.
“I saw a little sign up, ‘Eating with the Ecosystem,’ and I thought that was fantastic. Boom — a light went off,” said Mr. Ahmed, the first chef to sign up for the program.
A big part of Eating with the Ecosystem is a rotating dinner series that introduces diners to a new approach to eating seafood — one that is both ecologically sensitive and good for the local fishing economy, says Ms. Schumann. The first three dinners were held in the spring and three more are planned starting Sept. 10 in Providence and moving to the Hourglass Brasserie on Oct. 9. All dinners include narration by a guest scientist and fisherman.
The theme for Chef Ahmed’s dinner is the Gulf of Maine, which he jumped at due to his familiarity with the seafood there. He’ll prepare a four- or five-course meal and explain to his guests that all items are plentiful, easy to prepare and delicious.
“To me it’s a fantastic way of showing people that we as chefs care about what we do. When I design a menu I design it around seasonality and also make sure it’s sustainably harvested,” he said. “It’s my duty as a chef to educate my guests. It’s something new. A lot of restaurants aren’t willing to go in that direction; it’s all about filling up the restaurant.
Mr. Ahmed acknowledged that he loses “a lot of business” when people see the menu outside his door. “They say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to go in there. I’ve never tried that.’ They’ll stick with a steak or cod or salmon. It’s a comfort zone for guests — it’s not their fault.”
Sea urchins and razor clams
Menus should avoid too much “generic” fare like salmon and cod, he said. “There’s plenty of cod out there, but there’s such a demand for it that it’s threatened,” he said, adding that a greater variety of fish is found on European menus. “That’s what you want to do — you want to balance it out.”
His run-in with the Bristol angler fresh on his mind, Chef Ahmed made sure he put skate on his menu when he opened the Hourglass five years ago. “It tastes like scallop — it’s sweet. It has a slight flakiness to it. It goes really well with a brown butter and caper sauce,” he said.
Diners’ habits are often hard to change, but they’re not insurmountable, said Mr. Ahmed. For proof, look at how monkfish — “the poor man’s lobster” — has gained in popularity over the years, he said, adding that even lobster was once shunned.
He also serves periwinkles, sea urchins, razor clams — “things people think are inedible. Sea urchins are fantastic.” The Japanese are already well aware of that. “Ninety percent of the sea urchins from Maine are exported to Japan for sushi,” he said.
Ms. Schumann agreed that too much local seafood is traveling to dinner plates hundreds or even thousands of miles away. “People like bass this time of year, fluke and standards like cod,” she said. “A lot of people stay away from bluefish and scup — a lot of that stuff is shipped elsewhere because there’s a demand for it.”
She urges people to expand their palates by trying fish and shellfish that’s in abundance locally, such as slipper limpet (also known as slipper shells) and periwinkles. Both can be steamed and taken easily from their shells, she said. Along with sea robin, she said, “there’s an Asian demand for a lot of this stuff.”
Can’t eat what she catches
Although Ms. Schumann harvests and sells shellfish locally, she can’t eat any herself — she’s allergic.
“I wanted to be a fish woman and I started working on a lobster boat. Here in Rhode Island, the only commercial license that’s really available anymore is the shellfish license,” explained Ms. Schumann, one of the few females with a commercial shellfishing license. “I don’t see a lot of other women doing this, but I definitely think there’s a lot more interest — just like farming has seen an insurgence of young people.”
For the record, her favorite fish is fluke.
“I like the texture and it has a nutty flavor,” she said.
For more information about Eating with the Ecosystem and the dinner series, visit https://eatingwiththeecosystem.org.