Photo: kate.gardiner, Flickr
Chicago-based chef Phillip Foss of Lockwood Restaurant and Bar has emerged as champion of a highly unlikely, much maligned fish: the Asian carp.
Originally imported to the U.S. in the 1970s to clean catfish ponds, the fish eventually escaped and have been working their way up the Mississippi river, multiplying and crowding out native species by devouring large quantities of plankton and algae. Astounding jumpers, they're known to leap from the water, frequently breaking jaws and loosening teeth of fishermen who get in their way.
In an attempt to control the carp, state and federal agencies have tried everything from using rotenone to poison the fish, to electric barriers designed to keep them from invading the Great Lakes. So serious is the threat, that in February, the Obama administration announced a $78 million carp control plan.
Chef Foss, however, believes the answer is found on our dinner plates instead, and is using his fine dining pulpit to preach the message.
"We need to explore what impact can be made with this fish as a food source. It has to be explored," he says.
Fin-to-fin with salmon, halibut or scallops proved a hard-sell, so as a way to introduce carp to his customers, the chef began serving it as an amuse-bouche, and later as an appetizer. Along the way, he changed the name, and a more palate-pleasing "Lockwood's Shanghai Bass Ceviche" made an appearance on the menu. Foss also had to combat concerns the fish might contain high levels of mercury or PCBs commonly found in other large fish. He spent time educating diners that the Asian carp is a filter feeder, which means it has a clean, vegetative taste, not to be confused with the yellow carp, which is a less-tasty bottom-feeder.
Foss isn't alone in his evangelism. Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries battles the same misconceptions, and has turned to chefs like Philippe Parola in an attempt to re-brand the fish as "silverfin".
But, as Foss and other chefs have discovered, the problem isn't resolved with a simple name change. The Asian carp's bone structure means there is no easy way to carve a steak-like fillet from the fish.
"That's the irony of it. It's a very difficult fish to work with. You loose 85-90 percent of the product," he says. "What started out as a very inexpensive product (roughly $1 a pound wholesale), skyrocketed to $15 a pound, and I started getting discouraged."
Instead of fine dining, Foss now thinks the solution will be found in scaling-up processing, and foresees a future of the fish being utilized as ground mincemeat in various fish products.
"We're always looking for sustainable fish. If Asian carp eventually take over the Great Lakes, then a market needs to be found," says Foss.