Chef Allen Susser, a pioneer of South Florida’s Mango Gang, nearly loses his balance as the Lisa L lists from side to side in heavy seas. We’re about four miles off Miami, in the muscle of the Gulf Stream, and Susser is battling a wild mahimahi in hopes of serving it for dinner the next night. The fish flashes neon green and blue and leaps before the mate gaffs it and tosses it in the cooler. Suddenly everyone on the boat is landing fish.
By the end of the day Susser and friends have pulled in 20 mahimahi, a tripletail, and two blackfin tuna. They also barter a few mangrove snapper and a wahoo from another boat, all of which will go toward a novel Sustainable Seafood dinner series that Susser is putting on with increasing regularity as chef at The Café at Books & Books at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
To catch the fish, Susser has teamed up with charter captain Mike Puller, who’s eager to spread the word about sustainable fisheries — Puller runs a summer camp, The Fishing Experience, that teaches Miami kids about fishing and the conservation ethics that will allow their kids to catch mahimahi as well.
Susser himself has made sustainable cuisine central to his culinary ethos for years as a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force.
“You have to look at the ocean not as a vast eternity, but as an aquarium,” he says. “There’s a limit to what we have out here. We’ve started to fish so accurately, with sonar and radar and flying it’s unbelievable the way we’re harvesting fish. Then you look at the big picture going forward. There are six billion people on earth. In 50 years there’s going to be nine billion. How are we going to feed those people if we don’t start (fish) farming well, if we don’t start sustaining?”
The task force educates consumers about which species are okay to consume and which are not via their website (seafoodwatch.org), an app, and handy cards you can keep in your back pocket. Today’s mahimahi is in the “best choice” category, as it’s prolific, fast growing, and the method used to catch it doesn’t result in harmful bycatch of sea turtles or at-risk species.
Chef Susser weaves through the kitchen, checking on an escabeche broth while guest-chef Sam Gorenstein of My Ceviche gingerly slices mahi roe (“we use everything, right?” he points out, when cooking sustainably), and lays out beautifully sliced raw blackfin.
The dinner will consist of courses from each chef, improvised that day, as they didn’t know what they’d catch the day before.
A crowd of 60 people sit at tables outside, snacking on Susser’s deep fried “hot & sassy” pickles as he explains to them that fishing technology has outpaced the sea’s ability to produce life. He implores the crowd to always ask where their seafood comes from, and how it’s caught.
“If we ask that,” he says, “the stores the restaurants and the chef will start caring about the same thing, and will ask for fish that’s sustainably caught.”
The food arrives. First comes Gorenstein’s blackfin sashimi with fried mahi roe. The roe is somehow porcine, like a crunchy-fluffy chicharron to counter the soft fish.
Gorenstein’s ceviche blend (pictured above) of sturdy tripletail and delicate mangrove snapper comes next, then Susser’s pan-seared mahi (below) in an escabeche of celery, garlic, golden raisins, oranges, mint and pine nuts.
If that wasn’t enough, the final dish is pistachio-crusted mahi with rock shrimp, leeks, mango, and coconut rum — as sustainably Floribbean a dish as one could eat.
Chef Allen will bring back the sustainable seafood dinner on Aug. 26 after Allen and captain Puller fish on Aug. 25. Dinner is $60, excluding tax and gratuity at The Café at Books & Books at The Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, 786-405-1475. For more information on the 2015 Sustainable Dinner Series go to thecafeatbooksandbooks.com