Serving an icon and an invader at 24th Chefs’ Seafood Symposium

“Do any of you serve or plan to serve blue catfish in your restaurants?” Bob Fisher asked an auditorium of button-down white jackets and checkered pants. Only a smattering of the more than 100 chefs attending the 24th Chefs’ Seafood Symposium on March 15 at Virginia Institute of Marine Science raised their hands. It seemed blue catfish was not a popular menu item.

Among chefs, blue catfish isn’t typically associated with fine dining. But Fisher, VIMS extension staff affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant, encouraged the chefs to serve this species, which is invasive in Chesapeake Bay. As commercial fishing of blue catfish grows, chefs will have more access to it—and eating more of the fish might help control its booming population.

Chef Walter Wilkes of The White Dog Bistro taught symposium participants how to prepare blue catfish. ©Chris Patrick/VASG.While this year’s symposium taught chefs, culinary students, and seafood industry members about blue catfish, it also offered education on a more familiar species: oysters. Talks given by VIMS researchers provided chefs with some of the science behind these two species of seafood. There were also cooking demonstrations for both.

Although blue catfish and oysters are local to Chesapeake Bay, there are important differences between them. Oysters are native to Virginia. They’re well-loved and served in many restaurants.

Over time, this popularity has actually posed a bit of a problem. Wild oysters are at historically low numbers in Chesapeake Bay, said Karen Hudson, VIMS extension staff affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant who also spoke at the symposium. Although the number of wild oysters has been increasing over the last decade, this recovery is small compared to their epic decline over the last century. This means less wild oysters are available for harvest.  

But the rise of oyster farming, or growing oysters from seed, has allowed oyster harvest to increase without dipping as much into wild oyster populations. Farmed oysters are also genetically tailored to resist disease and grow faster, explained Hudson. And different environments produce farmed oysters with different taste profiles, which puts a wider variety on menus.

Another thing benefiting wild oyster populations is the recycling of oyster shells. Todd Janeski, director of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program, told the symposium chefs about how his program returns empty oyster shells to Chesapeake Bay. The program gives restaurants 5-gallon buckets to fill with shucked oyster shells. Volunteers pick up the buckets when they’re full and the shells are later used to raise baby oysters, which like to attach to and grow on oyster shell. Eventually, the shells and the baby oysters growing on them are put into Chesapeake Bay.

Jake Cuthbert, a line cook at Waypoint Restaurant in Williamsburg and first-time Chefs’ Seafood Symposium participant, was fascinated by the information on oysters.

“Being from Michigan, it’s always really cool to learn more about oysters,” says Cuthbert.  “I’m definitely planning on taking some stuff I learned today back to share at Waypoint.”

While oysters in Chesapeake Bay are considered iconic, blue catfish might be better described as infamous. Since being introduced to Chesapeake Bay tributaries in the 1970s for recreational fishing, their populations have exploded. This raises questions about how blue catfish are affecting native species they call food, like blue crabs and striped bass.

Sous chef Heather Minter of The White Dog Bistro prepares blue catfish as symposium participants look on. ©Chris Patrick/VASG.But after Fisher’s talk and a demonstration by Chef Walter Wilkes of The White Dog Bistro on how to prepare breaded blue catfish fillets over braised rainbow chard, some chefs may have changed their attitude toward serving the invader.

Lisa Lawrence, VIMS extension staff affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant, organizes the Chefs’ Seafood Symposium.

“After hearing more about blue catfish from Bob Fisher and seeing and smelling the dish…many of the chefs said they learned a lot about blue catfish and were eager to start cooking it,” says Lawrence. Educating chefs may ultimately alter menus.

Virginia Sea Grant, VIMS, and the American Culinary Federation Virginia Chefs Association co-sponsored the symposium.