The theme of this year’s Melbourne Food & Wine Festival is water, which creates an opportunity for punters and chefs to get stuck into seafood and all the sustainability issues that are bound up in it.
Growing up on the Gold Coast surrounded by boating, seafood and anything to do with the ocean, Ryan Squires assumed that the way Australians eat and fish was the correct and only way. Then the chef was exposed to Japanese techniques of catching, killing, filleting, storing and preparing seafood. Although Japan has its share of controversies surrounding its fishing culture, he explains that he “took an interest in the way the Japanese get it from a live to edible state” and it helped change his view.
According to Squires – who serves fish and seafood at his prestigious Brisbane restaurant Esquire – Australians, although predominantly coast dwellers, are completely out of touch with seafood. “Coles and Woolworths should be banned from going anywhere near seafood,” says Squires bluntly. “Their mass production shows no respect.” Squires also takes issue, not just with what he describes as “rogue retailers like most fish-and-chip shops”, but rogue fishing operators as well.
“Australia is one of the biggest seafood producing countries in the world. We have an abundance of resources and variety. From the cold south-Victorian, fresh-water rivers, to the Bass Straight, down further to Tasmania, all the way up to the Kimberley where you get marron and beautiful reef fish and back over to WA where you get blue mackerel and sardines. But we just don’t know how to do it sustainably.”
Squires reminisces about shopping in the markets in Spain - for him, a culinary highlight of a lifetime.
“These operators go out in the morning and are back in their little village with their catch, on display on the street, for anyone to buy, at a fantastic price and their seafood is second to none. It’s four or five hours old, it’s on ice, it’s been looked after and there is only a small amount of it. The guy next to him has a little bit of something else and another guy will have another variety. They are all specialised in their own species. And it works really well.”
The idea that, as consumers, we’re completely out of touch with the little guy isn’t new. And Squires isn’t the first to attempt to advocate for better fishing practices either – although showing guests at his restaurant videos of their fish being killed on an iPad is certainly commitment to the cause. Likewise, the championing of sustainable food production and procurement isn’t new either – it seems every new establishment shouts about its locally sourced, ethical credentials if it has them.
But Squires does not believe that the Australian seafood industry can ever be truly sustainable, short of anyone who wants to bait their own hook and put their own catch on their own plate. “It’s extremely difficult for the public to eat fish sustainably,” he concedes.
So how does one reconcile this grim reality with running restaurant that serves seafood? Squires’ tell-it-like-it-is attitude doesn’t mean he wants to disrupt anyone’s livelihood. He just wants people to be aware. “We need to ruffle the feathers a bit and get it clean. Its all about people making money and this gets in the way of anyone finding out the truth about fish and where it comes from and how.”
For the fish he serves at Esquire, and the newer, less-formal adjoined Esq., Squires works with specific boat owners and relies on them for what he will serve on any given day. “One is a family-operated business and they live a few hundred metres away from their boat. His name is Bill and he is only allowed to catch squid, prawns and crabs and anything else, he has to throw back. I know when he goes out in the afternoon and when he is back at the dock – so I know that my seafood is less than six hours old. I know that he’s a single operator and I know the size of his boat. He can’t carry more than 300 kilos. I also know that he changes his fishing grounds every other day.”
Squires will be presenting a masterclass this Saturday as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. “Anyone in Melbourne who is a fisherman should be there because I will be demonstrating the best way to kill a fish.” The Japanese technique is known as ike jime or “brain spiking”. Step up if you’re made of the right stuff.
Ryan Squires will be appearing at 2014 Langham Melbourne MasterClass on Saturday March 8 at 3.45pm.