I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s a common misconception that you can’t find good seafood in Colorado; and conversely, there’s an assumption that you’ll always find good seafood on the coast.
Well, it’s 2016, and times have changed—and restaurants like Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar are stepping up to the plate.
Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar opened its doors 22 years ago in Boulder, Colorado, and since then, counts 4 additional locations (Denver – Lodo, Denver – Glendale, Fort Collins and Kansas City). Known for their raw bar and simple preparation, Jax Fish House prefers to keep things basic and let the product speak for itself. Each location prides itself on serving fresh, sustainable seafood—so much so, that Jax Fish House was the first restaurant in Colorado to be certified by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch.
I recently had the pleasure to talk shop with Sheila Lucero, Executive Chef of Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar restaurants. After joining the opening crew of Jax Fish House in Denver, Lucero quickly rose through the ranks to become Chef de Cuisine in 2002. Through her guidance, Lucero helped Jax Fish House to achieve widespread acclaim in publications such as 5280 Magazine, Westword Magazine and more. In 2009 Lucero became Executive Chef of Jax Fish House, guiding the culinary programs in both Boulder and Denver, in addition to opening new locations in Fort Collins, Glendale and Kansas City.
Sourcing fresh, sustainable seafood has long been a priority of Jax Fish House. In fact, when pursuing the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch certification Lucero quickly learned that Jax Fish House already hit many of the marks required. Due to their existing practices of bringing in responsibly-sourced seafood, the restaurant already maintained a level of transparency required—aided of course, by their close relationships with the fisheries. “We’re on the phone daily with the fisherman getting updates,” Lucero says, “we not only know the boat which caught the fish, but we can get the exact coordinates of where that fish was caught.” That right there, is technology at its finest.
But is Denver truly a “seaport”?
“Flights transporting fish from either end of the coast almost always stop in Denver,” Lucero says. That means that a fish may be on ice for as little as 24 hours from the East Coast as it lands in Denver before its final destination on the West Coast. Being close to a major airport hub like Denver is key to acquiring exceptional seafood. Jax Fish House sources fresh fish 7 days a week, driving out themselves to pick up the product if a delivery isn’t scheduled.
While sourcing responsibly is the first step to being sustainable, Lucero knows it doesn’t end there. “We’ll break down the whole fish. Once the filets are cut for entrees we’ll use the bones for stock, and the prized cheeks/collars for specials.” And what about the oyster shells? “They are great for compost,” Lucero says, “You don’t even need to crush them.” In fact, Jax Fish House has practiced composting since 2008, which proved to be a bit of a surprise and challenge when entering new municipalities where composting wasn’t as popular. “Kansas City doesn’t really compost yet, but we’re slowly getting there. We’re training our staff and customers on what it means to be sustainable. They’re asking more and more questions, it’s great.”
Advice for the Chefs
Chefs are very much the stewards of the land and sea, educating customers on new flavors and products. When asked what chefs could do to being more sustainable, Lucero had a few tips:
- Use the App
Use the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch app to see if a fishery is in season or sustainable. Talk with your vendors regularly about their fishing practices
- Reduce Waste
Often times fisherman will have a percentage of “trash fish,” in their catch; “trash fish” refers to an unexpected species of fish caught in that day’s catch (for example, if a fisherman sought to catch bass but instead got a flounder or a monkfish). A chef can help a fisherman reduce the percentage of waste in his or her catch and get creative with the menu.
- Target Invasive Species
Chefs can also source fish that are intruding into certain areas and straining native organisms, such as the lionfish on the East Coast. These invasive species may have serious detrimental effects on the local environment, such as wiping out native clam populations.
- Farmed Populations
Another option? Aquaculture farms. These “farmed” fisheries have had a bad rap over the years, but the industry is changing with new, responsible farming practices. There are fisheries located near water but on land, utilizing recycled water that doesn’t pollute the environment or release non-native species back into the wild. Wild-caught seafood simply can’t sustain the sheer population of the world, and you can help support fisheries who are farming fish responsibly.
Finally, it’s up to us. Sourcing responsible seafood means creating the demand for it. Educate yourself on sustainable species that aren’t threatened before ordering at the restaurant.
“The app is a great source for consumers too,” Lucero tells me. “The Monterey Bay Seafood program regularly updates the app to identify which fish populations are currently sustainable.” Engaging with your local restaurants is key, “People ask great questions,” Lucero says, “they care where their food comes from.”