Who is Barton Seaver and what’s he saying about Maine lobster?

First published in Landings, December, 2015.

Barton Seaver loves lobster. The renowned chef, author, National Geographic Fellow, director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, and the New England Aquarium’s first Sustainability Fellow can’t say enough about lobster and Maine’s lobstering communities.

Barton Seaver on the Portland  waterfront. Photo courtesy B. Seaver.

Barton Seaver on the Portland
waterfront. Photo courtesy B. Seaver.

Seaver and his wife Carrie Anne, a Maine native, moved to South Freeport in 2013. When he speaks about lobsters and food in general, the 37-year-old’s voice rises with excitement. He often ends his sentences with a “Wow!”

“I’m having fun with new-shells,” said Seaver. “We trade our eggs [they raise heritage chickens] for lobsters down at the Harraseeket [river]. I understand now how cool new-shells are. Lobster, that familiar menu item, is actually a seasonal item. Wow!”

“We are very fortunate to have Barton Seaver serve as an ambassador for Maine lobster,” said Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “As a chef, he understands how to communicate with the culinary audience and articulate our brand story. He is a thought leader in seafood sustainability, fluent in the future of fish with the ability to advocate for the Maine brand.”

Seaver attended the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, graduating with honors in 2001. He then traveled to Spain and Morocco, spending months on Morocco’s Atlantic coast in small traditional fishing villages. Returning to his hometown of Washington, D.C., Seaver worked as a chef before opening his own restaurant, Hook, in Georgetown in 2006. In the restaurant’s first year he served 78 different species of fish; each day the menu typically offered 15 different kinds of fish, most of which customers had never heard of. After leaving Hook and suffering a serious health issue, Seaver opened his second D.C. restaurant, Blue Ridge, in 2009; he promptly was named Chef of the Year by Esquire magazine.

He later left that restaurant and his career as a chef to embark on the next chapter of his professional life: as an advocate for the sustainability of food systems and the communities that make them possible.

“I call myself a recovering chef and restaurateur. My interest now is in sustainable food systems. Thriving human communities are no healthier than the environment they live in,” Seaver said. He was selected by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 as one of the State Department’s Chef Ambassadors, who promote diplomacy through “culinary engagement.”

Seaver enjoys telling a good story. “It’s all about the names and places behind products,” he said. He referenced a time when he was running Hook. There were several hundred reservations for the evening and Seaver was waiting anxiously for his fisherman to bring in the day’s catch. As it turns out, the day’s catch was lousy. The fisherman instead brought him the flying fish used for bait. Seaver turned the fish into a savory entrée and told his servers to inform diners of the story. The dish quickly sold out. “It’s stories. I sold them flying fish, for god’s sake, by telling the story,” he said.

Seaver conducted a new-shell, old-shell taste test for chefs at his home this fall. MLMC photo.

Seaver conducted a new-shell, old-shell taste test for chefs at his home this fall. MLMC photo.

America has long honored its farmers and farming heritage, Seaver argues. Now it’s time to bring the same appreciation to its fishermen. “Instead of asking fishermen to fish, we should ask what the ocean can provide. We as chefs can tell and sell the story of fishermen as food producers, as we have the story of the famer and those amber fields of grain. There’s a cultural aspect of fishing that we can talk about with chefs.”

Under the auspices of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, Seaver hosted a group of food writers and chefs at his South Freeport home earlier this fall. He conducted a taste-testing of Maine new-shell versus hard-shell lobsters for his guests. The participants learned about the versatile qualities of new-shell lobster and its seasonal availability. “It’s great to watch a chef try this, to see their creative mindset kick in and the wheels turning,” he laughed.

Chefs walk a fine line in developing new dishes. On the one hand, the dish must be interesting, innovative, something that jumps off the menu into the diner’s mind. On the other hand, it must be economical to make and reasonably priced for the consumer. “On the menu you have to have a hook that draws people, particularly now with menus being on-line. But the Caesar salad must be there too, even though no one orders it,” he explained.

According to Seaver, Maine new-shell lobsters have incredible value to a chef. “It gives you much greater culinary adaptability. There’s the brine, as full of flavor as an oyster, then the shell to make a stock, and the meat. Wow! You can use a one-pound new-shell lobster in a creative way and also keep the food cost manageable,” he said. “Creativity really kicks in with chefs. People get excited about cool food that sells. It’s a win for chefs, the community and lobstermen.”

Seaver has an unusual view of the lobster fishery for a professional in the food world. He recognizes that the ocean is not the industry, the lobstermen are. “To stand on a dock and look out to sea is not the same as seeing the fishing industry. The fishing industry is what you see when you look behind you, at the houses, the mortgages, the kids who want to follow in their father’s footsteps. It’s by human effort that the ocean becomes seafood,” he said.

Wearing his various hats, Seaver has traveled and cooked all over the world. Now, living in Maine, he finds himself an ambassador of a centuries-old fishery. “I consider myself an emissary of the lobster industry and the individual operators who have an exemplary sustainable fishery. This is a story that needs to be told. I’m working with my peers to take to them stories of my neighbors,” he said. “I am flattered and honored that this community, which has been here for so long, is accepting of me and is allowing me to represent them. I truly appreciate that.”