Every industry has a few truly passionate individuals who create the momentum for positive change. The seafood industry is fortunate to have Kenny Belov as one of these individuals. Kenny is the owner of Fish Restaurant and TwoXSea seafood distributor in Sausalito. He believes in providing honest, renewable seafood products with high traceability – and his customers love it. Kenny explains for us the value of being honest and providing quality seafood products in a socially responsible restaurant.
Where does your passion for sustainable seafood come from?
I have always been a passionate fisherman. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1996, I started fishing on “party boats” for salmon and rockfish or whatever the season was. I became so intrigued by it that I decided I wanted a job working on one of these boats. I started deck handing on a vessel in the Berkeley Marina. After doing this for awhile, I realized that all people cared about was catching the biggest fish or the trophy fish, and they would throw everything else overboard. I tried to educate the fishermen, telling them that they should keep their catch, because otherwise these fish would become needless waste; ultimately, I was fired from the boat for my efforts. The Fish Restaurant project came along in 2004 and I had the chance to provide seafood for people in the Bay Area.
Fish Restaurant was one of the first restaurants in the Bay Area to be viewed by the Monterey Bay aquarium as sustainable, and it grew from there. Overall, I was simply fed up with people only caring about the trophies and wasting marine life out of competition.
You use the terms “honesty” and “local” quite a bit. Why should these two words be so important to seafood consumers?
The seafood industry is full of dishonest people and dishonest claims. If we do our own research, we begin to discover the truth. Busy chefs in the big restaurants don’t take the time to do this research. If the description says the fish is caught a certain way and carries a sustainable label, this is what the chefs tell their customers. However, once we dig a little deeper we begin to see the inaccurate claims made. The sustainability, where the fish was sourced, how it was caught, even what type of fish it is – there were too many lies.
For example, many markets right now are selling California white sea bass, even though the fishery is closed until May. The white seabass they are selling now is actually caught in Mexico and sold as California white seabass. Consumers want to hear that it’s coming from California, so they believe the label.
What is unique about Fish Restaurant?
Everything that we sell – whether it’s wine, produce, or seafood – we know exactly where it comes. There is a story behind every product that we are more than happy to tell our customers. Not all of our products are local, but we go out of our way to find the best industries in the business. People in the Bay Area are interested in these stories. When it comes to personal health and ocean health, there are so many people that will seek out traceable seafood.
Can you tell us about how TwoXSea was started?
Back in 2008 when the California salmon season was shut down, I traveled up to Alaska to find other fish products for Fish Restaurant. I saw an opportunity with the chefs I was friends with to provide a highly traceable, quality seafood product. I was frustrated with the state of our seafood sources, and here was an opportunity to try and change it and provide an honest product for other restaurants.
What have been your greatest successes?
Definitely our trout aquaculture project. Some years back I became fed up with aquaculture. Many farmed fish are fed fishmeal made with chicken byproducts, which is not only unappetizing, but also puts pressure on wild populations of forage fish for fishmeal. We had this idea to develop an entirely vegetarian domestic aquafeed. We called up a few farms to see if they might be interested, and McFarlands Spring Trout Farm responded enthusiastically. Since then, we’ve perfected the formula to contain red algae, organic corn, and soy, providing a nutritious mix to create a farmed fish with the same rich flavor and texture of the wild version.
What have been the greatest challenges?
The biggest challenge is myself and my desire to be honest. If I don’t know where it comes from, who caught it and how it was caught, I will not serve it to my customers. Turning away so many products can often be really counterintuitive to running a business as the market becomes extremely limited. However, because we provide traceability for customers we have been very successful.
Do you believe it is feasible for sustainability to become the standard for seafood on a nationwide level?
Absolutely. What we accomplished with trout can be applied to sturgeon, catfish, striped bass – numerous species of farmed fish. We can create “intelligent” aquaculture that provides a healthy seafood product which doesn’t depend on forage fish populations, and can feed people on a nationwide level – all with tremendous transparency and traceability.
But it takes effort! I would urge people to demand proof, rather than just accept what they are told. When you are running a business, it is really hard to do that extra digging. It takes commitment to translate the story for your customers, but they will really appreciate the traceability you can offer. There are amazing fisheries out there that provide incredible seafood products; it just sometimes takes creativity on the chef’s part to make it desirable for consumers.
Also, instead of the word “sustainable,” I prefer to define a product by being renewable. Rather than simply looking at biomass and fishing techniques, you have to ask if it can it keep up with demand without harming the environment or depleting the source. Good aquaculture techniques can provide a great renewable seafood resource.
What are your next steps as a business owner?
I plan to continue to learn, travel, and connect with fishermen, and find those undiscovered, underused products. I want to source the traditionally viewed “trash fish” and make them appealing; I intend to find the monkey face pricklebacks of the world. The general consensus is that we don’t want to eat anchovies and sardines, but really these are the fish we should be eating – the ones that reproduce quickly and are resilient to fishing pressures, making them a valuable seafood product (rather than fishmeal).
I would also like to explore further options for developing aquaculture. Farming fish is a part of the problem and needs to be addressed along with wild-caught fisheries. It would be great to find other species that can thrive on vegetarian feed.
What sort of qualities would you encourage Bay Area businesses to look for when providing seafood for their consumers?
Look for renewable markets. Provide seasonal, local seafood. Make certain you’ve done your homework when making statements about your seafood and provide absolute accuracy. Consumers are becoming more informed and there are increasing resources for them to research. As a business, your claims are going to be challenged at some point or another. Provide an honest product with traceability, and your consumers will love you for it.
Honest seafood products
Whether you own a business or you are a consumer at the market, you can appreciate the value of honesty in a product. Traceability instills trust and makes us confident in what we buy and serve. Do your homework, conduct that extra bit of research, and experience the success that results. As the last commercially harvested wild game on the planet, seafood is perhaps the most deserving of extra scrutiny. It is our responsibility to ensure our oceans continue providing their delicious bounty for many years to come. Provide your diners with honest seafood products from Pucci Foods.