UNH pioneers sustainable fish purchasing with seafood dinner

By Catie Hall
On April 18, 2014

University of New Hampshire Dining is the largest food purchaser in New England. While UNH is the first campus in America to sign on to the "Slow Fish Principles," it was the effort of several groups of people and long hours of planning that attracted people to the Sustainable Seafood Dinner at Holloway Commons Wednesday night.

UNH senior Spencer Montgomery reached out, with Brett Tolley from Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, to UNH Dining and fishermen about the idea for sustainable seafood in the dining halls. As a former president of Slow Food UNH, Montgomery said the idea didn't originate with him.

"My first semester as President of Slow Food UNH, at the end of the semester, I distributed a survey to 44 students in the group, basically trying to identify their interests and to guide our movement as a whole, as a group, into the next semester," Montgomery said. 

"Sixty percent of the students showed a strong interest in seafood sustainability," he continued. "I remember being completely fascinated that [60 percent of the students] were interested in that, but also being completely intimidated by having to learn more about it myself because I knew absolutely nothing. So that's what really inspired me to approach fishermen and learn more about these concepts-was that single survey."

Montgomery has worked long hours to collaborate with fishermen, UNH Dining and Slow Food UNH, as well as some other businesses interested in the project. While he has taken on a lot of responsibility, he doesn't think it is wearisome.

"I love it, I haven't been tired yet," Montgomery said several weeks before the Seafood Dinner while plans were still underway. 

Amidst the long hours, Montgomery met several challenges, including reaching out and getting people engaged in his ideas. Overall, though, the reception was positive. 

"I thought this would take more than one semester of discussion to really come to be, but for that first meeting, we really had all the right people at the table," he said. "We had people from UNH Sea Grant, from Sustainability Institute, we had fishermen who fish in New Hampshire, I was the student for that one ... we had UNH Dining. So I think everyone being at the table really kind of gave it a little extra push from the start."

Even after the first meeting, Montgomery was surprised at how receptive Dining was to his idea. Dining even asked for more discussions about sustainable seafood in the dining halls. Montgomery said fish processing plants in New Hampshire have since heard about the project and reached out, wanting to be involved in the future. But for Montgomery, his work with the sustainable seafood signifies more than a final project at UNH. Rather, it is imbibed in his personal philosophy about life and peace. 

"If you look at it, big picture, the ocean connects us all," Montgomery said. "They connect every country and every continent. I mean, I think once we figure out how to be good stewards of our oceans and seas, then we could easily figure out world peace, to be honest. You go out 200-miles, it's international waters."

Chris Kaschak is the Executive Chef at Holloway Commons. 

"I got this little shindig off the ground today," he said smiling, standing amidst the crowd on HoCo's first floor. "It took me probably three weeks to get [it] going."

By 6:30 p.m., Kaschak said he served probably 2,000 people and expected another 1,000 to walk through the HoCo doors for the dinner. To serve all those people, Kaschak brought in 1,535 pounds of fish. That's almost the weight of a small, four-door car.

"On the hake, I brought in 450 pounds," Kaschak said, starting to list all the fish at the dinner. "Lobster meat was 110 pounds. Fresh scallops [were] 120 pounds. Red fish was 285 pounds. Skate wing, another 300 pounds. And sea clams for our clam bake over there was another 270 pounds."

Kaschak's culinary skills came forth as he tested different recipes during the three weeks he started to plan for the dinner. He didn't have all of the fish he needed, though, so he used other fish knowing it would work the same way in certain recipes.  

"So basically it was a lot of time to test recipes, create them and then do them in the scale that we're doing them for 3,000 people," he said.

Kaschak said he was happy to see the dinner come to fruition for more than one reason.

"I am an avid fisherman," he said. "I grew up off the coast of New Jersey, and I'm thrilled that we're partnering in with the local fleets. You know, it's really sad to hear that they are not going to be around for long. I mean there are not a lot of people following in their footsteps. And if there's any way that we can help, and it's equitable for them and for us as well, what better way to partner up? It's just a phenomenal thing."

Being a fisherman himself, Kaschak has experience with cooking fish.

"Nothing better than going out and catching it, bringing it home, filleting it, and enjoying it that day," he said, smiling. "It's amazing. And you know, the waters here are great. It's a shame that some of the species have been so overfished."

During the dinner, UNH Dining signed the Slow Fish Principles, entering an agreement that they would purchase seasonal fish from local fishermen at a fair price. Kaschak seemed happy to be a part of it as he said, "It's a really good thing, and I hope that we can take this and get other schools to recognize how important it is."

David Goethel, a commercial fisherman from Hampton, NH, owns a day-boat dragger. He lands fish at the Yankee Fisherman's Cooperative in Seabrook. At the dinner, he sat around talking to students from Slow Food UNH, sharing ideas and stories.

"As a person who has to sell a perishable product, I'm always looking for new ideas of not only how to sell it, but also how to do better in selling it," he said. "The old adage is fish and company both stink after three days, so you know, we have to move this product; and so if we can find places that can use good-sized amounts of it, like the University of New Hampshire, it's a good match for us."

Goethel reminisced about his own time in college and compared his experience with the one UNH offers students.

"It has been very interesting," he said. "Several things I would say have impressed me. One is, I went to college in the early 70s. It was a different university, but all universities were pretty much the same. You had mystery meat, mystery potatoes and it was take it or leave it, you know. There was no choice."

None of the fish at the dinner were Goethel's. He said that right now, fish are spawning. In order to protect them to have sustainable seafood, there's a closure in April and May for closer-to-shore fishing. However, he said food at the dinner was all from New England, just from farther off shore where fish aren't spawning. Goethel's season starts up June 1. 

Overall, Goethel said he could see the hard work on everyone's part to put the dinner together - not only on the part of students and chefs, but also the staff who has to make the purchases and organize. 

"What I've seen here is truly astounding," he said. "I tried a number of samples from the stations on the tour that I was given and everything was excellent. I'm very, very impressed."

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