Seafood Champion Helene York
Helping Feed a Growing Appetite for Sustainability
Serving only sustainable seafood isn't limiting. It enables chefs to "use creative culinary skills to prepare and market new ideas and great, if less familiar, flavors."
As an educator, writer, seafood supply chain manager and director of the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation, Helene York keeps marine resource conservation at the forefront of her many responsibilities. In 2005, she developed a comprehensive sustainable seafood procurement policy for Compass Group North America, the parent company of Bon Appétit Management Company, and helped manage the policy's internal implementation for three years. In 2007, she launched Bon Appétit's ground-breaking Low Carbon Diet program to raise awareness of the food systemís impact on climate change in order to improve food procurement policies, including eliminating air-freighted seafood and promoting low-trophic species.
York is one of five recipients of the 2010 Seafood Champion Awards. First presented in 2006, the annual Seafood Champion Awards recognize outstanding leadership on the issue of seafood sustainability. Seafood Champion Awards have been bestowed upon winners who include individuals, companies and organizations from the fishing, aquaculture, seafood supply and distribution, retail, media, restaurant and foodservice sectors. Winners of this award have influenced the marketplace with regard to the sourcing of eco-friendly seafood while successfully integrating seafood sustainability into the industry.
SeaWeb: What is your favorite seafood?
Helene York: That's easy—mackerel. I love oily, flavorful fishes especially when they are lightly grilled. Raw mackerel is amazing, too.
SW: What's the most popular seafood item you offer on your menu?
York: Our chefs write their own menus and use their own recipes at the 400 cafes in 30 states we operate. There's no one or two "favorites." For chefs on the west coast, day-boat fresh Lummi Island (Washington) salmon is their special offering in season. For East Coast chefs, many are now excited about Arctic char. Midwesterners often use walleye for fish and chips (and I've never tasted a better fish for that preparation) and Ohio-produced shrimp when itís available in September.
SW: How did you get interested in the issue of sustainable seafood?
York: I was hired to persuade chefs of the importance of ocean conservation and to choose sustainable seafood. It was not a hard sell. They really understood the issues quickly. What I found fascinating, though, was the difficulty of pulling sustainable supplies through the supply chain and being sure that was what being marketed as a sustainable product was, in fact, the product it was advertised to be. The complexity of ensuring that a strict policy is or can be adhered continues to fascinate me.
SW: How would you describe your philosophy on ocean conservation?
York: All of the proteins we eat have an impact on the ocean and all of the food choices we make have to be protective of precious ocean and soil resources. For wild-caught seafood, the issues may be overfishing, bycatch or damaging gear, but the concentration and runoff of excessive pollutants for farmed foods (including poultry, pork, beef and some farmed seafood), are also critically important. We also have to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions to prevent further ocean acidification. As a restaurant company, we offer a wide variety of responsible food choices—meats raised with reduced antibiotics, seafood caught or raised sustainably—but, perhaps most importantly, we emphasize portion sizes that delight but don't waste.
SW: How has your philosophy changed what fish you serve?
York: Bon Appétit Management Company has had a strict policy to adhere to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guidelines since 2002. We won't serve red-listed fish. Instead, we actively seek out culinary alternatives to threatened species or popular species that are irresponsibly farmed. We would prefer to work with a community of fishermen or an aquaculture operation to encourage them to move toward better practices than to simply eliminate species when new science assessments place them on the red list.
SW: Have your customers noticed?
York: Yes! Sustainable seafood is one of our core Kitchen Principles. Our guests are proud that our commitment is clear, firm, long-standing and science-based.
SW: Do you feel it limits what you can offer?
York: Every restaurant chef operates within limitations: what's available at what price, customer expectations and their willingness to pay according to their own sense of value. Restricting our chefs to a list of sustainable seafood items isn't very limiting. It enables them to use creative culinary skills to prepare and market new ideas and great, if less familiar, flavors.
SW: Have your seafood purveyors worked with you on getting sustainably caught seafood?
York: Some have. More often, suppliers come directly to our chefs or to me and we ask the purveyors to pull it through the supply chain for us.
Learn more about the Seafood Champion Awards >>
As an educator, seafood supply chain manager and director of the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation, Helene York advises nongovernmental organizations and chefs on how to work together effectively. She is also a founding board member of FishChoice.com, an online resource for chefs seeking sustainable seafood, and a regular contributor to The Atlantic online magazine.