Maybe you know him as star of his Peabody Award-winning show, "Good Eats." Or maybe you've followed his insightful commentary on "Iron Chef America" or as host and judge of "The Next Iron Chef." But later this month, you can catch celebrity chef Alton Brown around town drumming up awareness for sustainable seafood - and he has a fish to fry with what we put on our plates.
Check the skies for a giant, trout-shaped blimp skimming our horizon. If you see it, you'll know that celebrity chef Alton Brown got his way. He jokes about his showy entrance into the Scenic City while sitting in the third floor conference room at the Tennessee Aquarium, fleshing out the details of their new partnership. He cracks a wry smile on his uncharacteristically scruffy face.
Even if he can't convince the world's largest freshwater aquarium to build him a flying fish, Brown plans to uphold his end of the bargain by helping the Aquarium launch its new sustainable seafood initiative, Serve & Protect. And while the goal is to make lasting changes in Chattanooga's palate, Brown insists the motives aren't to deprive but rather to introduce.
"Eating sustainably is a lot more about making new discoveries rather than closing doors," explains Brown, a James Beard award-winning cookbook author and Food Network star. "It's not 'You can't have this!' It's more, 'Hey, have you tried this?'" And that is precisely the question Brown hopes to ask while in town for the kickoff weekend, held Sept. 22-25. It begins Thursday evening with a cooking demonstration by Brown in the Aquarium's IMAX theatre, followed by a gourmet dinner highlighting sustainable seafood and local produce prepared by chefs from some of Chattanooga's finest restaurants. During the seated dinner, guests will enjoy a conversation with that chef, local produce supplier and Aquarium expert. Friday and Saturday, those eight restaurant partners will highlight special sustainable seafood offerings on their menus. Finally on Sunday, Brown will emcee the Chattanooga Market's Cast Iron Cook-off, featuring sustainable seafood in addition to the market's bounty.
Brown also visited last month to work one-on-one with local chefs and wait staffs, helping them get geared up to tell the story - one of his specialties. "It's all about the narrative," he explains. A longtime crusader of the cause, it's a story he's used to telling. As an avid scuba diver Brown's concern for our oceans was ignited when his daughter showed an interest in the sport. He feared by the time she was his age, there might not be much to see underwater.
Globally, one-third of fished species have collapsed, meaning these fish are now at least 90 percent below their historic maximum populations. Experts believe it's a result of eating too many fish from only a handful of species. "Americans tend to eat a whole lot of very few fish which is kind of crazy when you think about it," says Brown. "Eating seafood is like marine tourism; the more species you eat the more you can learn. And there's a lot more flavor out there than tuna, salmon and grouper."
While Chattanooga has made great strides in the local food movement, our lack of coastline has kept seafood out of the discussion. "This fall I really hope we start a conversation," says Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. "The Aquarium has always focused on the watershed approach and this is a continuation of that concept. We're inextricably linked to the ocean even though we just look out at fresh water."
An Evening with Alton Sept. 22:
Enjoy a cooking demonstration at the Aquarium's IMAX theatre with celebrity chef Alton Brown, followed by a gourmet seafood dinner and dessert reception and book signing with Brown. Tickets are $150 each and available online at tnaqua.org.
Downtown Dine Around Sept 23-24:
Enjoy special sustainable seafood offerings from eight local fine dining partners: 212 Market ' Bluewater Grill Broad Street Grill ' Easy Bistro & Bar Hennen's ' Porter's Steakhouse St. John's Restaurant ' Table 2
Cast Iron Cook-off Sept. 25:
The "Iron Chef" of Chattanooga will be emceed this year by Alton Brown. The annual event challenges local chefs to purchase ingredients from local farmers at the market and then prepare a dish on site within a specified time. Chefs are provided the protein, which in this case will be a sustainable seafood item.
One solution to overfishing has been trying to cultivate favored species in controlled environments, commonly called "farm raised." But there are also some problems with the practice. Large, predatory fish that we like to eat such as tuna and salmon aren't suited for life on the farm. Brown often compares it to farming lions, demonstrating the concept on his show, "Good Eats," by donning denim overalls while talking in front of several wagging, yellow tails. Known for his off-beat humor and wacky props, Brown's monologue is abruptly ended when one of the "lions" pounces. But his point is made - fish at the top of the food chain are biologically built to roam large distances and require a vast amount of food to gain a little amount of weight. When these species are crammed into small, overcrowded spaces, the result is disease and antibiotics, not to mention a disproportionate amount of body fat.
However, some aquaculture success stories include trout, mussels and catfish, which can actually be superior in quality to their wilder cousins. "There aren't easy answers and there aren't fast, quick generalizations," admits Brown. "So what do we do? We've got to educate people." One simple solution is to eat seafood that is caught or raised in the United States, since our fisheries are among the most highly regulated in the world. Another important piece of the puzzle is to diversify our dinner plates. For this, Brown and the Aquarium turn to local fine dining.
"Restaurants are an important part of the equation of getting sustainable seafood on the plates of regular folks at home. The Aquarium can show them the animals and help them appreciate how they live, but to show the true culinary possibilities of that fish we turn to the chefs. Then we're following through by supplying recipes so that when people buy the fish at the store they'll be able to go home, put it on the table and say, 'Wow, that really is good.'"
Brown is also working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and hopes the initiatives in California and Tennessee can be easily duplicated across the country. But he's quick to point out his work here is more than just a fish-shaped blip on the city's culinary radar. Growing up in North Georgia, Brown has always had a soft spot for our city, filming one of his first "Good Eats" episodes in the aquarium's Gulf of Mexico tank. In addition to the events later this month, a microsite has been developed with Alton Brown webisodes, recipes and helpful information for a year-round resource.
"Chattanooga has done a great job in leading the South in some of the questions about a better way to live with our environment," notes George. "Nature is an integral part of our city. For a long time we've focused on the local nature of Chattanooga, but now we also have to look at how we fit into the global sustainable community, and I think that's through seafood."