The Tennessee Aquarium is celebrating the success of sustainable seafood practices, which it has helped promote for the past decade through its annual Serve & Protect fundraising dinner. This month, the event returns to the IMAX with a "Big Comeback" theme.
This sold-out dinner features recipes made with golden tilefish and flounder, both species that were identified as being overfished in the past by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the organization responsible for regulating seafood and fishing in the U.S. — but have since rebounded thanks to sustainable seafood practices.
The "Big Comeback" theme is in reference to people starting to get back together again after more than a year of social distancing, and also to the fact that stocks of the flounder and tilefish have been replenished with the help of chefs and consumers making informed decisions on which species they eat and serve.
"I think that chefs are becoming more keenly aware that the choices that we make make a real difference," chef and event producer Tamie Cook says of the culinary community's increasing interest in sustainable food choices.
Cook has been involved with the event since its start, when she was working as culinary director for Alton Brown of the Food Network show "Good Eats." The Aquarium approached Brown about hosting a sustainable seafood program, and Cook helped him with program logistics, including recipe testing and development. She continued producing the event even after Brown stopped being involved after its second year.
"When I went to culinary school I learned about issues of sustainability and the importance of buying local, and this is a program I do on an annual basis that is always a reminder of that," Cook says of why she likes being involved with the event.
She says it's also a way for her to live her mission of helping people become more aware of where their food comes from — how it's raised or produced or caught and processed — and how the food choices that we make can make a difference not only in our environment, but also in the livelihoods of the people in our communities involved with food production.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's event is slightly smaller than in previous years, featuring just two chefs rather than the usual three. Cook, who typically serves as emcee, will be cooking at the 2021 event along with chef Deborah VanTrece. Recently featured on the TODAY Show and the Rachael Ray Show, VanTrece is the owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours and The Catering Company by VanTrece, both in Atlanta, and author of "The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul with Global Flavors."
Cooking sustainably is also a part of VanTrece's mission, says Cook.
"She's also just so much fun to hang out with," she adds. "She has an amazing personality — full of life and full of energy."
Cook also wanted to feature a chef who is a woman and person of color.
"In hospitality, especially face-fronting chefs and personalities, I think it's really important to tap into aspects of diversity," Cook says. "She makes really yummy, delicious food too."
For those who missed their chance to purchase tickets, recipes developed by Cook for the event will be available on the Aquarium's website.