Have you ever heard anyone say: “I never buy seafood away from Seattle, because it’s just not fresh”? It makes sense, to some degree, if only the word “fresh” were a noun, and not an adjective. You can’t touch, feel, or see it. We touch, feel and see what we interpret to be fresh. Color, smell, taste, are all interpretive. Fresh is a moving target depending on your interpretation of the word, and what you value.
Twenty years ago, as I ran a restaurant on the Seattle waterfront, one of the first jobs in the morning was to answer the daily calls from the fish mongers. “Hey, I have halibut for $9 a pound,” says one. The next says, “I’ve got a ‘hot deal’ on halibut, only $5 a pound.” . . . $4 a pound cheaper? Sounds like a great deal, except, in the fish monger world, they have a phrase: “Sell it or smell it.” Better to take a $4 a pound loss on the sale than to take the $9 a pound loss and throw it all away. So was that halibut at $4 a pound cheaper, fresh? “Hot deals” are not always a deal. Which begs the question: what is fresh?
In our food supply, “fresh” is a critical buzzword. No one wants to eat “old food.” But do we sometimes get fooled on what fresh is? Like almost anything we desire, the value of it boils down to the economics and logistics that dictate its worth. And to the point of this conversation, freshness.
Seafood is all about logistics and Mother Nature. Where and when it’s caught, how long it takes to get from the sea to your plate, and how it is handled in that process. Additionally, if anybody’s ever watched one of those Alaskan crab boat shows, it’s serious and risky business. High risk=high price. Looking at the math, if you’re catching tuna that’s 1,000 miles offshore, and your boat can cruise at roughly 20 miles an hour, that fish is two days old before it even makes it to shore. Then it is purchased by the aforementioned fishmonger, re-sold, shipped and received to its final destination. Depending on where that is, it could be anywhere from four to seven days old. Is that fresh? Enter the logistics of the boats that can freeze on site. Twenty years ago, the technology wasn’t there to freeze well. Today’s blast freezers do not allow the cell structure to break down as the fish freezes. It’s far too fast of a process to allow that to happen. That’s where freezer burn comes from. In a slow freeze process, the moisture content of the cells leech out and the product integrity is damaged. Today in side-by-side testing, that four to seven-day old fish often loses to the fresh frozen fish. And then, there is re-freshed fish. Whole fish, blast frozen, thawed, then cut, and sold as “fresh” because it arrived to the reseller in a thawed state. Or, you can purchase direct from a fisherman on a boat somewhere and get it airfreighted straight to you. I know many chefs who are willing to do that. But there’s a price to pay for that as well, on the menu, or the grocer”s counter. What about when the fish is out of season, but it’s still being sold? It’s probably frozen, or really not fresh.
These very same factors: time, distance, seasonality and temperature exist in beef, and produce as well.
So what’s the wrap-up here? The way I see it, fresh is a moving target, depending on the season, the product, and Mother Nature. But mostly on what our definition of fresh is, and what we want out of it. Where we understand it comes from, and what we’re willing to pay for it. This is one of those places were pragmatism and interpretation have the potential to clash. Still, it boils down to being informed consumers, having realistic expectations, and asking smart questions. Finding someone who’s willing to talk honestly with you, and give answers you can trust. Personally, I want honesty in my food, not a $4 a pound deal.
Food for thought.
You may have noticed I missed “freshness in the bar.” That is truly different, and I think best left to a lifestyle columnist.
Chris Patterson is the Director of Business Solutions at Food Services of America. He is a 30 year veteran of the hospitality and restaurant industry and has conducted more than 700 trainings, seminars, and consulting sessions with Inland Northwest operators.