A sustainable feast
Spice Creek owner-chef whips up eco-friendly entrees served with a side of insight
Rebecca Stewart is often asked why, as a restaurant owner, she would teach cooking classes. Her Spice Creek Café, in the heart of downtown, has quickly established itself as one of Chico’s premier fine-dining establishments.
Stewart, who goes by Becky, isn’t affected by the success of the restaurant, which she and husband Brian Diendorf opened just three years ago and operate together. The truth is, with decades of experience that includes a run as executive chef at Bon Appetit Restaurant in Los Angeles, Stewart has many tricks up her sleeve.
Most of her cooking students are the restaurant’s clientele, with whom she’s happy to share her recipes.
“I think raising their awareness of good food and flavors benefits all of us,” she said, a few days after unveiling the secret to some choice entrees such as halibut encrusted with cumin potatoes, served with a roasted red chili ranchero sauce.
Spice Creek is best known for its seafood, and Stewart’s recent class had a twist: All of the recipes focused on sustainable seafood choices.
“In the restaurant, we try to do everything sustainable,” she told her 30-or-so students during the fun Tuesday evening lesson.
While preparing macadamia nut salmon ravioli, then black cod with a mango Thai coconut sauce, Stewart talked about the fishing industry, describing line-and-cable dredging methods that lay waste to habitat over hundreds of miles in one swoop. The practice, along with other types of fishing, results in an enormous amount of bycatch—unwanted species that are caught, killed and then thrown back into the sea, she explained.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, fisheries worldwide throw away 25 percent of their catch. Mind you, Stewart said, there’s nothing wrong with the fish. Typically, they are either too small or have no market value. While fish make up the majority of bycatch, in many cases dolphins, sea turtles, seals and whales are caught and killed.
Stewart, who owned large restaurants on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where she lived for 25 years, has watched the fishing industry’s seemingly boundless growth since the ‘80s.
These days, the ocean can’t keep up with the world’s demand. Even some of the most prolific populations of fish, such as Atlantic cod, are in drastic decline. According to a report last year in the journal Science, researchers predicted that 90 percent of the fish species pulled from the ocean today may be gone by 2048.
During Stewart’s class, guest speaker Scott McNall, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Chico State University, gave a brief overview of the overfishing dilemma. He began by pointing out that the practice isn’t just affecting the sea.
“If there are no fish, there will be no fishermen,” he said.
McNall gave startling examples of waste, such as the estimated 30 million metric tons of fish that get dumped overboard each year. He also talked about the ocean’s web of life and how it is breaking down with the dwindling of fish populations.
Consumers, he noted, can do something about fishing practices by keeping the most at-risk species off their tables.
“The message is your individual choices can make a difference in this world,” he said. “We are all interconnected, and we are all in this together.”
To make things easier on the students, McNall handed out a list that spells out exactly which species to choose and which to avoid altogether. The document, as he demonstrated, folds into a wallet-sized pamphlet that’s perfect to pull out when shopping or at a restaurant.
The information is from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program (see UnCommon Sense), which, coincidentally, Stewart has consulted for about 10 years. During one demonstration, she noted to her students how delicious black cod is as an entrée, despite being less popular at the market than Atlantic cod, according to her supplier.
Sitting down at Spice Creek’s bar a few days after the lesson, Stewart expanded on her views about sustainable cooking. She recommended a book called Bitter Harvest by Ann Cooper, a renowned chef and acquaintance, whose work highlights agriculture practices that have led to less-healthy and sometimes toxic crops.
For the restaurant, Stewart buys as much as she can from local sources. She and Diendorf are regulars are the Saturday and Wednesday farmers markets, and they grow some things, especially herbs, at home. They swear by organics, saying the products taste better in addition to being more healthful.
The couple looks to their produce supplier’s organic line for the things they can’t pick up themselves, and they make sure to tailor the restaurant’s rotating menu to what’s in season—such as their new offering, Farmers Market Lasagna.
Stewart encourages her customers to shop locally and to investigate the origins of their food. She’s run into several of them shopping at the markets and hunting for spices to make sauces from scratch.
“It’s not that hard to do,” she said. “They just have to start with their pantry.”
Stewart and Diendorf have been holding the cooking classes every other week, pretty much year round, since shortly after opening the restaurant. Stewart said when given any opportunity to help people understand the benefits of eating good, healthful food, she takes it.
“Sustainability is to ensure food for the future,” said the self-described earth-hugger. “If we don’t think about that, we’re going to be eating processed foods.”