With the end of the lockdown looming, operators will be trying to make their reopening menus something to remember. From low-cost classics to something more luxurious, there's something for everyone when it comes to seafood and fish on your menu. Lisa Jenkins reports
When the hospitality industry emerges from lockdown, restaurant owners and suppliers will be rushing to serve up some of the nation's favourite dishes. And when it comes to seafood, this will be an opportunity to make the most of the hundreds of different types of seafood species caught in UK waters and support the UK seafood industry.
Hans Frode Kielland Asmyhr, UK director for the Norwegian Seafood Council, says that the pandemic will have changed the landscape of the restaurant industry for years to come. "This is an extremely difficult time for caterers and restaurateurs, and it is important for everybody in the industry, from suppliers to restaurant owners and everyone in between, to support each other while we wait for the opportunity to bounce back."
Cheap but cheerful
Andy Gray, Seafish's market insight team and trade marketing manager, says restaurants should consider including a wider selection of seafood on their menus. "We are likely to see a range of customer choices once the full range of foodservice outlets open again. Some people will be eager to satisfy their cravings for fish and chips and others will want to treat themselves to the full dining out experience.
"Some will rush to fill up on their favourites that they have missed during lockdown, but this will be balanced against customers who will be wary of dining out and may want to take their time before rushing back to mass socialising venues."
Rockfish restaurants founder and restaurateur Mitch Tonks thinks the former is more likely: "Opening, and how it will look, is an unknown, but I think we are all looking forward to that sense of community and seeing the faces of your regulars.
"I think the thing people are really missing is a plate of fried fish. It's something we all crave – crisp, salty batter, moist, juicy fish and a pile of chips with tartare sauce. We all have our own cravings or dishes that remind us of something special.
"But there is so much more to miss about eating seafood in a restaurant – a bowl of steaming mussels, a pile of oysters or a simple grilled fish – all these things are on my mind a lot!"
The coronavirus crisis will have made a serious hit to profits, and so many operators will be looking to cut costs on raw ingredients when reopening. Luckily, cheaper raw ingredients can still be used to create a hit dish, for example, steamed mussels can be used to create moules marinières, a perennial favourite among diners that makes use of British ingredients and feels like the premium option to a guest while offering a good profit return.
Johnny Godden, owner of Flying Fish Seafoods in St Columb, Cornwall, highlights mackerel as a potential hit:"The cheaper and more cheerful options, such as the versatile, healthy and tasty mackerel, which is also in great abundance, will, I believe, also play a big part on menus this summer."
Meanwile, Ennevor Yap, director at Wing Yip, emphasises that cheaper fish can offer chefs the opportunity to try something unusual: "During the spring and summer months, our bestsellers are sea bass and sea bream, as they are extremely versatile fish. Sea bass, for example, is often a favourite among customers due to its taste and soft texture. It stands out well on its own but can also take on an array of strong flavours.
"With consumers not having been able to escape to their favourite holiday destinations, operators may see a demand for authentic dishes from around the world. For operators looking to give traditional seafood dishes an authentic Oriental twist, Wing Yip stocks a range of sauces that go well with fish and seafood, whether it's sweet, sticky marinades or spicy sauces. Mai Siam sauces, for example, can be added as a cooking sauce for seafood-based stir-fries and rice dishes."
Make it premium
Godden agrees customers will be eager to get into restaurants, but expects that guests will be looking for something luxurious that they would not have been able to enjoy at home: "We have excellent quality Cornish lobster, Cornish turbot and red mullet all in season right now and these could be the prime choices. These relatively indulgent species, along with John Dory, will hopefully be on the menus."
John Ashmore, marketing director for Clearwater Seafoods, is similarly expecting guests to be tempted by a more premium offering, such as his recipe for barbecued lobster halves. With many restaurants considering using outside space to allow for social distancing measures, a barbecue offering could be the way to attract diners, weather permitting. Clearwater's split half lobsters are caught in the north-west Atlantic, contain the meat from half of a tail and that of one claw and one knuckle, and are ready to cook with no preparation required.
Clearwater's Canadian Sea Scallops, which are Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified, are another product that can bring luxury to a menu while saving operators time and money. The scallops are shucked and frozen within an hour of catch, without any additives or chemicals. The fresh-frozen process offers freshness and a high-quality product with a longer shelf life.
Ashmore also suggests that classic dishes can be ‘dressed up' with whole langoustines, providing a delicious alternative to prawns. "They are easy to prepare, requiring only a short blast of high heat in a frying pan, wok or on the grill," he explains.
Seasonality, sustainability and supplies
Rick Toogood, chef-patron and co-founder of Prawn on the Lawn in Padstow, Cornwall (winner of the 2019 Seafood Restaurant of the Year award), and East Highbury in London, agrees that profits will be a priority, but emphasises that this doesn't need to be at odds with sustainability: "There will be challenges for restaurants, with cash flow being a real issue for some. In these circumstances lesser-known species should be used – it's a chance to balance out the current dependence on a handful of species, like cod, plaice and mackerel, for example."
Simon Hulstone, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Elephant in Torquay, Devon, thinks there's more to a premium offering than expensive or unusual species or cuts of fish: "First, use fish you are familiar with and that you are comfortable cooking. It's what we can do with the produce as chefs to make it luxurious without being pretentious.
"Second, we always opt for seasonal and sustainable ingredients," he explains, making special reference to halibut and Fjord trout from Norway as two of his favourite summer fish.
Throughout lockdown there have been issues with the supply chain, with home consumers often unable to buy specific products. However neither Godden nor Asmyhr anticipate similar issues with the fishing supply chain. "Weather factors permitting, there will be no problems and there should be a plentiful supply to meet demand. Our favoured day-boat fishermen will be keen to get back to business as usual," says Godden.
Asmyhr insists: "We and the entire Norwegian seafood community are absolutely committed to helping the industry get back on its feet, however we can."
"It's what we can do with the produce as chefs to make it luxurious without being pretentious"
Issues with supermarket supply chains have led customers to seek produce elsewhere. Rick Toogood and his wife Katie recently converted their London restaurant to a fishmongers as a consequence of the Covid-19 lockdown, and the couple hopes that consumers' new-found interest in provenance will carry on to foodservice menus.
Rick says: "There is a real desire for people to access quality produce, and not just seafood. This increase in awareness of where to source ingredients will hopefully carry on to operators when they have a chance to reopen.
"When we do all reopen our restaurants, it should be seasonality that we are seeking and hopefully there is a new-found appreciation and support for the people catching it.
"I believe it's the responsibility of the operator to seek out the supply, whether it's through an online platform or ordering direct from fisherman and producers. There is some cracking fish coming into season right now, like gurnard, crab, lobster and brill. Don't be afraid to ask questions of your supplier – they should know what they're talking about."
Seafish believes that provenance does play an important role when it comes to consumer choice, increasingly so for fish and shellfish, with the origin of a product often the final influencing factor. Gray recommends "communicating to customers in clear and simple terms as to where and how your fish and shellfish is sourced," and emphasises the importance of supplier accreditations such as MSC.
Being more descriptive regarding product provenance on menus can also greatly influence the appeal of fish and shellfish dishes. An example would be to change ‘scallops in a white wine and shallot sauce' to ‘seared Cornish scallops in a crisp Chablis and French shallot sauce'.
While planning your reopening menu to excite guests and enhance your profits is no doubt important, it's more vital to remember what it is your customers are coming for. As Tonks says: "Restaurants mean so much to people because they are places to relax and enjoy with friends and family. They mark special dates and occasions and they are part of the happy memories we have, and that all comes with good hospitality."
Covid-19 support tools tailored to seafood businesses
Seafish has released an online tool to help seafood businesses identify which government financial support schemes they may be eligible for.
By selecting their business type and location, seafood businesses can access information about which packages may be available to them and details of how to apply.
The tool, which can be accessed from the Seafish website, covers seafood sector-specific packages and those open to businesses more generally from the UK government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Aoife Martin, director of operations at Seafish, explains: "With various support packages for seafood businesses and announcements from each of the home nations in recent weeks, businesses may have found it difficult to keep track of exactly what help they are eligible for.
"We have collated the relevant information into our financial support measures tool to provide businesses throughout the seafood supply chain with a quick and easy way to identify the government support that can help them through this challenging time.
"We also provided economic data and analysis to the governments to allow them to develop support packages tailored for the seafood industry. We're also supporting the industry with similar queries and continue to respond to these requests."
The coronavirus section of its website also contains a list of other sources of advice and support for individuals and businesses in seafood, as well as updates on the work that Seafish is doing to support the sector through the current situation.
For the tool, visit tabsoft.co/36k10qG
Flying Fish Seafoodswww.flyingfishseafoods.co.uk
Marine Conservation Societywww.mcsuk.org
Marine Stewardship Councilwww.msc.org
Norwegian Seafood Councilen.seafood.no
Prawn on the Lawnwww.prawnonthelawn.com
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