Eat a shrimp, support a Gulf of Mexico fisherman. That's the thinking behind the "Dine Out for the Gulf Coast" campaign in which restaurants across the country will be putting a little fish philanthropy on the menu.
During the event, scheduled for June 10-12, participating restaurants will be donating to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund. Restaurants that are able to, also will feature seafood from the Gulf.
"It's good that we establish a conversation on the meaning of something like this," says chef and restaurateur Jose Andres, who is participating in the event at all his restaurants, including The Bazaar in Los Angeles and Jaleo in Washington.
The campaign was started by Jimmy Galle, founder of Gulfish LP, a small company based in Sausalito that supplies Gulf seafood to restaurants in Northern California.
Galle, a native of Texas, said he "felt compelled to do something. I spent my summers on those coastal shores. It's where I'm from, so it's very personal."
Details of the campaign are still being worked out. Some restaurants will donate a portion of overall profits; others will donate based on sales of specific dishes or cocktails. And since fresh seafood supplies fluctuate — and not all the participating restaurants specialize in seafood — it's not clear how many will be serving food from the Gulf.
The point, says Galle, is to support the industry and let diners know it's OK to eat Gulf seafood.
"Those guys are facing so much turmoil and such an uncertain future," he said of the region's seafood industry. "If the consumer turns away from consumption of Gulf seafood, it's kind of like a final nail in the coffin."
It's not clear what the oil spill, which began following an April 20 oil rig explosion that also killed 11 workers, will mean for the region's fishing industry or for the restaurant industry that relies on it.
Commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico caught more than 1 billion pounds of seafood in 2008 for about $659 million in revenue, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Many estimates put the Gulf Coast as supplying one-fifth of the nation's commercial fish and shellfish.
Since the spill, about one-third of the Gulf waters have been closed to fishing.
A key concern is whether fish become contaminated by crude oil. Government officials say rigorous inspections mean it's never been safer to eat Gulf seafood.
At Chez Panisse, the renowned Berkeley restaurant founded by Alice Waters, Cal Peternell is still thinking about what to serve during the fundraising event.
The restaurant's menu changes daily and it will depend on what's available, but possibilities include shrimp roasted whole in a wood-oven or perhaps a classic variation on shrimp and grits, a Southern dish, using soft polenta with fresh corn kernels and shrimp sauteed with onion, peppers and celery.
Part of social fabric
Supporting local, sustainable food producers is a big part of the Chez Panisse ethic, says Peternell, chef of the restaurant's upstairs cafe. Waters also has a close tie to the area, having founded one of her Edible Schoolyards in New Orleans.
Peternell might be worried about buying fish from the Gulf these days if he weren't using a trusted supplier, Galle, who is keeping customers informed about closures and sending maps showing which fishing grounds produced the fish being sold.
Galle says he's "still seeing beautiful product on a daily basis." He hopes consumers and restaurants will continue to support the industry beyond the June campaign.
"They're all hard-working fishermen and they just want to keep living the life that they love. It's not just about fishing. That whole coast is their social fabric," he says. "It's where they work, it's what they eat, it's where they live, it's where they play. It's kind of like their family jewel that they really hold very dearly and want to pass on to future generations."
The Greater New Orleans Foundation created the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund to help the communities hit hardest by the spill. It also is meant to help strengthen coastal communities against future environmental catastrophes. It is estimated that there are 6,400 licensed commercial fishermen in the region that could be affected by the spill.