Growing customer education driving changes in seafood presentation and provenance
SEAFOOD IS STILL AS POPULAR AS EVER on our foodservice menus, with presentation styles having evolved away from old school batters and towards lighter crumbs, often with an Asian influence. At the same time, the growing awareness among consumers of the importance of seafood sustainability has led to a greater focus on provenance – where the seafood is sourced from, and how it’s caught and processed. This presents an opportunity to differentiate your menu offerings from the competition by telling the story of how the customer’s meal has reached their plate.
At busy Ziva restaurant in Club Toukley RSL at Tuggerah Lakes on the NSW Central Coast, Executive Chef Alex Patterson knows a thing or two about seafood. His father is a local fisherman, as was his grandfather and uncles, so he has a strong commitment to using local produce where possible and ensures there’s plenty of choice on the menu.
“The best local seafood for us are the prawns, but they’re only available during a short timeframe each year, usually from October to March. There’s also great flathead, whitebread, bream, mudcrab and blue swimmer available at the local market, so where we can use it, we will,” Alex tells us.
“Seafood comprises about 30 per cent of our menu and fresh produce is our biggest selling point overall. We currently have oysters from Coffin Bay in South Australia, a prawn and lemon bruschetta entrée with Gold Coast Tiger Prawns, we have garlic prawns which are very popular. We do a charred squid and chorizo entrée which is very contemporary, along with the classics like salt and pepper squid which is one of our biggest sellers. And of course grilled or battered barramundi.”
Fresh salmon is another popular item. “We bring it in and trim it up – we cut the whole belly off and put it on an entrée dish – we try to always utilise the whole cut. Plus we take all the trim from the salmon and whatever our specials are, and from that we make up a seafood risotto plus our own fish stock.”
Daily specials include barramundi, snapper, mackerel – “we just go with what we can get on the day, the chefs come in and have a play around with it and put it up on the menu board. And of course we use seafood on our pizzas – prawn pizzas are always on demand.”
Alex acknowledges that presentation has changed in line with evolving customer tastes over the years. “Orders for grilled now outweigh battered by 3:1, and our specials are always panfried or oven baked rather than battered. People seem to have gone away from heavy carbs, they prefer lighter salads with their fish – they’re loving seeds and grains so we offer quinoa salads topped with spice mix and fresh beetroot. What also sells really well is an Asian influenced dish – you marinate the fish in miso and then make a sweet soy glaze, and garnish with Asian vegetables. We always try to keep the flavours simple so they complement the core protein of the dish.”
Each Thursday night the restaurant offers a grilled seafood combo featuring grilled squid, prawns, and the fish of the day served with salad and chips. “It’s quite simple – customers don’t want anything too heavy so we keep away from batters. People are more health-conscious these days and they know grilled is a healthier option.”
At Blacktown Workers Club in western Sydney, head chef Kiran Arora oversees several different food outlets across three separate venues – the Workers Club itself, the Workers Sports Club and the Hubertus Country Club in nearby Luddenham - with seafood a major menu drawcard across all.
“In Impressions, which is our main café/bistro, we have salt and pepper squid, fish and chips, barramundi and salmon. And of course we do specials like a seafood basket, and seafood plate with beer battered barramundi and a guacamole Florida salad.” This contemporary presentation consists of grapefruit, oranges and pomegranate to highlight fruit flavours, plus radishes and prawns.
Kiran and his team focus on changing the menu on a regular basis, with the latest additions including charcoal prawns and Asian style prawn dumplings.
“There are also a lot of seafood add-ons, like adding prawns to steak to make it surf and turf, or adding seafood to a Caesar salad.”
Kiran confirms that the drive to experiment with new presentation styles is being driven by customer expectations. “Definitely the demand is for something very contemporary, and because we work so fast and do so many covers it also has to be easy for us to produce consistently,” he explains. “There has been a move towards lighter options - I think the old school of presentation has pretty much gone. And coming from a five star background, I’ve come in to the club and tried to do things a little differently from the past, but of course practicality plays a role.” For this reason Kiran and his team rely upon quality value-added frozen seafood products from Pacific West “This gives us flexibility and ensures we can offer plenty of variety on the menu.”
Kiran emphasises this is particularly important in a club environment which has to cater to members and guests across a wide range of socio-economic groups. “Some customers are on a tight budget and they’re only wanting a light meal, so instead of giving them a heavy meal and charging $25, we have lighter menu options for $12 or $15, and that will entice them to go for a two course meal instead of one. So if they can buy a smaller main, they’ll be able to afford a dessert or a beer. If we can give them a small fish and chips, they can afford a dumpling or a cake. They spend the same amount of money, but they’re happier because they’re getting more choice, rather than buying a big meal which they can’t finish because it’s too heavy for them. So that approach really works for us – it’s about offering lighter options, small plates. But to do that you need plenty of choice. It also helps with upselling – on lighter days we’ll drop the price of some fast-moving menu items, and we find that customers will try them and like them, and once they’ve experienced that meal they’ll buy it again even when the price goes up a few dollars.”
The growing awareness and education of consumers around seafood sustainability has led to major seafood suppliers emphasising this aspect in their marketing materials. As Pacific West Innovation Manager Neil Cane points out, it also provides foodservice professionals with the opportunity to “tell a story on the menu”:
“Everybody’s looking for a point of difference, be it wholesalers, restaurateurs or chefs, to give them the edge on their competitors and exploring the provenance of your seafood on the menu is one way to do this,” Neil says.
“Seafood was once seen as something that was mass-produced but we’re now moving away from this and looking for products with some uniqueness about them and a story to tell. And with our global reach in sourcing, we’ve found some really interesting seafood with great stories behind them.”
An example is Pacific West’s value added seafood sourced from the island of Tristan de Cunha – the most remote inhabited island on earth, some two thousand miles off the coast of South Africa. “They used to have a garrison there to protect St Helena when Napoleon was imprisoned there,” Neil tells us. “You can’t land a ship on it, so they have to row out to get the fish – that’s a great example of how far we’ve been prepared to go to find something different.
“We’ve also gone to New Zealand for sustainably sourced long line fish – this has low impact on the seabed and less stress for the fish. The brand we’ve sourced is Okains Bay, which fishes in the traditional method with bait and hook. It’s a really good story for your menu – the fishermen go out in their boat, they target ling or deep sea cod or a shark, each fish is taken off the hook individually and frozen at sea. So these products not only offer a point of differentiation but a great opportunity to engage the customer with a terrific backstory which adds to their appreciation of the product and their enjoyment of the meal.”
Harry Peters of Marine Product Marketing is similarly focused on sourcing sustainable seafood. “Our Clean Harvest Barramundi Fingerlings are the most sustainable sold in Australia and the consistency is unbeatable – every box, every portion is the same and I take my hat off to the staff and to the factory, it’s such a reliable product, the best I’ve found in my 55 years in the business. There’s a great story around the farm – it’s in a pristine open-ocean marine environment with no industry, no factories, no rivers, no run-off, just pure water unaffected by human activity. The cages are widely spaced and stocked at low densities, and the fish occupy less than one per cent of the pen.”
Clean Harvest Barramundi are certified to the highest international standards for food safety, quality, social welfare and environmental stewardship, and there’s full supply chain traceability from farm to plate.
Scott McDonald of Simplot Australia, which markets an extensive range of both fresh and value-added frozen fish and seafood under the I&J, Captain’s Catch, Topsail and Neptune brands, says points of differentiation such as wild caught, natural fillet, hand cut, hand dipped, MSC approved and so on all provide potential stories to convey to customers, acknowledging that “this is something we’ve seen much more of in the past few years - the evolution of detailed menu descriptions that go into the provenance of the food.”
In parallel with this trend, he says Australians are becoming more adventurous in trying broader varieties of seafood in different formats:
“We’re now starting to see different applications of seafood, particularly as meat prices continue to rise. Inevitably fish and seafood will start playing a bigger role on the menu. Rather than just one item on menu or a seafood special, it will increasingly make more economic sense for the outlet to offer a greater selection of seafood.”
Examples of relative newcomers to the pub and club menu include salt and pepper squid – very on trend right now, this has replaced the old school calamari presentation, which Scott describes as a definite step up. He adds that the broader application of seafood on the menu is also driving increased customisation: “The outlet will often design its own condiment, topping or dipping sauce to complement the flavour of the seafood. All these elements, from the garnishes and toppings to how the chefs plate the food, are very important, and we find venues are becoming more adventurous and sophisticated in how they use seafood. Once upon a time the standard condiment was tartare sauce – now we’re seeing flavoured aioli, different kinds of flavoured toppings as opposed to the old school approach. Again this is not confined to seafood but is the case with whatever protein is being served – there’s more variety for the palate.”
He adds that broadly speaking, today’s fish and seafood is more varietal – “the more different flavours, cuts and presentation styles we can bring to market and the less preparation for the end-user, the better. Given today’s high cost of kitchen labour, our job is to make life easier for the foodservice professional. So we aim to provide shortcuts without compromising on quality, which enables them to run a more profitable business.
“Hoki, also known as blue grenadier, has been a real success story for us. It comes in a MSC approved 50g fillet portion so you can serve it up as a single piece within a fish taco, which is hugely popular right now, or serve two to three pieces as a fully plated up main. Following on from the success of our 50gm crispy battered hoki, we have recently launched MSC approved 140gm premium battered and 140gm premium fresh bread crumbed, hand-cut natural NZ Hoki fillets.”
Creating these kinds of innovative menu items is the focus of Simplot’s product development team. “We have an amazing team of chefs working here and full sensory labs so any product that we bring to market goes through a full sensory appraisal first. Our executive chefs have had extensive industry experience and all that expertise goes into helping us create the final product, and they also bring their skills to bear in foodservice specific recipe development. If you visit our website at www.simplotseafoodspecialists.com.au, you’ll find it’s been designed as an educational tool for our end-users – they can learn more about the handling of seafood, from storage tips to how to weigh and moisture test frozen product.”