A fishy state of affairs

Calling all fish-loving Congress members and staffers: Are you out there? The sustainable mahi mahi lunch plate in the Rayburn cafeteria wants your attention.

Since the Restaurant Associates catering company took control of the House cafeterias in December, the seafood station in Rayburn has, well, flopped. Staffers have noticed only a trickle of interested colleagues peaking their noses over the seafood counter to examine its offerings, and a recent trip to the station revealed possible operational snafus.

Under the new plan, the station offers sustainable fish and seafood every Friday, and sustainable offerings may be available on other days as well.

The House’s sustainable-seafood effort appears to be facing a combination of three obstacles: diners’ lack of interest, lack of education and lack of time.

“We … joke about sustainable seafood day in the cafeteria,” a House GOP press secretary wrote in an e-mail. “No one eats it. The line is dead every Friday. I don’t think anyone knows what it is!”

The disdain is bipartisan.

“We joked about it when we first saw it,” said Mary Cronin, a staffer for Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), while huddling with a friend Tuesday at the salad bar. “How do we know that it’s actually sustainable seafood?”

What’s more, many people just don’t like seafood and fish.

“I’m more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy, so maybe my taste buds aren’t advanced enough for that kind of stuff,” said another GOP aide who was standing in line Tuesday at the cafeteria’s pasta station.

The aide confessed he had no prior knowledge of the sustainable-seafood concept: “I don’t plan on trying it. I’ve just heard bad reviews.”

Then there is the lack of education: What is sustainable seafood?

Simply put, sustainable-seafood practices require environmentally sensitive fishing to keep the world’s fish population from vanishing and prevent ecological imbalances in the oceans. Restaurants that stock sustainable seafood typically get their products from fishermen who use techniques like hook-and-line fishing and on-shore farming to catch their fish.

But an unsuspecting Rayburn diner might not know that.

Last Friday, for example, the seafood station offered only a menu description of the day’s meal — mahi mahi and a pepper medley on a bed of rice — and lacked any information about the sustainable-seafood movement.

Furthermore, time is of the essence for most congressional aides. That same afternoon, with just two people in line, the visibly flustered chef yelled to her assistant, “Go tell [the manager] I need more fish like yesterday!” She then politely explained to two potentially interested diners that there might be a wait because she was backed up on a few previous requests for made-to-order meals.

Joshua Whigham, the chef de cuisine at Hook, a Georgetown restaurant that boasts sustainable seafood, said the cafeteria might be better off incorporating its sustainable options into the grill, salad bar and sandwich offerings rather than limiting them to a single station. He offered several ideas for using sustainable seafood in a cafeteria setting, like fish sticks, fish and chips, and a mahi mahi sandwich melt.

“For [sustainable seafood] to work in a cafeteria setting, the preparation has to be done correctly,” said Whigham, who was standing in for Hook Executive Chef Barton Seaver as Washington’s unofficial sustainable-seafood spokesman. (Seaver was in Senegal, meeting with fishermen who supply the restaurant with some of its offerings.)

“You can have sustainable products, but then if they’re not prepared correctly, people will not think it’s legit. They’ll think, ‘Oh, it’s crap. It’s a hippie movement,’ you know?”

Restaurant Associates does have a paragraph explaining sustainable seafood on the website that displays the House cafeteria menus. It states that the company has stopped using Atlantic cod in favor of Pacific cod and Pollack fish, and that it plans to decrease the use of shrimp and salmon that aren’t farmed in a sustainable manner.

Sometimes it’s unclear which offerings are sustainable and which are not. For example, on Tuesday, a day when the sustainable-seafood station is not offered, the “A la Plancha” grill offered rockfish that was sustainable but not clearly marked as such.

Tom Green, the executive chef in charge of the House cafeterias, said the sustainable-seafood station stocks information cards for diners’ benefit, although the cards weren’t visible last Friday.

He said the station has been successfully serving rainbow trout, rockfish and other fishes, although a recent offering of seafood paella “wasn’t as successful.” Green acknowledged that the station may take more time, but he countered that the alternative — pre-made meals — is not desirable.

“We’re certainly conscious of it taking a long time, and there are improvements to be made, that’s for sure,” he said.

Jeff Ventura, the spokesman for the House chief administrative officer, said it was Restaurant Associates’ choice to introduce a sustainable seafood station in the cafeteria but that the CAO supports the decision.

“I think it’s just a bit of a new concept for people to digest — no pun intended,” he said.

Whatever their reasons, staffers seem to be having a hard time embracing the sustainable seafood lunch. “The only thing that can’t be sustained is this inane ‘greening’ of the Capitol. I already work long hours for no pay,” wrote the GOP press secretary. “Now I have to eat chicken and fish whose quality of life is better than mine?”
Betsy Rothstein contributed to this article.