Words & Photos Michael Harlan Turkell

Meet the Boston Chef Honoring New England Seafood

Dec 29, 2016

For centuries, there was strong conviction to forego shellfish in months without the letter “R.” September to April, coastal New England fare thrived, though counterintuitive to many species—more lobster are caught during the summer months, currently due to tourism demands, but they’re also most active then. May to August is spawning season for oysters, and during this time they’re thought to yield a lower quality product, not having ample time to mature. During the warmer months the presence of algal blooms like Red Tide, were believed to signify toxins in the water; this and spoilage were cause for concern. Now, we’re in the modern age where superior scientific testing, refrigerators, and the implementation of non-spawning “sexless” oysters allay us with fresh, full-bodied seafood—sans the seasonal worry. It’s as if Boston’s unmistakable accent and its blatant disregard for the letter “R” were intentionally contrary to this dictum, just so they could eat seafood year round. Maybe those Puritans knew something the rest of us didn’t.

Jeremy Sewall has a long lineage in New England, and his association with the regional waterways cast him in a Poseidon-like role promoting local seafood. In the 1500s, Henry Sewall came over from Coventry, England and landed ship in Newburyport. In the 1700s, a bit south along the shore, Jeremy’s great-great-great-great uncle Samuel Sewall was a judge on the Salem Witch Trials, the only one to publicly repent for his errors in the decision. Samuel’s son renamed the family land in Boston to Brookline, where Jeremy opened the restaurant Lineage in 2006, less than a block from Sewall Ave. After a decade as neighborhood mainstay for updated New England fare, Lineage closed, but Sewall’s seafood gospel continued at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square, right by Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, open to droves of baseball and bivalve fans since 2010 (this, too was part of the historic Sewall plot). Named after a special row of oysters from his partners at Island Creek Oyster in Duxbury, he has an outpost of his other restaurant, Row 34, in Portsmouth, New Hamsphire, and another Island Creek in Burlington. Next year Sewall will be opening a fine dining establishment called Les Sablons in Harvard Square (or should I say Ha’vad ya’d). It means 'the sands' in French, and lies less than half a mile from the shores of the Charles River.

History aside, Sewall’s own life has always been aqueous; his parents were Mainers, and even though he grew up along the bass-filled Hudson River, a half hour drive inland from his eventual alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, most of his aunts and uncles lived in Maine, so most summers where on the docks of York with iconic dishes like lobster rolls, fried clams, steamers, and chowder. He now employees his cousin Mark, a lobsterman by trade, buying out all he can catch (totals now exceed over 20,000 pounds a month). To paraphrase Sewall’s friend and fellow chef, seafood advocate, and cookbook author Barton Seaver, “we take all this stuff from the ocean, but we don't really ask what it can give.” Sewall is acutely aware of the incredible strain we can put on seafood species—that you shouldn’t push them to the limit and then wonder why there’s no cod left. Trying to feed a growing population with the same sized ocean is ridiculous; local fish should feed local communities first. The North Atlantic can’t supply the world with cod if it can’t support its own watershed.

If you grew up Catholic in New England, every Friday the house stunk of bluefish. Cooked skin side down, a filet of fresh bluefish is great when crispy on one side; the oily flesh can hold up to heavier preparations (like stews) and more robust and flavorful ingredients. It's a 'meaty' fish, versus the white 'flakey' type. Sewall serves his with Jacob’s Cattle beans, chorizo, and delicata squash. The trimmings are saved for paté, even salted and used as croquettes, thus extending the lifecycle of what was once thought of as a weekly catch. At his restaurants, Sewall has a menu of raw dishes like crudo and tartare, each highlighting the subtleties of seafood. On the opposite end, there are tuna collars, glazed and roasted, once cast away as a fisherman’s treat because they couldn’t sell them to restaurants. These are more like a steak, and give truth to “the closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat.”

Oysters are just as much about seafood geography as fish are, maybe even more so; they don’t migrate, therefore they’re the true definition of a place, or merroir (an aquatic riff on terroir). Even post-industrialism, not everything travels well, so the closer to the source the better. From the time it leaves the water you’re on the clock (then again, if you only ate East Coast oysters during the winter, the selection would be slim). This isn’t only about what we consume, it’s about the condition of the waters, too. Oysters are natural filters, and Island Creek has set up beds in Haiti and Rwanda, not only as a source for sustainable aquaculture, but also to provide a habitable place for future seafood. Myriad communities depend on it for food and trade. That’s why this New Year, I'm ordering Island Creek Oysters (who ship nationwide) to the landlocked state of Michigan, and with each celebratory shuck, I'll consider the shores of our forefathers, a reminder of where we first did feast, and how far we’ve come.