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Trying to put the 'Maryland' back in 'Maryland crab cakes'

June 1, 2011 - 08:20 PM
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Good news for Maryland blue crabs: the most recent figures put the Chesapeake Bay population at 461 million, well above target for the year. A tough winter took a toll, but the all-important female crab population stayed above the threshold needed to sustain overall crab numbers. It's early in the season, but Maryland's blue crabs are looking good.

Now if the state could just convince restaurants to buy them.

Many local restaurants do not put Maryland blue crab on the menu, despite the region's reputation as one of the world's great fisheries and the long tradition of crabbing in Maryland. After suffering mightily in the early 2000s, the blue crab population is returning to the bay but not to local menus.

Steve Vilnit of Maryland's fisheries service has one strategy to combat the problem: Sell celebrity chefs on Maryland blue crab. “That’s a lot of my agenda this year,” he says. “Get these high-profile guys on the boat.” Vilnit recently took two Top Chef alums and D.C. restaurateurs, Spike Mendelsohn and Mike Isabella, out for the afternoon on the bay and to a processing center to watch the whole production.

“They were tweeting the whole time,” he says. “That was fantastic. That got out to millions of people.” If chefs like Isabella start featuring Maryland blue crab, Vilnit reasons, other restaurants will follow.

Isabella says he loved the experience, especially seeing how every last bit of the crab was processed into an extract. He's considering adding Maryland blue crab to the menu of his soon-to-open Graffiato, possibly on a pizza or in a pasta dish.

But no matter how many Top Chef alums choose to use the blue crab, the glitter of celebrity can only do so much to soften the bottom line: Restaurants pay dearly to get local seafood.

If you want to use local ingredients, says Isabella, "you have to really watch your budget." He says he uses local because the product is better and he believes it helps the people around him, but he had to cushion Graffiato's food budget to allow for higher-cost ingredients.

“You do pay a premium for it,” agrees Ann Cashion, chef-owner of Johnny’s Half Shell. The restaurant serves crab cakes featuring Maryland crabs from now until the season ends in October, when it switches to Gulf crabs. “You have to really want it.”

Cashion says it’s tough to get your hands on Maryland crab without connections, and there's a gaping price difference between Eastern Shore crabs and imports. This week, her price list puts Gulf crab at $18.25 per pound, Maryland crab at $20.50 per pound, and imported Venezuelan crab at $15.95.

“We use tons of crab meat,” she says. “That’s significant.”

Too significant for G&M Restaurant, a seafood place in Linthicum. Its well-known crab cakes are made with Venezuelan jumbo lump. “We use 7,000 pounds a week,” says manager John Zoulis. “The food cost makes a big difference. We cannot pass that cost on to our customers.” Zoulis says the price of Maryland crab meat is too high for too little product, especially as the price of eggs, butter, and other ingredients have gone up. “We have to make our numbers work,” he says.

But G&M is apparently comfortable trading on the positive association of the Maryland blue crab, plastering the phrase “Maryland crab” all over its website. Zoulis says the restaurant “never” advertises its Venezuelan crab cakes as “Maryland crab cakes." (Indeed, the online menu does not say "Maryland crab cake," but the restaurant's homepage does.) When asked about the discrepancy, Zoulis says he’ll “look into it.”

The decision to serve local crab has to be motivated by more than the bottom line, says chef Spike Gjerde, chef-owner of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. Gjerde is passionate about supporting the Chesapeake--“our front yard”—and the tradition of crabbing in the region.

“We get pounds of crab meat only from blue crabs only from the Chesapeake in season,” says Gjerde. “After the crab season winds up in Maryland, there’s not going to be any fresh crab meat coming out of the Chesapeake Bay. There’s not going to be any crab cakes coming out of Woodberry Kitchen. And we’ve all got to be ready to deal with that.”

It can be tough when visitors to the region drop in hoping for Maryland crab cakes, Gjerde says, but he tells them to try oysters instead. He has zero interest in purchasing Venezuelan crab in the off-season.

“I never even look into it,” he says. “It’s not even in the realm of possibility for me to order a pound of Venezuelan blue crab.”

Cashion, who is willing purchase crab from the Gulf, also draws the line at importing from South America.

“Never,” she says. “Never. I dislike it.” Cashion acknowledges that Venezuelan crab is “supposedly blue crab” and that “the lumps are big,” but she calls the import “hard and flavorless.”

“I’d have to be desperate to use it,” she says.

Even Zoulis, whose restaurant deals almost only in Venezuelan crab, prefers Maryland’s for taste. “The taste of Maryland crab meat, no one can beat it,” he admits.

Cashion and Gjerde all say that buying local seafood doesn’t have to be just a matter of conscience—it can be a smart business decision.

“I think we’re at that moment when the general public is starting to care,” says Cashion, adding that customers ask about sourcing more and more. Eventually, she thinks being able to explain where ingredients come from will be a “necessary component” of the restaurant business.

Gjerde complains that wholesalers’ interest “in selling cheap-ass crab meat and other crap” rather than the more costly local crabs is to their detriment. “They see some of these things as contrary to their business interests,” he says. “They don’t understand that we all contribute to this.”

He doesn’t believe that leaving Alaskan salmon or Venezuelan crab off the menu has hurt Woodberry Kitchen. “For better or worse,” he says, “our guests seem to be up for it.”

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