The blare of horns cut like sunlight through smog into the conversation I was having via cell phone. "Where are you?" asked the chef at the other end of the line.
"In New York, taking a cab from JFK to Manhattan," I replied.
"What are you doing there?"
Strictly speaking, this was the truth. I'd scrambled onto an early morning flight with bagel in one hand and laptop in the other, and intended to return to Miami in the late afternoon. This left me three lengthy hours in which to be fed at Restaurant rm.
The longer answer was that I was there to learn why I shouldn't be smacking my lips over any imported Caspian beluga, sevruga, or osetra caviar over the holiday season -- or any season, for that matter. And the economy has nothing to do with it.
Simply put, all Caspian Sea sturgeon, but particularly the beluga, are endangered to the point of extinction. According to representatives of SeaWeb (www.seaweb.org), who had organized a caviar roundtable discussion at rm that day, wild populations of Caspian sturgeon "have plummeted more than 90 percent in twenty years. And since the U.S. is the world's largest caviar importer, we are [largely] responsible."
To abrogate some of that responsibility, SeaWeb, a project designed to raise awareness of the world ocean, in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Institute for Ocean Science at the University of Miami, launched the Caviar Emptor (CE) initiative in 2000. CE has been lobbying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than a year now to get beluga sturgeon, which declined in population by 39 percent from 2001 to 2002, protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
A decision to list beluga as an endangered species is expected soon. This designation would effectively halt the import of beluga caviar to the U.S. market, which accounts for 60 percent of all Russian caviar sales. It is an action that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), whose members recently claimed that the beluga population is recovering, seems unwilling or unable to take.
"The quota for beluga caviar exports should be zero. Any number above that is unwise and unsustainable," says Caviar Emptor member Dr. Ellen Pikitch, marine biologist and director of ocean strategy with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
"Overfishing and illegal trade to supply the global caviar market, along with habitat loss and pollution, have decimated sturgeon populations of the Caspian Sea," reads part of the campaign's mission statement. "Caviar Emptor recommends that consumers avoid beluga and other Caspian caviars and instead choose ocean-friendly American caviars from farm-raised white sturgeon, paddlefish, or rainbow trout."
In other words, consumer awareness -- CE is subtitled "let the connoisseur beware" -- is where the effort really counts. Enter rm, named for chef-proprietor Rick Moonen, who was the first restaurateur of some 1000 establishments to pull Caspian caviar from his menus. Moonen was also the chef primarily responsible for the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign, which was so successful that, according to SeaWeb member Susan Boa, swordfish populations have increased significantly.
Boa calls Moonen "a true hero of the oceans." Who better, then, to learn about caviar options from than Moonen himself?
Indeed the samples of American paddlefish roe from L'Osage Caviar in Missouri, American white sturgeon caviar from Sterling Caviar in California (which is distributed by Petrossian of beluga fame), and rainbow trout caviar from Sunburst Trout Company in North Carolina were good enough to convince me that American caviar is a viable substitute for Caspian caviar, particularly when used in recipes such as Moonen's lobster club sandwich, which was layered with smoked sturgeon and shiny, nutty beads of Sterling white sturgeon caviar.
Instead of killing the fish to get the roe, companies such as Sterling perform surgery on the fish to harvest the eggs. About 85 percent of these fish survive to breed another day.
This also makes sense commercially, since a sturgeon's reproductive system is comparable to that of a human: A female won't start producing eggs until it is ten to fifteen years old. After waiting years for an inaugural "crop," killing the sturgeon, unless the meat is to be used as well, seems counterproductive. The sturgeon's long reproductive cycle is one of the reasons for the Caspian fish's dramatic decline -- poachers are catching and killing fish that haven't matured yet. "In short, they're killing babies and teenagers," Boa says. And nothing wipes out a population faster than offing the offspring before they have the opportunity to make some of their own.
As it turns out, I didn't have to go quite so far as JFK to learn about the Caspian sturgeon's reproductive cycles. I could have simply stopped at Miami International Airport (specifically the Lufthansa Cargo Warehouse), where Mark Zaslavsky and Mark Gelman, owners of Marky's, the well-known Miami-based gourmet foods importer, were picking up their beluga -- live.
Last spring, the two Marks became the first to transport live Caspian beluga sturgeon, along with sevruga and osetra, to the U.S. as brood stock for their planned Sturgeon AquaFarms in Volusia County. Over the next few years, they aim to hatch about 500,000 beluga fry, raise them to reproductive age, and obtain the roe by surgical intervention.
Marky's has also agreed to have its eventual products identified as pure beluga, sevruga, and osetra by batch DNA testing, a decision hailed by Royal Caribbean corporate chef Rudi Sodamin, who points out that Caspian caviar on the current market is often counterfeit. As a result, he is dedicated to serving and writing about American caviar as a signature dish, as he does in his new book Seduction and Spice.
In comparing Caspian and American caviars, Sodamin notes, "I can vividly remember Russian Beluga and Iranian Osetra as the hallmark of fine caviars. But today, it's true that American caviar has taken firm hold on the hospitality industry. Absolutely there is a great difference in price, but a diminishing difference in quality. It used to be true that you got what you paid for -- as long as you knew a bit about caviar. But as more and more people are exposed to [American caviar] and like what they taste, it has created a standard of good taste, if you will, in the business."
Marky's president and CEO Zaslavsky is the only American business owner invited to join the Board of Governors of the Sturgeon Stewardship Council. The council, an international collective that debuted in October, is devoted to halting the illegal trade of caviar, which CITES has failed to do.
Marky's will thus be instrumental in taking the strain from the surviving sturgeon in the Caspian -- and capitalizing on a market that it will, at least at first, both authenticate and monopolize. In this industry, that's a win-win-win trilogy as copacetic as caviar, chopped egg, and champagne.
Nor will Marky's have to wait a decade before the results become viable, if not readily available. Zaslavsky and fish-farm partner Gene Evans theorize that the sturgeon will reach maturity faster in warmer water and may even have available roe in only three to four years. In addition, their latest shipment, which arrived just recently (and which I was prevented from viewing for myself because of an extremely inconvenient flu), comprised two 60-pound female belugas of reproductive age. The majority of the eggs, no doubt, will be artificially fertilized, a procedure which Zaslavsky won't know is successful for another couple of years. But we can hold out hope that some will be salted as well.
Meanwhile many Miami-based chefs have been experimenting with the roe of various domestically raised fish for several years now. Martini's Bistro chef-owner Ulrich Koepf has been using American caviar, Carolyn Collins American Fresh Water Caviar from Crystal Lake, Illinois, since 1993. "Her stuff was almost like 'designer boutique caviar,' with items such as American Bowfish 'Choupique,' American Paddlefish, Absolut Peppar Caviar, Caviar Ginger, Smoked Chicago Golden, and Cajun Caviar," he says. "Now I only go to Caspian beluga, sevruga, or osetra if specifically demanded for a party. Otherwise I always use American product."
At Bizcaya Grill, restaurant chef Willis Loughhead just completed his ten-day "oyster and caviar" festival, also using sources from Carolyn Collins. "For the price of an ounce of beluga, I get 6.5 ounces of her paddlefish, which has a flavor like sevruga. I think it is a very good product and I can afford to be more lavish with it," he offers.
Likewise, Frank Randazzo, chef-proprietor of Talula, says, "High demand, low resources of sturgeon out of the Caspian Sea, and soaring prices leave us no choice but to source a more inexpensive alternative. American caviar is inferior to the great Russian caviars, but they do have a place in our kitchen. We can use them to accompany dishes, in sauces, garnishes, and so on." He cites his New Year's Eve menu, which featured dishes such as tartare of ahi tuna with serrano chilies, cucumber, crispy rice, and trout roe, as an example.
In fact, many local chefs are as aware of the increase in American caviar quality as they are in the sustainability factors affecting the Caspian variety. Norman Van Aken says, "After reading Inga Saffron's excellent book Caviar, I feel more enlightened as to the state of affairs where we are with this delicacy. Alternative sources for enjoying caviar are at hand and we are proud to support these efforts. Over the past few months we have purchased two kilos of Wild Brook Trout Roe from a small artisanal producer from northern Michigan. The eggs were straw-colored and the flavor was nutty with good salt structure. We also use the [Tsar Imperial] Transmontanous Caviar by Petrossian, farmed from California Sturgeon. It's [especially] instructive to see how Petrossian is now placing part of its future in ventures outside of the Caspian Sea."
Azul chef Michelle Bernstein is just as concerned with the conservation of Caspian sturgeon. "Due to the endangered belugas, I haven't sold any [Caspian caviar] at Azul for two and a half years," she says. "Although people commonly ask for [beluga], I try to talk them into tasting American-grown caviars, even if I have to open a jar for them. It is worth it to me and the future of sturgeon." Like Van Aken, she opts for the Transmontanous variety as well as the caviar from Kelley's Katch in Tennessee, calling the latter "a delicious farm-raised American product that can be eaten on its own."
And, of course, washed down with sparkling wine. But don't feel like you have to abandon your boycott of France, silly as it might be, just to imbibe a little bubbly. Alternatives such as Italian prosecco and Spanish cava are, like American caviar, just as good as the so-called real thing, and only two examples of how it's actually more cost-effective to be politically as well as gastronomically correct.
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