Miya's Chef Revolutionizes Sushi

On Wednesday September 7, Chef Bun Lai of popular New Haven restaurant Miya's Sushi will be the keynote speaker during the American Fisheries Society's 141st Annual Meeting in Seattle. He'll discuss what he believes is the future of sushi: Highly-local, sustainable ingredients. A few weeks later, he'll debut a new menu at Miya's that slashes unsustainable fare and includes some clever but unexpected choices.

Bun Lai's emerged as a star in the sustainable seafood movement, having recently won the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Ambassador Award and Huffington Post's "Greatest Person of the Day." Although AFS events typically draw only a couple hundred guests, organizers have already sold 2,500 tickets for his presentation, which includes a thirteen-course menu culled from hyper-local Seattle seafood. Needless to say, Bun Lai has a busy weekend ahead of him, but he took some time to update us on planned menu changes at Miya's.

What "traditional" menu items aren't available at Miya's?
One of the biggest changes we've made this year is that now we don't carry shrimp of any sort. Shrimp is both the most popular and the most destructive seafood in America. There is sustainable shrimp in Oregon, but it costs three or four times more than the typical price and isn't accessible to the average person. There are no seafood restaurants around that don't sell shrimp. It's incredibly profitable, but we are trying to show that you can still be successful without it. We also don't carry freshwater eel, yellowtail, octopus, farmed salmon and Maine sea urchin. We want to reimagine, reinvent and evolve the cuisine of sushi into the most sustainable food possible.

You have a new menu debuting in a few weeks. Are you removing anything else?
Tuna is something that we are in the process of phasing out. It won't be on our new menu. Six of the eight most popular types of tuna are threatened. It's considered the bedrock of modern sushi, but we want to show other restaurants that you don't need tuna to create sushi.

How have people reacted to these decisions? Any complaints?
By and large, we get a lot of support from people who really have faith that we're trying to do the right thing. We initially removed items that we thought people would be less concerned about: Octopus and then Maine sea urchin. When we took freshwater eel off the menu five years ago, people really started freaking out. They would walk out of the restaurant. The waiters and I had to deal with that and it was a bit painful. Now we have a reputation for doing sushi in a completely different way, so they are more accepting, but that isn't to say people aren't shocked.

What sustainable ingredients have you used as replacements?
I recently acquired 100 acres of shellfishing grounds and a refurbished lobster boat. We're creating recipes from ingredients that you can get within a ten-mile radius of Miya's. The new ingredients that will replace shrimp and tuna are different species of local seaweeds, one of which is commonly called "dead man's fingers." It's much more delicious than the name would suggest. We use Asian shore crabs and sea robbins, which are popular in places like northern France where seaweed is used in bouillabaisse. Porgie and smelt are also abundant. If you go to a seafood restaurant in New England, chances are that the shrimp are going to be from Thailand. Same goes for clams on the half-shell or oysters. We're being inspired by a local food movement that was started not long ago by Alice Waters, but we're really applying it to seafood.

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