Oct 20, 2011
09:11 AMCafé Connecticut
Chef Bun Makes Waves
Bun Lai wants to change the way you think about eating—especially when it comes to sushi. In fact, the winsome chef-owner of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven seems determined to totally reinvent sushi as more planet-friendly fare. “Nine out of ten seafoods used for sushi are not sustainable,” he says. “Top sushi chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa have been incredibly creative in evolving flavors and presentations but unwilling to stop using unsustainable seafoods.” This is heretical talk in the world of sushi, but Bun maintains that “if mankind doesn’t put the brakes on such runaway consumption, nature may soon do it for him.”
Take shrimp and tuna, the two most popular seafoods in America. “Shrimp is the world’s most ecologically destructive seafood,” says Bun. “As a wild product, it’s responsible for one-third of all bycatch (unwanted marine species caught in the nets while fishing for another species); as a farmed product, it’s the principal cause of destruction of mangrove forest.” Tuna is similarly problematic. “Six out of eight species are already overfished and tuna is the principal source of harmful mercury in Americans’ diet. Furthermore, while 80 percent of American seafood is imported, the Food and Drug Administration can inspect only 1 percent of it, meaning Americans wind up consuming banned pesticides and antibiotics.”
Bun began gradually removing unsustainable ingredients from his menu back in 2003. The first item to go was Maine sea urchin, followed soon after by octopus. But it was the removal of freshwater eel (unagi) a few years ago that “sparked massive amounts of protest” from diners, Bun recalls ruefully. The eel population had dropped 90 percent since the 1960s, and it took many pounds of sardines and anchovies fed to elvers to generate one pound of eel, “making it an unethical product.”
“At the same time that we were removing certain proteins,” says Bun, “we were developing a vegetarian-friendly menu that people either loved or hated. There was no middle ground.” Those unfamiliar with the vegetarian side of Bun’s menu will find it witty, worldly, quirky—and delicious. Bun likes to incorporate influences from all around the globe. The Hot-Headed Cowgirl Roll (“inspired by all strong women who like to ride bulls”) is a coconut-covered roll of avocado, cream cheese, papaya, burdock and hot pepper. The Japafrican Queen Roll (“created by African bushmen to nourish them during their seasonal migrations”) features eggplant, goat cheese, apricot, avocado, pickled radish, scallion and Ethiopian berbere spice mix wrapped in a teff-grain crêpe.
But Bun was far from done. “After eel, I took farmed salmon off the menu,” he says. “And now, we have even dropped shrimp and tuna from our latest menu. I know of no other sushi restaurant in the world that doesn’t serve shrimp or tuna.”
What has been lost from Bun’s menu, however, has actually led to great gains in innovation. Bun is leading a new movement to target invasive species for consumption, simultaneously identifying new and flavorful foods and culling unwanted nuisances, which in turn helps take pressure off native species. He’s the Johnny Appleseed of this new movement, generously sharing his methods for making tasty meals of invasive species with other chefs when most zealously guard their recipes.
In doing so, he’s won the admiration of local-food pioneer, chef and author Michel Nischan, owner of Dressing Room in Westport. “Bun Lai is the first chef serving invasive species as a sustainable solution to our current seafood crisis,” says Nischan. “He dives deeper, works harder to find edible invasives, and cooks them beautifully. If we had a bunch more Bun Lais, the outlook for our oceans would be very bright indeed.”
Miya’s hyper-local menu includes invasive species like lionfish, Asian shore crabs, Japanese knotweed (with a taste between asparagus and rhubarb), red algae (used in seaweed salad) and even a seaweed called dead man’s fingers (used in miso soup). “Isn’t the sushi experience all about trying exotic foods anyway?” Bun asks. He’d also like to employ more species that are local, abundant and not commercially appreciated. He’s building a cold smoker for bluefish. His unusual approach to sushi hasn’t stopped Miya’s from having lines out the door or from winning Best Sushi Statewide in this magazine the past four years.
Bun’s innovations have also placed him in high demand as a spokesperson for the sustainability movement. In September, he was the keynote speaker at the American Fisheries Society 141st Annual Meeting in Seattle. He spoke for an hour about climate change and taking nature for granted, and about the challenges involved in making whole, sustainable food affordable. He made the West Coast trip by RV with a friend who’s a documentary filmmaker, along the way fishing, foraging and exploring the American foodscape.
Bun wants to be an example, not just to sushi restaurants but to all seafood restaurants, which tend to serve few, if any, local seafoods. As innovative as he is, however, he’s more realist than extremist. There are those who believe sustainability must be all or nothing, but Bun believes in encouraging baby steps. I wondered if his successes might be attributable to his winning personality, but he set me straight. “These ideas are slowly spreading,” he says. “They’re bigger than any one person.”