Interview: Sustainable Seafood with Chef John Critchley of Area 31

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/Adam Larkey Photography

Area 31 is a seafood restaurant in downtown Miami.  It is located in the Epic Hotel, which is part of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. The restaurant’s name refers to the United Nation’s designation for the marine area including the Southeast Atlantic Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and South America’s northeast coast. Area 31′s menu highlights sustainable fish and local ingredients, so Chef John Critchley naturally sources much of the restaurant’s seafood from these closer waters rather than from farther oceans.  This summer, Chef Critchley started a prix-fixe five-course sustainable seafood and local menu.

Chef Critchley grew up on the coast of Massachusetts.  He worked at restaurants in Boston including Ken Oringer’s Clio Restaurant and Uni Sashimi Bar.  He opened Toro, a tapas bar, with Oringer.  Before arriving in Miami to work at Area 31, he spent some time working at an oyster farm in Massachusetts.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Island Creek Oyster Company?

Well, I started working for Kimpton Hotels and I was task forcing in San Francisco.  So I was going back and forth between Boston and San Francisco.  I worked with my friends at Island Creek Oyster Company over the winter, which was really fun and cold.

I basically worked as their harvester. I made sure the oyster beds were clean and organized.  I would sort out the oysters for all the restaurants that I used to cook at. I grew up two towns north of there and I just loved the ocean. So, I was able to wake up every morning and be on the ocean.

It’s clear that you love what you do-that you love fish, working with fish, going fishing…

I’m not much of a fisherman actually.  I love to be in the water-I like to go snorkeling, I love to surf.  Certainly, when I was little, we used to go fishing all of the time. Anytime I can actually be on the water or in the water, I’m happy.

As far as cooking fish, I’ve always thought there’s just so many different varieties [of fish] and that there’s so many things you can do with fish.  Even from one day to the next, fish can take on different flavors.  I think there’s an endless [variety] of things we can do, especially having worked in a sashimi bar, a tapas restaurant and a French restaurant.

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The kitchen at Area 31/ David Samayoa

There is an endless variety of things we can do, but there is not an endless supply of fish.  What does it mean when it says on your menu that Area 31 supports the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program?

Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants partnered up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  They kind of guide us.  It’s really a challenge to figure out where everything is coming from and what is potentially endangered.  So, Monterey Bay put a great program together to give us the information that we can go by and explain to us the reasons for certain things.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has little pocket guides. They’ll do the research. They’ll do the legwork and then they’ll help guide us to make informed decisions, as opposed to just saying, “This is bad.  Don’t use it.”

For example, grouper reproduce very slowly and are overfished, so [Kimpton Group] is working on possibly taking a break from using them.  We don’t serve them in our restaurant.

We just kind of feel our way through and try to figure out what’s really best for the environment.

Even with the guide, it’s complicated.  Mahi mahi caught with a pole as opposed to a net might be ok, but how do you know what it was caught with when you go to the seafood counter?

It is complicated.   If corvina is caught in the Gulf of California, then it’s no good but if it’s caught down by Nicaragua or Panama, then it’s better. It’s pretty challenging and it can make your head spin.

Well, at least when people go to dine at Area 31, they know that you’ve done your research.

It raises the consciousness.  We’re by no means perfect on all of them.  I still have to work with my purveyors to make sure that we’re getting the proper things.  It’s a great start though.  It’s great to at least be putting so much effort into it, especially with all of the hotels Kimpton has.

When you designed the menu for Area 31, did you know it was going to be a sustainable seafood restaurant or did you help design that concept?

Kimpton was pretty clear about what they wanted.  They wanted a seafood concept with a Mediterranean influence. I [interpreted] this not as Mediterranean food, but more as a Mediterranean feeling-light, fresh, simple, lots of nice olive oils, lots of fresh fish.  Then I took on the sustainability as part of Kimpton. Area 31 just took it to another level by saying we’re only going to source fish from here, since we have the name.  It seemed pretty silly to fly fish all the way from the Mediterranean.  And then, one of the other challenges is: with local fish, there’s a reason that people cook it the way they do versus in the Mediterranean.  So, to get that balance and to get that theory across was a challenge.

I think we’ve done a good job of keeping it Mediterranean-esque as more of a feeling than the flavors.  And then the sustainability part came with our commitment to always keep progressing.

I enjoy following you on Twitter (@chefcritchley).  I read a tweet by you the other day about how Chef Greg was lonely.  You invited diners to stop by and visit him, and you offered them a drink if they did.

He was lonely [laughing]. The company asked me to do Twitter. They said, “This is a great marketing tool.  It’s really taking off.”  So they thought this would be a great idea to put their chefs out there, since this is a chef-driven company.  It’s kind of a no-brainer.  You’re not having to do too much.  You’re not having to go make an appearance.  If you get people to follow you, great.  Sometimes I can even ask people to come in and try a menu, on me, or if Chef Lynn [Moulton] tries a new dessert, I’ll buy people dessert.  If we pick up ten people, great.  It sure beats throwing coupons out there and trying to attract people that way.  Now they’re coming in because of a specific reason.

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3 Responses to “Interview: Sustainable Seafood with Chef John Critchley of Area 31”

  1. MIcah Flint
    August 17, 2009 at 9:33 am #

    Great interview – really cool to hear some of the theory behind this great restaurant. Also, the photo of the kitchen is stunning – love the long exposure giving a sense of the buzzing activity.

  2. August 22, 2009 at 9:44 am #

    Excellent piece! Now I’ve got to go try this place.

  3. January 12, 2010 at 5:46 pm #

    I was at the media lunch today and as most food writers, you really need to impress me if you want me to follow up with a story. Are you scared? What will I write? Will I be mean or kneeling down at the chefs toes with admiration?

    It was an AMAZING lunch! So creative, delicious and full of wonderful flavors. Wines were perfectly paired with the great, innovative selections. The portions aren’t large, the indoor decor is bland, but the food is GREAT! Executive Chef John Critchley is a culinary artist. Creative, adventure seeking and passionate. Prepare your taste buds for an awesome trip through lunch or dinner. Marguerite Gil (famae.org)

    Just DELICIOUS!!!!!

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