Life in Salt: An Interview with Invasive Species Chef Bun Lai
by Owen James Burke
“I have always played in the water, be it a spring, a stream, a river, a pond, or the ocean. I mean, when I was a little kid, I used to dream about it. I would have dreams that I would come downstairs and the apartment floor would be covered with water and I’d go fishing in it.”
-Bun Lai, Miya’s Sushi
Bun Lai is an award-winning, world-renowned chef best-known for his invasive species cuisine. His menu, which is 52 pages long, is comrpised of invasive and highly-abundant, underutilized species from in and around Long Island Sound including everything from snails to swans and invasive feral rabbit served with jellyfish is his conscientious ode to surf-and-turf.
When he’s not busy running his restaurant (which is open 365 days a year), giving speeches or teaching seminars, he can be found on the 60-square acre patch of shellfishing grounds he rents off the Thimble Islands in Connecticut, which, he admits, he and his friends mostly use to “splash around in [their] underwear.”
Scut: When did you first take to the ocean, and what drew you in?
BL: I’ve always been drawn to the ocean. My parents come from places that are surrounded by the ocean…they’re both really lovers of seafood, so I grew up eating lots of fish and loving it. I grew up in New Haven, where my brother and I used to spend a lot of time fishing the Mill River. When we were little we used to dragnet it, too (we didn’t know it was illegal). I guess when you do something with that kind of innocence, it’s completely overlooked. We used to sell our catch to immigrants in the apartment complex. I never knew that Indians liked fish, until they started buying our perch. We used to go down to the ocean a lot, go gather muscles and drag for shiners.
Scut: Shiners were always bait to me.
BL: The Chinese value small fish…you don’t want to be eating from the top of the food chain, and we also know that the smaller fish are more abundant…obviously the herbivores are the best type of fish to eat, like the shiners we just talked about.
Scut: So you’re mother has a degree as a nutritionist, and your father is a surgeon, educated at Cambridge University? Did you have an environmentalist streak from the start?
BL: Yeah. Both of my parents are gardeners. When my mom started Miyas, she used to bring all sorts of vegetables that she farmed herself, and never called it farm-to-table. She’s a country girl. She grew up eating stuff that was growing and caught in her backyard…she really wanted to bring that experience back to New Haven and that’s why she opened up Miya’s. Coupled with her passion for healthy eating.
Scut: Here you are in New England where sushi itself has only been popular for so long, and you’re removing the staples — the fish most people recognize as being suitable for sushi (tuna, freshwater eel, octopus); I’m envisioning a revolt. How did the concept of an invasive species menu first come to mind, and how did you envision executing it?
BL: I became aware of invasive species when I was hanging out with my friend Yancy, who’s now a professor in anthropology in Australia. We’d go out and throw rocks into the ocean, and noticed that there were these crabs that we hadn’t seen before. We looked them up and they were the invasive Asian shore crab. During that period I was already interested in species of seafood that were abundant but underutilized because I was starting to become aware of the fact that many of the species that we were eating were also having the most negative impact on the environment. So, Yancy and I discussed the possibility of going after invasive species as a supply chain for food, and it kind of made sense for the cuisine of sushis.
Sushi has really celebrated exotic ingredients, like food that’s poisonous. The fugu [blowfish], for instance — that’s poisonous. A parallel to fugu of the invasive species, is the lion fish. They’re both poisonous and they both have these sharp spines and they’re poisonous. Truth be told, these exotic species weren’t embraced, originally, and more than anything just kind of scared people off. To this day, we have one or two tables every single day that look at our menu, get up and leave. ‘You don’t have eel on the menu, or, ‘you guys don’t have tuna, what kind of sushi restaurant are you?’ Or, ‘Wait, we don’t recognize these recipes; this isn’t sushi.’
Menhaden or bunker nigiri sushi, something fishermen from the eastern seaboard of the U.S. only recognize as bait.
Scut: How did you come up with a 52-page invasive species menu? How did you decide — or discover — what you could pull of putting on your menu? I’d never imagine trying to eat something like dead man’s fingers or Asian shore crabs. Even though, those things if put in front of me I would eat without hesitation, I just can’t see either of them on a plate in a restaurant.
BL: I generally do not just pop something into my mouth, so I am definitely surrounded by smarter people than myself. Years ago, when we were looking at interesting Long Island species, I said, “Yancy, we should try eating this,” and then Yancy was like, “Actually we can’t eat these. These mussels actually hold onto toxins…and then for seaweed — you can’t eat all varieties of seaweed…You want to eat seaweed that’s definitely the correct species, and then in waters that are certified for shellfish. If it’s clean enough for shellfish, it’s clean enough for seaweed. For that, I’ve got my friend Charles Yarish, who’s the foremost seaweed expert at UConn…and for invasive species, I have also worked with Joe Roman, who’s a scientist as well. There’s a lot of people who’ve helped me out. It starts with a little curiosity on my part, and then everyone kind of jumps in and helps me go in the right direction. I’m getting an education without having to pay the tuition.
Scut: Most people think of Long Island Sound as a ‘dirty’ or ‘unsafe’ body of water from which to harvest. At one point, I believe much of it was still considered to be part of the East River. People think of three-headed fish coming out of these waters. If they do eat from them, they will only consider one of about 5 or 6 species as “food.” How do you appeal to people with things like sea robin?
BL: It’s one of the easiest types of fish to catch…and incredibly, incredibly, abundant. Sea robins have a really great, tender flesh. They make great sashimi, by the way.
BL: Oh yeah, they do. We’ve ceviche’d them, and they’re incredibly easy to fillet. And, you know, sea robin is eaten in northern France. They use it commonly in bouillabaisse. The average person that comes into Miya’s is much more adventurous than the rest of the population. I think it’s safe to say that all of the people who are return customers at Miya’s know that they are not going to be getting a conventional sushi experience. I think returning customers know that sustainability is a driving principle for us.
That said, when I create recipes, I do keep people’s preferences in mind. You know? Like, I can’t go way too out there just because some tribe somewhere in the Amazon likes to eat fish eyes and think I can make it work for this audience over here. So Miya’s is as adventurous as we can fiscally make it.
Lionfish sashimi is one among many other dishes you won’t find but at Miya’s.
Scut: As New England is willing to handle?
BL: Or as adventurous as people are willing to pay. I personally would like to be much more adventurous than we are right now, but we’d probably go bankrupt if I did that. We have a couple tables leaving a day — we’re open 365 days a year — over 700 tables a year are leaving. If you talk about a typical restaurant, barely anyone leaves, because they know what to expect. They’re pretty shocking numbers because Miya’s is a very high-profile restaurant.
Scut: I take appreciation that you have all of that on offer.
BL: I wish you would spend millions to eat at Miya’s; we’d have a lot of crazy stuff.
Scut: Do you serve any of the more mainstream species from the Sound, like striped bass, fluke, porgy or bluefish?
BL: Once in a while we do, but it’s not my preference. We might do it a couple of times a year because a friend of mine brings it in, but truth be told, I don’t want to be working with sports species and fish…I’m really more interested in putting uncommon fish on the plate. That said, it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. There’s an explosion of dogfish right now, but dogfish are incredibly high in mercury…but it’s not something that I can really use on the menu at Miya’s. You’re trying to feed people healthy food, so, cholesterol is one thing, but mercury is a whole other thing, you know?
I do love bluefish. I especially love the snapper blues. I grew up just eating the heck out of those things. They’re better for you when they’re smaller anyway.
Scut: Have you ever made sushi or sashimi with bluefish?
BL: Snapper blues that are no bigger than say a Boston mackerel, I think those are the tastiest for sashimi.
Scut: Almost everything I see on your menu makes me question my understanding of sushi…What’s your favorite dish on your invasive species menu right now?
BL: The most popular is the invasive shore crab, and we’re working on the green crab, because the European green crab populations are blowing up in Maine and in parts of Canada. We don’t have a source for them right now, and we can’t catch them right now ourselves, because there are almost no green crabs from Rhode Island through here because they’ve been wiped out by the Asian shore crabs.
Invasive seaweed, periwinkle snails, and oven-crisped Asian and European shore crabs, all in the shape of a mammalian heart.
Scut: So what do you do with the shore crab? What’s your preparation of that?
BL: We simply deep-fry them in canola oil so that they’re crisp like a soft-shell crab and then we season them. At home, I tell people to squeeze a little lime on them and they’re awesome with some Old Bay seasoning. It’s so good that way, and so easy to do.
Scut: I read that you rent 60 acres of fishing grounds off the Thimble Islands, and you have two fishing boats which also serve as research vessels —
BL: Mostly as research vessels, because we don’t really grow anything on those acres. We just splash around in our underwear. The fact of it is, I don’t have a green thumb, and I’m not going to get into the business of oystering or clamming. Those guys are really great at what they’re doing; that’s really hard work. So, for us, it just allows us to have a patch of ocean that’s ours that we can actually mess around in without getting in trouble.
Scut: How much of what you serve do you catch yourself?
BL: In the whole scheme of things, not that much. Probably more than most restaurants, definitely on the East Coast. The West Coast has more support, as far as a community that forages, but, I can’t say it’s the bulk of it. Our time, energy, and financial inputs cost us much more money than we actually make. We’re lucky at Miya’s, because Miya’s is a really old restaurant, and we don’t have any investors, we don’t have a landlord, and that gives us a lot more flexibility to do stuff that we really want to be doing. So, a lot of people just don’t have the luxury. People don’t really realize that restaurants work on incredibly tight margins, too. When you’re talking about some of these top restaurants around, many of these restaurants aren’t really making money. It’s actually pretty crazy.
Scut: I understand you spend a lot of time on the sea, and your adventures there aren’t just culinary. What’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened to you at sea?
BL: I once made love to eleven women at once in the blue waters of West Haven — no, hehehe. Jeez, I don’t even know.
Scut: Better yet, what is it about the sea that does it for you?
BL: I’m not sure why I’m exactly drawn to the sea, but I always have been. I’ve always been drawn to the water, and my brother and I have always played in the water, be it a spring, a stream, a river, a pond, or the ocean. I mean, when I was a little kid, I used to dream about it. I would have dreams that I would come downstairs and the apartment floor would be covered with water and I’d go fishing in it. I’d have dreams like that all the time. We’d spend summers trying to make ponds, and that sort of stuff. The one spoiled regret that I have about it: in the perfect world, I would have a pond in my backyard as well.
When I’m in the ocean, after I come out — after diving — I always feel like I’m physically and mentally renewed and refreshed. I feel stronger than when I went in. I feel like my mind is crisper, and I’m happier. So, the summer can’t come fast enough for me. I know that I’m supposed to appreciate the seasons, but I always miss the water. I kind of feel like every winter, I’m less healthy than I was in the summer. I think many people feel like that, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that I am in the water a lot during the summertime, and it does keep me healthy.
Scut: Well, get yourself a kayak and a dry suit, and you can have plenty of fun out there.
BL: I don’t know if I love it that much. I don’t love it as much as you, Owen.
Scut: So, what gratifies you most about what you do?
BL: I am blessed to be what I’m doing. Many people don’t have the opportunity to be doing the kind of work that is in line with what they love. So, I’ve never really had to grow up, because I’m doing exactly what I’ve always loved to do. When I was a kid in high school — when I was going to college — I remember thinking ‘oh my god, there’s not a single job out there for me, because there’s nothing that I want to do. I don’t want to be a lawyer, I don’t want to do this’…everything seemed kind of meaningless — and that’s because I was a kid, too, you know — but man, I really lucked out, because where I am today, it’s everything I really loved as a kid and then more. And then, to be directed in my work by a care for people and for the natural world and living things; that’s not a bad way to be either. Cooking is perfect, because cooking is a way of expressing your appreciation and love for other people. So when you do it half decently, you create a lot of happiness around you. It sure beats being like, a divorce attorney. Most people come in happy at restaurants, unless your Miya’s, and then you shock a few people, but most people are happy.
Scut: How would you say the sea has changed you since you were young?
BL: The sea’s changed me because I can’t remember anything anymore, because I probably have a huge, toxic mercury load in my brain because of all the fish I’ve eaten… (Kitchen noise)
Scut: What are you cooking now?
BL: Just some Boston mackerel, we threw some salt on it and are throwing it in the oven.
Scut: Being a chef of seafood, what tool or utensil do you rely on most?
BL: Most sushi chefs would say their best $1,000-2,000 sushi knife, but in the Thimble Islands, a clamming knife. If you have a clamming knife, you’re going to live all summer long.
Scut: And maybe develop gout.
BL: Well, you’ve got to eat plenty of seaweed and drink lots of water.
Scut: How often do you get out into or on the water, in the summer?
BL: At least twice a week, but probably more than that.
Scut: One more question, and then I’ll let you get to your dinner. What’s your favorite book right now?
BL: I’ve always had The Saltwater Fisherman’s Bible. Right now, The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons: 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine, and 101 Things I learned in Culinary School, which is a great little book, being that I didn’t go to culinary school.
Another book I have on my shelf right now is Tiny Game Hunting: Environmentally Friendly Ways to Trap Tiny Pests in Your House and Garden. I think the next thing I’ll do is become a — you know there are like big-game hunters — I’ll become the complete opposite. I’ll go out and hunt like, crickets.
Scut: I smell a Travel Channel special.
BL: We’ll go minnow fishing, and we’ll strap ourselves in the chairs.
Scut: You’re on.
A day in the life of Bun Lai, chronicled by Scientific American editor Michael Moyer:
Top image by J.P Velotti, courtesy of Bun Lai. All other images by Bun Lai