Arizona’s Danielle Leoni is an award-winning chef and nationally recognized advocate for sustainable seafood and healthy oceans. Amid the lingering health and economic crisis, I asked her how she is working to keep clean food on the front burner for chefs and consumers alike.
You didn’t have the most traditional trajectory into becoming a James Beard-recognized chef and restauranteur. Can you explain?
I became the chef and co-owner of The Breadfruit and Rum Bar by happenstance. I was running a yoga school. I always thought I’d live on the side of a mountain somewhere practicing ayurvedic medicine. When my partner wanted to open a restaurant inspired by his native Jamaica, I helped him get it running. We demo’d the space and built it brick by brick.
My prior cooking experience was essentially working in a sandwich shop for a few months as a teenager, so I would go home after 12-14 hour days running the restaurant and watch YouTube videos, learning professional techniques and how to make food for up to 20 diners a night.
You are constantly “fighting for food.” What does that mean?
I was raised to believe that if you don’t like something, and you are willing to say it out loud, you better be willing to do something about it. I know what I want—oceans that are healthy and a strong economy. To do this, all I can change is my own behavior and be an example to my community, so I only buy green-listed seafood. I research fishers’ practices, and I tell my colleagues in the restaurant industry how easy it is to be successful and responsible at the same time.
What do you tell them exactly?
Most people eat seafood out, so if chefs decide to buy sustainably, the entire community eats sustainably. Chefs and restauranteurs have enormous buying power, and the power to shift practices. The Breadfruit & Rum Bar is a tiny little restaurant and we bought $80,000 worth of seafood last year, all of which is sustainable. Chefs sometimes think they must have consistency on a menu, when in fact customers go crazy for items with limited availability. They also appreciate offerings that are in tune with the ebb and flow of seasonality, best practices and the planet.
How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your business?
I have not opened my doors since March 19, and just opened to do a pop-up on July 17th as a means to support our local farmers. As restaurants try to stay afloat, I am seeing my colleagues pivot to products that are less expensive but come at significant cost to the planet. Progress we have made up until now has all of a sudden become nice to have—but not a requirement. It’s been painful to watch. We all need reminders of why supporting sustainable seafood is so important.
Why is the health of our oceans and our fisheries important to you?
Living in the desert, our relationship to water is critical. Our cities and towns are built around it. Our lives depend on it. Whether you are a restaurant owner or a consumer—regardless of where you live—if you want quality seafood, you have to make sure that the water is healthy.
I want to be able to eat and serve all these beautiful delicious things, which means we need to support the systems and people that make it possible. At the end of the day, we won’t have the freedom to lead the lives we want if our food systems aren’t strong.
Where would you point consumers who are looking to make responsible seafood purchases?
One really great resource that I rely on is Seafood Watch, run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I have the Seafood Watch app on my phone and is my "go to" when I buy seafood. Green-listed products are always a go, which allows me to stop thinking about it and go about my other planning.
Here in the United States, we have the best, most well-managed fisheries in the world. A rule of thumb is that if you are buying U.S., wild-caught seafood, you are very likely making a good decision. As a consumer, it’s up to you to ask questions of waitstaff and fish markets about where their seafood comes from and how it’s harvested. If you don’t like the answer, walk away.
Looking to the future, what are you hopeful for?
I am hopeful that more people will come to understand that their food has an origin. It comes from the hard work of chefs and fishers alike. The life of a chef and the life of a fisher are quite similar—working with our hands in confined spaces, covered in sweat and without breaks. We work hard because we love it, and I hope more people are unafraid to speak out on the importance of sustainable fisheries. We have nothing to lose, only a healthy world to gain.
To hear more from Chef Danielle Leoni, watch From Hook to Table: Keeping Seafood Safe & Sustainable During COVID-19, a Walton Family Foundation-hosted event held June 25, 2020.