Maryland chefs want to put snakeheads on the menu

Chef Chad Wells of Alewife restaurant tossed chunks of raw snakehead fish with cilantro and citrus to make something more ambitious than an $8 ceviche appetizer. It was an invasive-species eradication plan in a martini glass.

Wells wants the Asian interloper, which has settled with alarming ease into Chesapeake-area rivers, streams and perhaps the bay itself, to find a new home on restaurant menus. The chef is confident that once diners get a taste of snakehead, they can be counted on to do what they've always done with toothsome fish: wipe them out.

"We've proved time and again, the best way to destroy something is get humans involved," Wells said.

Right now, the people most bent on reeling in snakeheads are chefs, who think serving invasive species could represent an important new twist on the sustainable seafood movement. Some of the biggest names in regional restaurants — "Top Chef" rivals Bryan Voltaggio and Mike Isabella, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Scott Drewno of Washington's The Source by Wolfgang Puck — are trying to get their hands on the fish so they can slice, dice and pan sear the thing into oblivion.

"We've been doing the complete opposite and focusing on conserving species," said Voltaggio, owner of Volt restaurant in Frederick. "Here's a fish you can feel good about depleting."

Chef Barton Seaver, formerly of the sustainable seafood restaurant Hook in Georgetown, served snakefish in June as part of an invasive species sushi bar at the National Geographic Society gala.

"Eating invasive species is a really fun and interesting and charismatic way of attacking a very acute problem, said Seaver, who advocates for sustainable seafood as a National Geographic Fellow.

It helps that snakehead, which he served lightly smoked, over rice, with a little dab of sweet soy sauce, is quite tasty.

"It had the same dense, meaty and yet flaky texture of eel with a real sweet aftertaste to it," he said. "It's a good fish. It should be. It spends all day eating bass and other tasty fish."

Chefs are in a unique position to influence what people eat and, by extension, what species thrive and survive, he said.

"The guiding hand of natural selection has really become that of the cook," Seaver said. "It's no longer a deified hand or a long, slow evolutionary process."

Snakeheads are one species that environmentalist would like to see overfished since they are rapidly reproducing and threatening native fish populations. A similar movement is under way for lionfish and Asian carp in parts of the country where those fish are causing problems.

"Can't beat 'em, eat 'em," is the slogan from Louisiana chef Philippe Parola, who cooked Asian carp for attendees of the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force meeting in Arkansas last spring.

When it comes to land-based invasives, Parola campaigned for five years to promote nutria as a protein source. He said red tape with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not Americans' aversion to eating rodent, doomed that project. But he's optimistic about snakehead.

"I think the problem can be resolved by having more anglers fishing for it," he said.

Some experts question how much of a dent a commercial fishery can make in snakehead numbers. They also worry that the plan could backfire by creating a fan base for the fish.

"If people get a taste for this new fish and they're just wild about it, what happens when they're eradicated?" asked Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director for the Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. "Will people reintroduce them in order to try and have a market for this fish, or will they simply walk away — 'That was a good fish, I enjoyed eating it'? There's just an element of the unknown here. We're not sure how the market will respond."

Seaver agrees that's a risk.

"Once you create a viable human economic interest in a species, then there's incentive to keep it around," he said.

Native to Asia, snakeheads are thought to have arrived in area waters after being dumped by people who kept them as pets or by Chinese restaurants, which sometimes serve them. Since snakeheads were first discovered in a Crofton pond in 2002, their numbers have grown exponentially.

"In 2004, we had 20 caught," said Steve Minkkinen, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "Now hundreds and hundreds are getting caught every year. … They're in every tributary of the Potomac from Great Falls to the mouth of the river."

Long thought to live only in fresh water, snakeheads may have made their way into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay because heavy spring rains caused salinity levels to drop to record lows, Minkkinen said. A 23-inch snakehead caught last week in a river south of Annapolis has underscored the concern that the fish are escaping from the Potomac.

The fish have rows of sharp teeth and the ability to slither short distances on land. Thanks to a primitive lung and prolific slime production, they can survive out of the water for several days. All of which have helped snakeheads earn the name Frankenfish — and none of which makes it an obvious choice for dinner.

Two things piqued local chefs' interest in the fish recently. When Seaver ordered snakeheads for his invasive species dinner, his fish wholesaler had a few extra. He gave them to Isabella and Drewno to try out. And they liked what they tasted.

"We tried it out in the kitchen," said Drewno. "The staff loved it. … I would like to play around with them for sure. I thought it was really clean tasting. I thought it was mostly like a sturgeon, pretty meaty, and the fat content is pretty high."

Around the same time in Baltimore, Wells got interested in snakehead. An avid fisherman since youth, he set out last month to catch some himself on several outings with Steve Vilnit, a friend and fisheries official with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Wells has yet to catch a snakehead, but he's been tweeting about his snakehead quest, and that caught the interest of several chefs and restaurateurs who follow his Twitter feed, including Tori Marriner of Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia. Those chefs have, in turn, started pestering their suppliers for snakeheads.

"I've gotten more calls about snakeheads in the last two weeks than anything else," said John Rorapaugh of ProFish, a Washington wholesaler. "There is a definite buzz about it."

It doesn't hurt that snakehead will be an affordable fish, wholesaling for about $3 a pound, Rorapaugh said. Sturgeon, by comparison, fetches $7 to $8 a pound wholesale.

Despite the fish's abundance, chefs have had trouble getting their hands on it. It has been spawning recently in shallow waters, making it hard to catch, Rorapaugh said.

ProFish did manage to snag two snakeheads last week and took them to Wells. The fish were about 6 pounds apiece, and after washing considerable slime of the surface, the chef set out to see how they'd taste.

"All I want to do is prove this fish is versatile and useable," Wells said as he cut into them.

He tried some raw, sauteed small pieces for a fish taco, grilled filets and deep-fried more for po' boys. He had a small group of friends and associates try the results.

"Ooh, that's nice," Wells declared on his first bite of the raw fish. "It's, like, meaty, super clean actually."

The group declared that snakehead tasted — wait for it — just like chicken, at least in terms of its dense texture. The flavor was not like the bird's, except in the sense that it was mild enough to work with lots of different seasonings, from the chimichurri sauce in the taco to the remoulade on the po' boy.

The texture was noticeably flakier when the fish was deep-fried for the po' boy, which Wells and most of the tasters declared their favorite preparation. Wells had enough scraps of the fish left over to make 10 servings of ceviche, which he offered to his Twitter followers.

"They were all sold within 10 minutes of my Twitter posting," he said. "We are working hard to get more in from local commercial fishermen."

Wells called the appetizer snakehead ceviche, casting aside advice to try selling the fish as channa, a shortening of its official Latin name, Channa argus. Customers are going to ask what channa is anyway, he reasoned, and promoting it as an invasive could tap into the eco-friendly-dining zeitgeist.

He might even go with Frankenfish for lower-priced items, such as a tacos offered as a late-night option in the bar. There is a bit of macho appeal that way.

"If it sounds like a monster," he said, "people will eat it."