Conservation-conscious chef takes hammour off the menu

Hotel restaurants adapt offerings to help save popular species like the hammour, which is fished at seven times its sustainable level.

Executive chef Olivier Loreaux introduced more than 30 sustainable fish dishes.
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ABU DHABI // In his white overalls and tall chef's hat, Olivier Loreaux does not look like an activist. Those who work to protect the UAE's most threatened - and ubiquitous - fish are usually government officials, scientists and conservationists. But Mr Loreaux has become an effective ally in the fight to conserve hammour, which is so popular that it is fished at seven times its sustainable level.

Mr Loreaux's job as the executive chef of a five-star hotel has nothing to do with imposing limits on fishermen or measuring the size of fish populations. However, by working with the team of chefs at Le Royal Méridien in Abu Dhabi, he has helped to educate guests and set an example for other hoteliers by changing the menu and buffets to reflect that the fish is threatened with extinction. "I like this challenge because it is important for the future," he said. "If we continue the same way, hammour and tuna, in 10 years it will all be gone."

Mr Loreaux was spurred into action by the Emirates Wildlife Society - World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF) Choose Wisely campaign. Launched in April, it aims to educate consumers and restaurants about alternatives to hammour, kingfish and six other fish species that have declined on average by 80 per cent between 1978 and the early years of this decade. The campaign aims to get the eight threatened species off menus and out of shopping carts, replacing them with 11 alternatives.

This year, Nesreen al Zahlawi, one of the campaigners, took Mr Loreaux to the Abu Dhabi fish market. Some of the fish on offer were so small they had not had a chance to reproduce. After the sustainable alternatives had been pointed out to him, Mr Loreaux briefed his chefs and gave them a week to come up with suitable recipes. With its creamy white texture, the hammour, or orange-spotted grouper, was "like hommous and tabouleh" here, Mr Loreaux said, adding that imagination might have as much to do with saving it as science and regulation.

If people ventured outside the confines of the staple diet and looked for other local fish, they could help avert the decline of the hammour as well as have many enjoyable meals with more abundant varieties, he said. The hotel's four restaurants have each begun offering one dish prepared with sustainable fish. The concept has been expanded to the dinner cruises on its Shuja boat. One alternative is the two-bar seabream, also known in Arabic as faskar, which Amalfi, the hotel's Italian restaurant, serves in potato crust with stewed zucchini and aubergine.

The faskar is one of seven local fish that the Choose Wisely team said was not declining and could be eaten without restrictions. Mr Loreaux said it was proving popular with customers. "Guests say it is fresh and tasty," he said. At Soba, a Japanese restaurant, faskar features in a sashimi dish. It is accompanied by the king soldier bream, or kofar, and the small tooth emperor, or souli. These two fish are listed among four species that the campaign recommends be eaten in moderation.

At the Al Fanar restaurant, souli is served poached with fennel, citrus jus and shellfish. So far, hotel guests had been on board, said Simona Fianchini, the restaurant manager. "When guests ask us for hammour, we explain why we do not have it on the menu," she said. "Actually, they like it. Hammour is soft, this tastes more of fish. Guests enjoy." While some of the hotel's other restaurants still offer hammour a la carte, said Mr Loreaux, it had been removed from buffets. In addition, the sustainable dishes are marked on the menu as responsible choices.

The plan, he said, was to expand the programme to the five other Starwood Hotels and Resorts in the capital, including the Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel and Resort and Aloft Abu Dhabi. Ms al Zahlawi is busy lobbying other hotels, and is confident that they will follow suit. "At this moment, Chef Olivier and Le Royal Méridien Abu Dhabi are the only ones to make sustainable fish dishes a permanent feature of their menus," she said. "We are engaging with other hotel operators and their chefs, and we hope to announce their participation and involvement in this campaign once it happens."

Michael Pearson, the executive chef at the Shangri-La hotel, Qaryat Al Beri in Abu Dhabi, said its management would consider joining the campaign. A spokesman for Jumeirah Group, which operates the Burj al Arab, said the chain had already taken a similar action. "We no longer offer bluefin tuna and we are drastically reducing the amount of hammour and kingfish options available on our menus and in our buffets. We are looking at ways to raise awareness of these issues among our colleagues and our guests."