Not so long ago, sometime close to the dawn of the modern farm-to-table movement, a group of chefs centered around the Gulf of Mexico began to spread the gospel of bycatch—the miscellaneous fish, cartilaginous rays, gnarled whelks, and other unwanted extras that fishermen scoop up while in pursuit of swordfish and shrimp. In the years since, the culinary world has continued to embrace a more holistic view of seafood, looking beyond just bycatch to a plethora of invasive and generally tossed-aside species. And as regulations have continued to tighten on favored fish such as snapper and grouper, a pivot toward these less desirable “trash fish” might be the best way to ensure tasty plates of seafood for years to come. Chefs Collaborative, a group of forward-thinking culinarians, has recently sponsored a series of Trash Fish Dinners that have paired chefs across the country with underutilized species. But don’t let the terminology fool you: Trash fish aren’t garbage. Just as farmers are exploring new crops and stockmen new breeds, fishmongers and chefs are wading deeper into the sea. “As a chef, you should already be using some local vegetables,” says chef Steve Phelps, of Indigenous in Sarasota, Florida. “But where is that fish from?”
Some fishmongers have expressed concerns about guiding armies of diners toward largely unregulated fish that might not be able to handle the pressure. (Consider the redfish, a formerly under-the-radar species that nearly went belly-up after Paul Prudhomme took Cajun cuisine to the masses.) But while trash-fish proponents might still have a few things to figure out, the variety of fish on menus today, including these favorites from ten of the South’s top seafood-loving chefs, presents good evidence that even an ugly fish can make a beautiful meal.
Jason Stanhope, FIG, Charleston, South Carolina
“It definitely has some tuna-like qualities,” says Stanhope of the banded rudderfish, a diminutive member of the amberjack family that is increasingly well represented on Charleston menus. “It’s just clean and firm and beautiful. We’re not supposed to serve local fish raw at the restaurant, but if we did, this is the fish I would use.”
Bryan Caswell, Reef, Houston, Texas
Caswell estimates that he has served dishes made from more than eighty different marine species since Reef opened seven years ago. Among them: pan-fried stingray wing fillets, which have a similar taste and texture to sea scallops. “I started bowfishing for stingrays not long ago, but a lot of the guys with licenses to sell them actually put them up in shrimp nets,” he says.
Chris Hastings, Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, Alabama
Maybe you’ve seen a few squirrelfish nosing the walls of a well-stocked aquarium, but chances are you’ve never eaten one. Although they frequent Southern waters, the striking swimmers aren’t typical fare outside parts of Asia. Hastings snaps them up whenever he has the chance. “It’s delicious meat,” he says. “Super quality. When we can get it, we love it.”
Ryan Prewitt, Pêche Seafood Grill, New Orleans, Louisiana
According to some fishermen, the oily Spanish mackerel is better for crab bait than for dinner. To Prewitt, it’s a treat—when handled properly, “The clock starts ticking as soon as it comes out of the water,” he says. “It needs to go on ice right away, and then it’s only good for a day, maybe two days.” He readies it for the grill with a short cure of salt, sugar, and chile powder.
Steve Phelps, Indigenous, Sarasota, Florida
Although relatively small and difficult to clean, the jolthead porgy is worth the trouble. “It is primo for fish fries,” Phelps says. “It’s a simple fish, one that you don’t want to overprepare. And super flavorful.” Toss fillets in a minimalist cornmeal batter, fry them until nicely golden, and serve as finger food.
Justin Devillier, La Petite Grocery, New Orleans, Louisiana
“Oh man, those things can be nasty,” Devillier says. “Most people won’t cook them at all.” But a quick simmer in a rich, flavorful sauce—a buttery curry, for example—can turn this generally cast-aside saltwater catch into an occasion-worthy dinner. “The gafftop is like most fish: If you treat it well right out of the water, you can make something really good with it.”
Paul Qui, Qui, Austin, Texas
The bearded brotula isn’t the best-looking fish in the sea. That doesn’t bother Qui, the eccentric young chef who brought cheddar cheese ice cream to Central Texas. “It has a nice, flaky texture,” he says. “I’ll pan-roast it, and either add butter and citrus or go with a more Asian version, with a mixture of fish sauce, mint, and chiles.”
Michael Schwartz, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Miami, Florida
The invasive lionfish reproduces quickly, has no natural predators in this part of the world, and consumes other fish aggressively. All the more reason to put it on a plate. “There’s the sustainability factor,” Schwartz says, “but also just that the meat tastes good. We make a great lionfish sandwich.”
Greg Baker, the Refinery, Tampa, Florida
Along the Florida coast, smoked mullet has historically been a working-man’s lunch—and a source of supplemental income in lean times. “It used to be that every lumberyard in town sold smoked mullet, just as a side deal,” Baker says. “It’s an oily fish, but mild tasting. It’s not as prevalent as it used to be, but it’s still kind of our de facto barbecue dish.”
Kevin Johnson, the Grocery, Charleston, South Carolina
For a so-called trash fish, the barrelfish, caught by fishermen targeting other deepwater species, has devoted—even desperate—fans in the culinary world. “It’s an elusive fish,” says Johnson, who braises it and serves it over local vegetables. “Last time we got one, I texted the fisherman who caught it and said, ‘Please let me know if you get another.'”