Ming Tsai to Globe: Don’t Question My Ethics, I’ve Been Using Butterfish for Years

In the wake of the Globe’s investigation of fish mislabeling practices at popular local restaurants, Ming Tsai is speaking out. His Blue Ginger was cited for calling sablefish “butterfish.” According to the Globe piece, Tsai also said that he “used the name butterfish instead of sablefish simply because it sounds better.” Tsai took umbrage with the piece (“What I do not agree with is the Globe using my name in a story that calls into question the ethics of some in our industry”) and took to Blue Ginger’s Facebook page to clarify.

Writes he:

In last Sunday’s Boston Globe, I was included in an article on the mislabeling of fish by restaurants and retailers. The article cited my popular butterfish dish, which I have been serving at Blue Ginger for 12 years. Although butterfish has been, and still is, a common name for sablefish, the FDA now says the names are no longer interchangeable. The FDA says butterfish can be called sablefish, but sablefish cannot be called butterfish. Sound confusing? You are not alone. Let me try to put all this in perspective.

Butterfish is a common name used by those in the seafood and restaurant industries to refer to a sustainable, high quality fish, also known as sablefish. Sablefish is also widely known as black cod and is one of the most sustainably caught, plentiful and delicious fish available on the market. Obviously, I had no intention of fooling anyone by referring to the fish used in my dish as butterfish over sablefish or black cod - it’s simply the name I have always used, and the one that I prefer.

If you have read the article, the salient point that was made is that restaurants and supermarkets are substituting fish of lesser cost and quality for a more expensive fish, tricking the consumer into paying more for an inferior product. That is certainly not the case with my butterfish dish. Technically, there is a butterfish, but that is a small, flat fish, typically used for bait and costs $2 to $3 per pound. I pay upwards of $20 per pound for my sablefish. Why would I want to call an expensive fish like sablefish by the name of a much lesser quality bait fish? The point is that I wouldn’t. The fish I am serving is high quality and delicious and butterfish is a common name for it.

I agree with the goal of the Globe article to put a stop to the mislabeling of seafood by those looking to make a buck at the consumers’ expense. I also agree that more regulation is needed in that regard. What I do not agree with is the Globe using my name in a story that calls into question the ethics of some in our industry.

At the end of the day, as a chef for 25 years, I want to provide the best tasting fish possible, and be as responsible as possible to our seas. Butterfish, or sablefish, or black cod - however you refer to it - meets these objectives. We have told our customers from day one that butterfish is also known as sablefish, and even say it is commonly smoked and made into a fish spread, as the Globe noted. I encourage anyone who has been swayed to question my integrity as a chef to visit the U.S. government’s National Marine Fisheries Service website, where it clearly states that butterfish is an acceptable and common lingo for sablefish. The FDA website says the same, along with countless others.

Peace and Good Eating,
Ming Tsai

Whaddya think? Who’s right: Ming or the Globe? Or both? And can we use the phrase “an acceptable and common lingo” more often, please?

Blue Ginger [Facebook]

Earlier: Legal Sea Foods, Blue Ginger, and, Yes, the Kowloon Mislabel Their Fish

Ming Tsai to Globe: Don’t Question My Ethics, I’ve Been Using Butterfish