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The Boston Globe

Food & dining

A former chef becomes a sustainable food expert

Barton Seaver in his Harvard School of Public Health Landmark Center office.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

Barton Seaver in his Harvard School of Public Health Landmark Center office.

Lots of people with desk jobs dream of chucking it all for a gig that involves travel and adventure. Barton Seaver has done the sequence in reverse.

Last month, the chef, cookbook author, and sustainable-seafood advocate, who has traveled the globe as a National Geographic fellow, was settling in to his newest job: heading up the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Seaver is also a sustainability fellow at the New England Aquarium. Between the aquarium post and the Harvard job, it made sense for him to relocate from his longtime home base of Washington, D.C., to Boston. He and his wife made the move just days ahead of the storm known as Nemo. By the following Wednesday, Seaver was at his Landmark Center office, enjoying his first day at his first-ever desk job.

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“I was so excited to pack a lunch and come to work,” says Seaver, settling onto a couch by a large window overlooking Park Drive. (His lunchbox held spaghetti and King Oscar sardines.) It remains to be seen how much time the restless and energetic Seaver will actually spend sitting at a desk. He has big plans for making an impact in the new position, and few of them involve simple paper-pushing.

Seaver, 33, wears many hats, but one he wasn’t particularly sorry to give up was his chef’s toque. Although the Culinary Institute of America grad worked in several acclaimed restaurants and was named Esquire magazine’s 2009 Chef of the Year, he left the restaurant world a year later — to become a National Geographic fellow — with no regrets. “I’m happy not to be in the kitchen, because my interests have evolved to the point where there’s a limit to what I can accomplish there. The kitchen demands 100 percent of your passion. If I were there, I’d be doing the restaurant and myself a disservice,” says Seaver. (He hasn’t totally abandoned the culinary side, however. His next cookbook, “Where There’s Smoke,” will be out in April and focuses on grilling sustainable foods.)

Instead, he will be launching various initiatives and working with a range of constituencies to address issues of food sustainability. Many of the tasks aren’t as yet fully defined. He hopes to work with industry, food service, chefs, and consumers, educating and engaging them about making sustainable food choices. “I’m excited about that,” he says, pointing out the window toward the nearby Longwood Medical Area. He’ll be working with three area hospitals to create a “template” for sustainability at large institutional food service operations.

Seaver’s willingness to reach across the aisle is part of the reason the New England Aquarium sought him out. “Bart is able to communicate about why all these different roles help drive improvements in our oceans,” says Heather Tausig, the aquarium’s associate vice president of conservation. “In sustainable seafood, we spent many years going for low-hanging fruit.” Now, she says, it’s no longer sufficient to label fish and fisheries with a simple red-light, green-light system. Issues are nuanced, and the solutions may involve concessions and compromises. “We’ve come a long way as a community; it’s not as antagonistic as it used to be. There’s more of an effort to work together so we can move forward.” And Seaver, with his big-tent approach, is just the person to aid that effort, Tausig believes.

Seaver arrived in Boston shortly after officials announced deep cuts in cod catch limits, throwing local fishermen into a tailspin. The issue pits various competing interests against one another, but Seaver places some of the blame squarely on consumers. He says we need to develop an appetite for lesser-known species like hake, cusk, and dogfish, and to take fish away from the center of the plate. “We cannot have sustainable seafood,” he says, “if most of the plate isn’t vegetables.”

Seaver doesn’t necessarily parrot the sustainability party line. He’s too pragmatic. “I’m a teacher, not an advocate,” he says. And in that sense, he doesn’t think he should lecture consumers on why they should care about sustainable food.

“But I’ll start a conversation about dinner, and repeat back to you why you already have an interest in sustainability,” he says. He’s interested in meeting people where they are — wherever that might be — and in encouraging small, incremental steps that add up to big change.

“If a company is 100 percent bad,” Seaver says, “my moral obligation is to make it 5 percent better. It’s a lot easier to work within the system than to blow it up.”

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.
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