Caroline Bennet is a restaurateur and owner of Moshi Moshi in London.
How did your journey as a restaurateur start? How and where did you learn your profession/skills, how do you combine your professional life and your family life?
My journey began as a result of my desire to eat Japanese food. After leaving school, I lived in Japan for a year and on my return craved raw fish and soy sauce. I had little experience in the restaurant business. I had worked as a student at Kenwards, a former restaurant that was once among the top ten restaurants in the UK where my passion for this business stemmed from. There was also a short stint at a restaurant in Japan. In the late 80's there were hardly any restaurants that could whet my appetite due to the astronomical costs. So I decided to set up Moshi Moshi.
Choosing a city like London, to have a restaurant in the business district, is quite fortunate as the business is typically concentrated between Monday and Friday, during lunch. So we are shut on Saturday and Sunday. In fact I have chefs who have been with me since 1994-95 who enjoy working here as they get to spend ample time with their families. There's nothing like having a weekend off.
Outside my profession, well, nothing beats food. But I love taking long walks, and I often walk in the hills of Scotland. I also practice yoga.
What type of clients come to your restaurant and what are they looking for, how many customers a day, type of cuisine and products served in the restaurant?
Our clientele are quite the worldy bunch who are based in the city of London. Our clients typically have travelled extensively, experienced various cuisines, are knowledgeable and have the privilege of business expense accounts. We usually have between 150 and 250 customers each day. We initially started out as an exclusive sushi restaurant but also serve hot Japanese food now. Salmon Nigiri something not often consumed by the Japanese owing to its freshwater origins are now our top selling item.
When and how and why did you become motivated to work with fish, and in particular sustainable fish?
Between 1994 and 1997. we used blue fin tuna. I simply adored the belly. I could do with the belly, miso soup, soy sauce... the poor little fish were far too delicious for their own good.
Then we faced a problem when our suppliers began having problems with the sourcing of blue fin tuna. Orders would be placed, but we never received our deliveries periodically. So I finally decided to call the WWF and later the Greenpeace who got me connected with Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute. At at that time we never had industry based chefs and restaurateurs talking to scientists and geologists alike. And I spoke to Cessna about the lack of blue fin tuna and was adamant about finding a way to source the same, but he said something that would change me forever - "The Blue Fin tuna is endangered and is similar to eating a rhinoceros". Once you know what you are doing and also know the effects of your actions, you learn to be wiser and make better decisions. I would love to work more with vegetables, get back to a lifestyle that was once prevalent in place of the modern day mayhem we are a part of.
It was later at Terra Madre, where over the course of a 2 hour long bus ride did I meet and interact with a fisherman from Cornwall. Once we returned home, he went about fishing and sent me a box of freshly caught fish via an overnight local courier service. And I was shocked to see how fresh it was. We then sent an expert to check that the stock, fishing gear and methods used were upto our expectations and it has worked wonders for us.
What relationship do you have with local fishermen and/or small scale fishing communities? Which aspects of sustainability do you privilege?
We need to have a better commitment with our fishermen. It was quite enlightening when I went out to sea on the boat of the fisherman who supplies to us. Fishing is so primitive, the fundamental act of a human's engagement with the sea is so primevil. He now buys from other fishermen who work with him and has helped the wider community. The courier service infact makes a majority of their income via the transport of fish. Its remarkable how small communities can have a viable way of living. Its important to localise communities and make them self sufficient. Taking money out of global network and putting it into local networks.
What are the gastronomic specificities of the fishes presented on the menu, tastes and recipes?
Nowadays people love eating sashimi of fatty fish in an effort to be a part of the global standardization of food. But we serve a lot of white fish sashimi. This is in fact much appreciated by the older generation of our Japanese clientele.
We have usu-suzukiri (paper thin) style os sashimi served with a citrusy ponzu. It has such a lovely and interesting texture. We also have a white miso and mirin marinated fish in addition to our healthier version of the traditional fish and chips where we have grilled goujons of fish served in a fish bone basket which can also be eaten.
Do you feel the need to inform/ educate your clients?
We have a loyalty program at the restaurant which also entails a questionnaire being filled out by the customers. Maybe 10 years ago, only 15% of our customers were interested in finding out about our sustainable practices, but today, over 50% are actively interested in what we do.
How do you do it?
We send out monthly newsletters which also include a section devoted to an issue that is ecologically related. Our chopstick holders also help provide information on what's being eaten. Out staff is briefed and well trained and have also been out on the boats to understand what we do. We even have posters out every month talking about the fish in season.
Do you participate in any larger campaign or event on sustainable fish? How do you inform yourself on the sustainable aspects of the fish you serve?
I am an ardent supporter of Terra Madre and Slow Fish. I am also part of the advisory panel at the Seafood Choices Alliance - who are doing a wonderful job of connecting the various people at Marine Stewardship Council, Friends of the Sea and other bodies trying to save our seas and its habitat. I have also been a part of the board sponsored by the government to interact with trawler fishermen, which was a hard task as we knew in our hearts that what we were doing was against their way of life. I am also a member of Sustainable Fish City.
What are the main challenges you face?
I still haven't been able to crack the prawn challenge. It's a battle of convenience versus doing the right thing. England is all about convenience and I would love to try and find a better way of dealing with these products. But I always try and ensure that the products we receive are MSC certified.
How do you see the future of fishing?
Well, fishers, they are a breed of their own. There so much skepticism and so much mis-trust between politicians, the fishers and the consumers too. The consumer needs to start asking the right questions and making the right choices. There needs to be ample regulation and monitoring of fish that is discarded and the endangered fish that are caught. I think ultimately, the prices will need to go up, in order to ensure that the fishermen can catch less but are compensated well.
What role can the restaurant business play and do you feel it has a particular responsability?
Their role is to know where their fish comes from! Be bold - dont go by the industry norms of serving 150 gm of that specific fish, instead opt for portions of fish that are unique to that season and are fresh. It's alright if one table has been served one fish and the other has a different one. Don't cook out of convenience, cook for humanity
What are the major satisfactions and frustrations you have encountered so far?
I find satisfaction in serving people and making their meals a highlight of their day, watching people in love. celebrating poignant moments in their lives. The frustration of course is that it is a theatre production of sorts which has to put up a great performance every day.
WIth regard to the fish, I still feel that my prawn situation is unforgivable. But I find comfort in realizing that my Chinese, Korean and other chefs have started understanding our ethos and in fact even convey the message of sustainability to their friends and family.