YES CHEF: CHAD SARNO
Meet the Co-Founder, Executive Chef, VP of Culinary of Good Catch Foods, a company on a mission to create seafood without sacrifice.
What do you do when you’re a self-proclaimed die-hard activist and award-winning vegan chef?
You partner with other activists to create a product that will disrupt the market in the best possible way. Here, Marci Zaroff—co-founder and SEA-MO of Good Catch—talks to Chad about what it was like creating a 100% plant-based tuna fish, how he ultimately nailed the texture and taste, and what kind of impact fish-free fish can really have on our world.
Why did you get involved in Good Catch, and why did you want to start with tuna?
The main reason we started on this path is that we saw the gaps in the market. Innovation is driven by demand. And when it comes to food, I think demand is also driven by taste, convenience, and most importantly in my opinion—the impact opportunity. I’m a die-hard activist. When you look at plant-based proteins in general, what’s become available has grown immensely in the past couple of years, but there’s still not a lot of plant-based seafood options. Yet of all the animals slaughtered worldwide, 95% is seafood! We immediately saw a huge opportunity to make a real impact. And when we talked to our partners at the Good Food Institute, they wanted us to focus on the most popular fin fish: tuna.
Tell me more about the impact a plant-based tuna will have.
From an environmental standpoint, tuna fisheries are some of the most harmful to our oceans and to the environment. Take death nets: These are nets that can be up to 100 miles long, and the big fisheries drop them into the water to catch tuna. Of course, these massive nets also catch everything else—and oftentimes, those smaller fish and other sea life aren’t returned to the ocean and die as a result. Purse nets, which can be 30 miles wide, are similar. Fishermen circle a very large area with a net, and then basically just pull a rope that tightens like a purse, so that everything in that entire area gets caught. It’s basically rape in the oceans. It’s horrible to use that analogy, but the destruction these fisheries are causing our oceans is truly unthinkable.
How did tuna get so popular in the first place, anyway?
We’ve all grown up with tuna. It’s as American as hot dogs and hamburgers. I think there’s a combination of reasons why tuna became so popular in this country. For starters, it’s shelf stable, making it easy for people to keep on hand in the pantry. Plus, it’s nutritious; it’s packed with protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Finally, it’s about the texture. People who love tuna love the texture.
Most people definitely don’t like the smell of tuna though.
I don’t know anyone who has a passion for the smell of tuna. That’s probably one aspect of tuna that people could do without, which is another reason we went down this road. In fact, one of the largest tuna companies out there put out a call to food scientists, manufacturers, and chefs that they were looking for a scentless tuna. Turns out workplace shaming when co-workers bring tuna into work for lunch is massive, and this company was able to track that this tuna-smell aversion was leading to a decrease in sales. When we heard about this call to action, it was confirmation that we were charging down the right path in trying to create a 100% plant-based tuna product.
How did you dial in the texture so well?
I’m from New England and ate a lot of tuna sandwiches and other seafood growing up. So even now, as a vegan, I know enough about the taste and texture of tuna fish to work on creating a plant-based alternative that’s similar. The texture of tuna is so different to that of other proteins. Chicken and beef are bouncy. Tuna is a dry, stick-to-your-teeth kind of bite. We were so committed to nailing the texture that we spent the first year of product development working on the texture alone. In fact, in the beginning our focus was solely on creating a texture that worked—even if it didn’t taste anything like tuna.
Take me to the moment when you knew you were onto something…
We’ve gone through many evolutions of this plant-based tuna product. When you’re in this bubble, you’re constantly tasting. I mean, I would be on the line eating hot protein coming off the extruder, which is just downright gross. I would say the confirmation that we’d really nailed it happened at a tasting for Good Catch at the Fancy Food show in San Francisco. We had all tried the product internally as a team, but then we got confirmation from investors and retailers—20 groups of people who were vegans and meat-eaters tried the product and all of them told us they were blown away. That’s when I knew we had nailed it.
Did you ever want to give up along the way?
Oh, totally. One thing we pride ourselves on is that we’re using real ingredients and real food—not synthetic flavors. We went down that road of using some synthetic flavors, but when we used them, we ended up getting these concentrated flavors that really smelled like tuna, and I just got so mad. I seasoned 100 pounds of product with these flavors, but it tasted like an offensive-smelling tuna—it was almost too real. That’s why our product has evolved into being a fresh, ocean flavor. When people think of tuna they think of an offensive smell, and we don’t want our product being perceived as that.
What do you say to the skeptics, who don’t believe a 100% plant-based tuna can actually taste like tuna?
Don’t knock it ‘til you try it! I often ask people why they like tuna, and nobody tells me it’s because of the smell. Why do they like it, then? Because it’s high in protein, great for the brain, and has a texture they like. Our tuna nails all of what people like, without the fishy, tuna smell. I also encourage people to take a real look at the impact piece. Part of my mission and what drives me is how much impact a product can make on the market. We’ve created something that tastes great and makes a big impact.
From Chad: I’d suggest the spicy tuna hand roll