Casting a Wide Net
Is it possible for the skills of an economist, chef, advocate, and entrepreneur to reside within one person? They sure can, and Wendy Stuart ’09 is living proof. Her journey to becoming co-founder of The Wide Net Project may seem circuitous, but each step brought her closer to the real fusion of her skills. Before ever stepping foot at the CIA, Wendy had a degree in economics. She developed an appreciation for systems of all kinds that were financially sustainable. But something about the culinary world called to her and she enrolled at the CIA. At her externship at Primo, owned by Melissa Kelly ’88, she experienced working in a zero-waste kitchen producing high-end food. After graduating from the CIA, she enrolled in the master’s degree program focusing on sustainable food systems at the University of Gastronomic Science in Pollenzo, Italy. There, Wendy developed a heightened understanding of food terroir. Upon returning home to Washington, DC, Wendy felt that the time had come to pull all her experiences together. She decided advocacy was going to be the place where her skills would be most useful, and discovered two very pressing needs that were ripe for her kind of activism.
Bringing Back the Bay/Nourishing the Needy
The Chesapeake Bay, which comprises 11,684 miles of shoreline in six states, is in danger. Home to 2,700 species of plants and animals, the Bay’s fragile ecosystem is increasingly threatened by invasive species of fish. One of the chief offenders is the non-native blue catfish. The Bay, a huge source of income for local businesses, is being “strangled.” At the same time, there is a great need for lean protein at Washington’s hunger-relief organizations where, because of its perishable nature and high cost, fish is rarely seen. “Conceptually, it’s very simple,” Wendy explains. “There are far too many catfish in the Bay and not enough fresh lean animal proteins available to underserved communities. Why not turn this problem into a solution for two different, but connected, issues?”
A Sustainable Model
The Blue Ocean Institute has given the catfish its highest designation—green—indicating that it is a sustainable species. Caught when they are young and with a safe level of the inevitable toxins that can be found in older and larger fish, the catfish is processed, stored, and distributed by J.J. McDonnell, a large seafood company. When hospitals, grocers, and universities purchase the fish at market price through The Wide Net Project, they help Wide Net use a significant portion of those sales to reduce the price per pound when the fish is sold to hunger-relief organizations. These savings, as well as donations and grants, enable the organization to conduct educational programs about invasive species and related conservation issues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In the spirit of zero waste, Wide Net takes the fish waste (skin, bones, heads) and recycles it for pet food.
Puttin’ on the Toque
Wendy knows that educating potential buyers—who often have a prejudice against the catfish, calling up images of mud-laden animals from the deep—is part and parcel of Wide Net Project’s role. She dons her toque to develop recipes for restaurants and institutions, showing them the delicious ways that the surprisingly delicate, sweet flavor of Chesapeake Bay wild blue catfish can enhance their menus. Wendy is a perfect amalgam of all of her experiences. She is evidence that a broadened, unique combination of skills and interests brings tremendous value to the table. Hers is a mind that sees connections and brings people together. Hers is a heart that wants to improve the situation of others. And, hers is a will that finds its way through and around obstacles to achieve ultimate success.
Interested in sustainability? Learn more about what the CIA campus does to ensure fresh, local product for our students.
This article originally appeared in The Culinary Institute of America’s alumni magazine, mise en place.