Hi! I'm chef Hari Pulapaka. I'm a four-time James Beard Award semifinalist and run a Florida-based restaurant called Cress that's focused on food sustainability. My restaurant has cut down thousands of pounds of food waste over four years, and I also cook and serve the venomous lionfish, an invasive species that's destroying coral reefs off Florida's coast. Oh, and I'm also a math professor (I decided to become a chef somewhat later in life).

Conservationists are encouraging people to eat the lionfish to keep its population in check off the Florida coast. So, I taught AJ+ producer/host Yara Elmjouie how to prepare a few lionfish dishes on the new episode of his show, “In Real Life.” He'll also be here to answer questions. Ask us anything!

Watch the episode here: https://youtu.be/xN49R7LczLc

Proof: https://twitter.com/ajplus/status/1124386080269062144

Edit: Typos

Update: Wow, that went by fast! Thank you everyone for your great questions. I'm always down to talk sustainability and what I can do in my role as a chef. If you guys want to see how to prep and cook lionfish, be sure to watch the the latest In Real Life episode.

Please support anything you can to improve the world of food. Each of us has a unique and significant role in crafting a better future for us and future generations. Right now I have to get back to grading exams and running a restaurant. This has been fun!

Comments: 362 • Responses: 33  • Date: 

Kokoangyo326 karma

I saw on your website that you have decided to make your restaurant gratuity free. How do you handle that with your staff? Do you pay a high hourly wage, or is gratuity factored into the cost and divided based on how many tickets you sell for your events? Do you find it difficult to staff at all?

ajplus659 karma

We pay our staff high by industry standards. We have included only a fraction of that cost into our menu pricing.

We believe that a living wage is the most sustainable way to keep the labor force required to keep our food system good and fair for all. Staffing is difficult in general in the restaurant industry, but we have been fortunate to have the same loyal staff for years.

Kokoangyo136 karma

I understand completely if you don't want to discuss, but I live in the central Florida area, and have worked in restaurants at all levels in most positions. What do you consider a fair wage/industry standard for servers or bartenders?

ajplus180 karma

Well, we don't have a bar at Cress and hence have never needed a bar tender. My wife, Dr. Jenneffer Pulapaka, is the sommelier and a damn good one. In general, with expertise and proficiency should come a commensurate wage. Not all bartenders (or cooks or sommeliers or dishwashers) are the same, so instead of asking what a fair wage is, I think it's better to ask "Given these professional qualities, what is my true compensation worth to the business?" So, I will repeat, at the end of the day, it must be at the very least a living wage.

For servers, same response, in terms of it being a living wage.

Back of the House typically gets paid less than front of the house as an hourly wage. On the other hand, front of the house has to deal with the public. A restaurant functions best when it's a cohesive team. One in which every team member is paid commensurate with their expertise and experience.

igabeup307 karma

what does lionfish taste like? do you think people are initially averse to eating it?

ajplus531 karma

Lionfish is a mild, sweet, semi-firm, flaky white fleshed fish. It is delicious because of what it naturally eats - people food like high-end seafood. Initially people may be averse because its spines have a toxin, but once you remove the spine or take only the flesh, it is 100% safe and as I said DELICIOUS.

ajplus220 karma

Great question! It’s actually got this land-animal texture to it, aka: it’s firm, but not too firm, if you know what I mean. I honestly think it’s more deserving of the moniker “chicken of the sea” than some other fish :wink: All this lends itself well to dishes like ceviche or fish cakes. Though, I’d also be curious to see what it tastes like in sushi form.

But that’s just texture. In terms of flavor, I’d say it’s slightly sweet – but it also absorbs the flavor of whatever’s around it. All said, I won’t hesitate to say it’s one of the most delicious fish I’ve eaten. We go into more detail in the episode – check it out and let us know what you think! -Yara

sgordonloebl117 karma

Where do you source the lion fish that you serve at Cress from? Are they speared individually by scuba divers or is there another way in which they are commercially fished?

ajplus211 karma

As far as I know, all lionfish that are currently available commercially have to be spearfished individually. It is labour-intensive and difficult work, but it's like target practice because they come in hordes and don't really move or swim away.

The industry is working on more efficient methods of capturing them like specialized traps and nets, but by and large, they are spear-fished.

At Cress, I source Lionfish from a variety of place, but one great local seafood source is "King's Seafood" in Port Orange, FL that uses their own divers.

oiOOiiOOoo96 karma

My city has recently seen an invasion in arapaima fish/ pirarucu (in the river brantas, indonesia) and the government is encouraging citizens to kill the fish by offering cash rewards. Something notable about arapaima though, is that it’s so large people have to electrocute it to kill it, so I don’t think this is a very effective response.

My question is: what do you think of the government’s response? And what would you suggest if you disagree with it?

ajplus100 karma

Wow that's a massive (and weird looking) fish! https://images.app.goo.gl/LySYvk8pTRjwCkqU6

I don't know the details of the arapaima invasion so I don't know if it's effective. I can speak to what's happening in Florida.

Lionfish by comparison is not large. So, in the case of the United States handling its lionfish invasion problem, I think promoting its commercial consumption can be very effective. There have been case studies of other species that were practically decimated because of their high demand in restaurants and households. In those cases, we didn't want that. In the case of Lionfish, we want to eradicate them.

Lilramboman200065 karma

I assume lionfish, like any other clean whitefish, can be overcooked. What’s the secret to perfectly cooked fish?

ajplus208 karma

I am somewhat of a master of seafood cookery. The secret to perfectly cooked fish is to use a well-seasoned pan that doesn't stick to the fish, medium plus heat, some oil or butter, oil and season the fish, develop texture by searing on one side, introducing a small amount of moisture (wine, stock, even water) after turning the fish once, cooking the fish only about 80% and turning off the heat and leaving the pan on the stove to allow residual cooking. Here is one of my recipes for another type of sustainable fish (Wreckfish) on the Food Network:


Regalsaphirion63 karma

What do you do with the poisonous spines after getting the meat off the fish?

ajplus153 karma

I personally destroy them into our compost. We have a strong food waste program at Cress.

The toxin goes away after a few days, so by the time the spikes break down in the compost there's no venom left.

And this way no one handling the garbage can accidentally get stung.

IBiteMyThumbAtYou59 karma

The cooking industry is well known for its “work myself to death” sort of culture. How do you handle this in your restaurant?

ajplus89 karma

That is absolutely correct about the cooking industry. When everyone else gets to relax and celebrate, we get to work.

So, my situation is unique in that nowadays I am by myself in the kitchen as far as the food part is concerned. In the past when I had more kitchen food staff, no one worked more than 40 hours a week except on rare occasions during extra busy times of the year. So the key is to keep the number of hours per week reasonable and to pay your employees well.

But for me, I am a workaholic (What with two full time jobs and all. Did I mention I was a math professor?).

Time and resource management are very important. When one is working, make sure your time at work counts towards your productivity. This gives more time for relaxation which is paramount.

And at the end of the day, celebrate your successes and understand that the restaurant industry is not a sprint or even a middle distance race, but instead a slow and steady marathon.

bertiebees50 karma

When can we expect you to make a lionfish curry?

Maybe lionfish tempura?

ajplus88 karma

I have served a Lionfish curry using a Mangalore Style curry sauce with curry leaves, mustard seeds, coconut milk, tamarind. etc. It was delicious!

031guy48 karma

How can restaurants cut down on fresh produce waste? What are some uses for produce off cuts and leaf products that are no longer considered fresh enough for their intended use.

ajplus87 karma

Great question about reducing Food Waste! I am deeply invested in this issue. Here are some tips for restaurants:

  1. Only buy limited inventory.

  2. Buy whole items.

  3. Use leaves, stems, roots to make sauces and chutneys by smoking, cooking, etc.

  4. Make stocks only as a last resort.

  5. Always have a trims bucket while prepping

The issue of reducing food waste is extremely relevant to environmental and economic sustainability of restaurants. By reducing food waste, a restaurant is able to control its food costs, offer a greater diversity of dishes and preparations, and ultimately enhance customer experience as well as it's own profits. It is a great example of a Win-Win proposition.

Here is a video I made for the James Beard Foundation:


skwrl7142 karma

I’m a SCUBA diver and we regularly spear lionfish and either cook them or leave them for other predators (for example, Caribbean reef sharks will not attack them if they are healthy, but spear one and you have shark snack on a stick). I agree that they are a fantastic food (for humans and sharks).

My question: what’s your favorite recipe for them?

ajplus41 karma

Lionfish Ceviche! I actually make it with Yara on the In Real Life episode you can watch right now:


And if you want a written down instructions on how to make it at home. Here's my recipe on the James Beard Foundation website:


spaghetbear33 karma

Any tips for home cooks who would like to cut down food waste?:)

ajplus68 karma

I answered a little bit of this in the question about food waste for restaurants. So use those tips too if they apply.

But for home cooks:

• Only buy what you can use.

• Make sure your refrigerator temperature is appropriate (so that food lasts longer)

• Practice first in first out with ingredients (Use what you already have before what you just bought. If you have an older lettuce in the back of the fridge, use that first before using the lettuce you just got from the store.)

• Make stocks AND reduce the stocks by boiling down so that when you store them, they don't take up so much room.

notyouagain229 karma

If you get poked by the spines in the removal process, does the toxin enter your system?

ajplus57 karma

I have gotten poked by the spines and have reacted. I guess in theory, it will enter your system, but it depends on where the toxin is injected. For sure, you have a geat deal of pain and numbness. There is a great deal of redness and swelling. One time I had to clean 120 lbs of Lionfish for an event and as careful as I was, I got stung. I felt the pain for days. I even wore double gloves but they are no match for the spines.

Jenneffer26 karma

What is the most essential item in your kitchen for preparing/cooking a fish like Lionfish?

ajplus53 karma

Lionfish, like most fish, cooks very quickly. In order to cook it, one can use all methods of cooking. I find that when it's fresh, a ceviche-style preparation works really well. So, I use fresh citrus juices (lime, lemon, orange), coconut milk, hot peppers, onion, corn, and fresh cilantro. Of course, salt, pepper, some honey. One can also simply pan roast the fish. It cooks fast (in a matter of seconds, no more than a minute).

CaptCurmudgeon20 karma

  • How do you overcome seasonality limitations with domestic supplies?

  • Do you find the more popular species are ordered more frequently because of name recognition like: tuna, swordfish, mahi, grouper, snapper, etc.? Or are guests coming to your restaurant to try exotic species?

  • Last question: how do you go about understanding the flavor profiles and uses for unusual fish? Is it driven by customers demanding new species or by a supplier saying this fish was caught today, is inexpensive, and would help the ecosystem?

ajplus35 karma

Great questions. Here are my thoughts:

Seasonality: My menu changes with the seasons so, fortunately, I am not restricted by seasonal constraints.

Popular versus Exotic: That is at the crux of the problem. Many folks stay within the confines of their comfort zones or their preferences. But as a creative chef, I am obligated to showcase all species when they are sustainable and in season. SO, that is what I do. We've hosted numerous "Lesser Seafood" dinners are Cress where I go out my way to showcase species that are not on everyone's wish list, but the events are always well received. By doing so, we have managed to educate our guests and the industry on other possibilities. Lionfsh was on the menu on one such dinner years ago and here we are.

Another great question about flavor profiles! It is a combination of both customer demand and what's supplied. but usually, I am well versed with what's in season in my region (Florida). Beyond that, my suppliers have learnt over the years that I am always open-minded when it comes to new and off the cuff ingredients. (As long as they are sustainable and reasonably priced.) As a chef, it is a never ending quest for keeping it satisfying and interesting for myself and my guests.

babylegsdetective19 karma

Do you like Indian cuisine?

ajplus37 karma

I love all cuisines, including Indian cuisine. I think food made with love and thought can transport us to places and to memories. I have fond memories of growing up in Mumbai/Bombay.

ajplus25 karma

I second Hari’s response! I actually made Saag Tofu for dinner-at-the-office today (I was expecting to be here late)! -Yara


Varun270715 karma

Hello, I’m currently pursuing my first year of Hotel Management and aspire to become a chef! So can you give me any advice that helped you become the person you are today?

ajplus25 karma

Great question. First, let me congratulate you on a career path that can be extremely rewarding. My best advice to you would be to be a sponge in the learning process, stay humble, and get trained in sound fundamentals. Beyond that, learn the business of food and to keep it all in perspective, remember that at the end of the day, "it's just food" and also that "it's food!"

Spartanfred1048 karma

Hi Chef, so I have started doing the sustainable thing this year. What are some tips for a noobie?

ajplus9 karma

Welcome to the club! To me, the "sustainable thing" should be a way of life and goes beyond the profession.

Here are some tips that helped me out:

  1. Read

  2. Listen

  3. Practice what you learn

  4. Incorporate sustainable habits into your everyday life, as well as your restaurant.

  5. Be mindful of where you can make the most significant contributions. Find your strengths and passions and harness them for your own and greater good.

NatheDeer8 karma

Have you cooked any other dishes that incorporate poisonous creatures?

ajplus10 karma

No I have not cooked any other poisonous creatures, BUT I have used ant larvae in a salad.

thatdudewhoexisted7 karma

How old were you when you decided to change careers? What other animals can we start eating to combat climate change?

ajplus11 karma

To clarify, I never changed careers. I was 39 years old when I decided to not switch, but actually add another tough, full-time occupation of being a restaurateur and chef.

As to your other question, we need to reduce our intake of animals if we really want to combat climate change.

It's not just about what animals we eat (because human beings can eat everything to death), but how we source those ingredients.

At the very least, we need to get away from factory farming animals.

roqueofspades6 karma

What are some other sustainable dishes you serve at your restaurant?

Could lionfish be prepared as sushi/sashimi if frozen correctly? Have you ever tried this?

ajplus9 karma

I consider any dish that uses primarily sustainable ingredients as being a sustainable dish. With that in mind, most, if not all of the dishes I serve are sustainable.

Lionfish can be prepared sushi/sashimi if they are frozen because doing so will kill any parasites that may be on or in the flesh. I have prepped frozen lionfish this, but then I usually serve them as a ceviche, not sashimi/sushi.

cletusthedinglefairy5 karma

What are the most successful methods have you used at your resturant to cut down on food waste that you think could be done easily for the service industry as a whole?

ajplus8 karma

We've used a number of methods over the years. But starting five years ago, we got serious about doing these four things to cut down on food waste that I think the industry could use to follow in our footsteps.

  1. Only buying what we need.

  2. Using as much of the ingredient as we can, in different ways, if necessary.

  3. Being creative with preparing dishes that showcase all parts of ingredients.

  4. Partnering with local farmers and collaborating with them in the composting stage. (This is after we make sure we've used up all the parts of the ingredient that can be used as food).

travisrugemer4 karma

How expensive is a Lionfish dish?

ajplus11 karma

Typically lionfish is about $8 per pound whole which after cleaning averages to about $20+ per pound for just the filet. That is not cheap.

So, if a restaurant gives 6 ounces of lionfish in a dish, their fish cost alone can be about $8. Going by industry standards, that will translate to a dish which will cost the customer about $25+.

So, again not cheap, but there are ways to bring that food cost down if restaurants and chefs practice the whole ingredient methods. Of course, for lionfish, by cutting off the spines and smoking the carcass, one can get a much higher yield and hence reducing food cost and consequently menu cost.

stink3rbelle4 karma

How much can fishing it affect the lionfish population? How much needs to be eaten to keep it in check?

ajplus18 karma

I’ll jump in for this one – conservationists have already noted that it’s impossible to eliminate the invasive lionfish entirely from the Western Atlantic. Their population has grown far too much, far too fast. (Generally, eliminating invasive species is something that’s easier to do in an enclosed area, such as a small island. Google “goat removal on the Galapagos” or "Project Isabella" to see what I mean).

That said, reducing lionfish populations through spearfishing can give native fish populations enough space to bounce back, at least temporarily, and keep coral reef ecosystems decently healthy. Of course, if eating lionfish becomes a widespread practice – and if there’s enough consumer demand for lionfish at, say, your local Whole Foods, Giant, Safeway, Trader Joe’s or what have you – that could actually lead to the growth of the lionfish food industry. This increased market demand for lionfish will not only boost spearfishing, but could potentially encourage people to fund technological innovations that speed up the removal process – which we also show in the video (https://youtu.be/xN49R7LczLc?t=671). – Yara

ajplus7 karma

That's a good question. This is an issue related to any ingredient we can't source enough of but want to/need to. It becomes a matter of supply catching up with demand. In the case of lionfish, at least in non-native environments, more so than fishing I think nature has the best chance of offering balance. Perhaps, native species will evolve to regain their home turf. -Hari

d_extrum3 karma

Do you Love the Job you Are doing? Did you wanted to become a chief?

ajplus8 karma

I love my job and take it very seriously. I feel privileged to be able to cook AND teach math for a living.

I never considered being a chef until after I went through a professional midlife crisis, at the age of 38, when I received tenure at Stetson University (where I still currently teach).

Then, I attended culinary school full time WHILE teaching full time and 15 years later, here we are.

gatorling3 karma

How much of a pain in the ass is it to clean and prepare lion fish? From what I know, it's an absolute pain to catch. You usually have to spear them and then keep them in special containers to avoid getting stuck by the spines.

ajplus7 karma

It is quite cumbersome to clean lionfish. You have to be careful not to get poked by the spikes. (As Yara shows you here: https://youtu.be/xN49R7LczLc?t=527)

But if you take your time, you can cut around them and filet the lionfish.

Also the yield is not high (which is also why we smoked the carcass in the episode, so that we could get more meat.).

But the hard work is worth it because the end result is delicious.

chicagoent831 karma

I'm a chef myself and looking to do more sustainable food, but also have to consider the challenges of food cost, how did you go about doing the things you did special purveyors? What's your cost percentage that you're running at?

ajplus2 karma

My food cost has always been consistent with industry standards or we wouldn't be a thriving restaurant in our 11th year. My best advice would be to reduce food waste in your kitchen, share the stories of your sustainable practices with your guests, and practice full ingredient cooking.

TheIndividualChef1 karma

How do you think of future of chefs as a leader and teacher of community as far as food is concerned?

ajplus5 karma

Chefs have the responsibility and are afforded the privilege of a tremendous degree of trust from the dining public. With this trust comes an opportunity to be leaders and change-makers of the sustainable food movement. What we source and how we cook says a lot about what we think is our role in the community. We have an obligation to nourish not just the bodies of our guests, but also their minds and their overall well-being. We also have an obligation to support our local farmers and be transparent.