Feared as an invasive menace taking over U.S. waterways, Asian carp is leaping onto tabletops in Kentucky's finest dining establishments.
At Ward 426, the fish surfaces as “Kentucky Carp,” a $24 special browned in butter and served atop sweet potato puree with roasted fig jam and mushrooms pickled in balsamic vinegar.
Chefs are hooked at the Mayan Cafe, Harvest Restaurant, the Holly Hill Inn and Lockbox, 21c's new Museum Hotel eatery in Lexington. Nearby, "Western Kentucky Silver Carp" outsells catfish whether grilled, fried, blackened or buffalo style at Smithtown Seafood, chef Ouita Michel said.
Humans are the only predators capable of making a dent in the exploding carp population, a fish so fertile it lays one million eggs a year, a starvation threat to native fish like bluegill, crappie, bass and shad in 45 of 50 states.
“Their spawning habits are the killer,” Kentucky Fish & Wildlife fisheries chief
Chef Shawn Ward, who manned the helm of Jack Fry’s for nearly two decades, compares carp to scallops and Chilean Sea bass. For white and meaty carp, chefs pay less than half the price of more expensive seafood like Chilean sea bass.
“Anything you can do with a fish that you spend quite a bit of money on, you can do with carp,” Ward said at his bistro on Baxter Avenue. “Our biggest venture is to get people willing to try and eat carp.”
Too often in the minds of consumers, Asian carp share the stigma associated with the common carp, a “trash fish” that roots in the mud. But Asian carp average between 45 and 70 pounds skimming plankton near the surface of Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, feeding habits that account for its white meat, clean taste and low mercury content.
The Oak Room's four-star kitchens at the
From Corbett's, An American Place, Equus and Jack's, chef Dean Corbett eyes affordable carp as the answer to diners who clamor for scarce and pricey Chilean sea bass.
“I can’t even touch sea bass,” said Corbett, adding that when sea bass comes available, it can cost $23 or more per pound wholesale compared to Asian Carp at $10 per pound. “We have to find alternatives because more and more people want to eat fish.”
“I was extremely skeptical,” said Berry, who tossed the carp on the grill alongside some Scottish salmon for his family of three. “I was stunned at how good it was,” Berry said. “We were leaving the Scottish salmon on the plate and eating the carp.”
For consumers who like a neutral white fish, Asian carp, "can stand in anywhere" among "upscale fish including grouper, halibut, snapper, walleye and striped bass,” said Berry, the owner of Louisville's only wholesale outfit specializing entirely in seafood.
Chefs beyond Kentucky are taking the bait, say the owners of Fin Gourmet, the Paducah processor shipping 20,000 pounds of boneless filets each week to restaurants in Louisville, Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans and Las Vegas.
"It is very high in omega fat, rivaling the salmon," Fin chief operating officer John Crilly said.
"A shift is happening in the conversation," Fin CEO Lan Chi Luu said, "This is the new U.S. wild-caught fish."
Voracious appetites for Asian carp are growing as carp populations proliferate at a frightening rate.
At stake is nothing less than the fate of Lake Barkley, Kentucky Lake and the declining numbers of sport fish in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, to name a few threatened waterways. Unlike native species that spawn for perhaps two weeks annually, each female "Cyprinus carpio" can lay up to one million eggs throughout the year.
Growing up to a foot each year, Brooks said Asian carp "outcompete native species to the point of starvation.” In 2015, a record 106-pound Asian Big Head carp pulled an 84-year-old Paducah sport fisherman's boat for three miles before the catch was hauled aboard.
These fish move fast. In 2013, officials tagged a Bighead Asian carp with an ultrasonic transmitter in the Ohio River west of Ashland. By 2015, this "Judas fish" was netted 174 miles upstream, having squirreled its way past three locks and dams to virgin carp territory in waters bordering
As a result, at least one of the four species of Asian carp now troll the waters of 45 states, according to a 2015 annual report to Congress. The biggest fear? Asian carp could overwhelm the Great Lakes.
As a result, some Asian carp like the Black Carp have a price on their head. Researchers at
While it remains unknown how many carp are swimming in Kentucky, Brooks is haunted by a troubling incident last summer. On a mission to estimate the carp population, state biologist Neal Jackson ventured out onto Kentucky Lake one evening, to observe the fish rising at dusk to feed on plankton near the water's surface.
Side by side, "there were 10-inch to 12-inch carp as far as he could see down Kentucky Lake from bank to bank," Brook said. "Commercial harvest is the only means which we have to realistically reduce Asian carp numbers."