“I grew up pretty poor, but never went hungry,” chef Diego Garcia recalls in the entryway of his new, stylish Hell’s Kitchen restaurant, Gloria.
Named for his mother, the pescatarian (that is, no meat or poultry on the menu, just seafood and vegetables) restaurant functions as both a space for Garcia, 29, to show off his Le Bernardin chops — he worked as a sous chef at the haute seafood restaurant for four years — and educate his diners about sustainable seafood.
Growing up in Mexico near the Sea of Cortez, Garcia recalls “eating like a king” on the regular: Waking up at 4 a.m. to rake for clams to be drizzled in vinegar, or plucking octopus out of the ocean to grill and spritz with fresh lime juice. A young Garcia gained an intrinsic “respect for seafood as a living thing” before starting first grade.
As a teenager, Garcia moved to the Napa Valley, where he worked in vegetable-focused farm-to-table restaurants. In 2006, following high school, Garcia wanted to take his California friends to the magical seaside town he grew up in, boasting about how easy it was to catch a fish just by casting a line and the incredible beachside clams and the wildlife sightings.
“We didn’t catch anything and found like five clams, it was so depressing for me,” Garcia recalls of the trip. “I was bummed out to let my friends down on this seafood adventure, at this place that made me who I am.”
Irresponsible corporate fishing and an influx of tourism and “spring break blah, blah, blah” contributed to the decline of the marine life in the area, he said. Garcia wanted to do something about it, he just didn’t know what.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and cooking at a hotel in St. Thomas, Garcia secured a “dream” job in the kitchen at Le Bernardin.
Still, he wanted to disrupt the exclusively salmon-, tuna- and shrimp-focused diets of seafood-eating Americans to counteract overfishing and support aquatic biodiversity.
Enter Gloria, a nine-month-old, 40-seat spot that celebrates less-known, unpopular but safely edible species commonly called “trash fish.”
On Garcia’s menu, skate is served in tomatillo sauce ($25), and bluefish comes plated with squid ink, cauliflower and trout caviar ($27).
“Nothing is wrong with monkfish and skate, they just happen to be less popular because diners may not have tried them before,” Garcia says.
“But it’s important that we eat all kinds of fish to maintain the ocean’s health and diversity.”
With a focus on sustainability and transparency, Garcia gets his seafood from Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co., which sources fish from local boats and communicates directly with the fishermen.
Garcia isn’t going to preach to his patrons on the merits of bluefish over tilapia, but he wants his customers to feel comfortable trying new foods and asking questions — like when the fish was caught, where it came from and when it’s in season — because without a deeper understanding of what we’re eating, nothing is going to change.
“Now that I own a restaurant, I feel like I have the opportunity to start talking about [sustainability],” Garcia says.
“Please allow me to show you seafood in a different way.”