Executive Chef Michael Ellis of Charlie Palmer Steak Washington DC grew up boating on the Chesapeake Bay. Among his fondest memories are weekend fishing trips with friends. He can’t always find the time to get out there these days, so he’s decided to bring the Bay to DC through a Chesapeake Bay Soirée on July 19th to celebrate the treasures of the waters.

This festive rooftop affair also highlights Ellis’s love for gardening and his prolific network of local purveyors. Expect to find heirloom tomatoes on the menu, gems from the restaurant garden, along with a variety of vegetable crudité and local cheeses. There will be Chesapeake favorites like crabs and peel-and-eat shrimp and a not-as-welcome bay resident, a blue catfish. That’s where things get interesting.

The blue catfish is an invasive species introduced into Virginia’s waters in the 1970s as recreational sporting fish. Because they can grow into the triple digits, it made sense on paper. However, the catfish quickly started to impact the decline of many native fish species, including the American shad, striped bass, blueback, herring, and prized blue crab.

Today, blue catfish numbers top 100 million in the bay and have driven a healthy new sustainable market for watermen. Restaurants like Charlie Palmer Steak Washington DC create the demand. Ellis features a blue catfish on his menu year-round for just that reason. “This is a great fish in terms of taste,” he explains. “Unlike many catfish that are farmed-raised, this is wild. Since they eat so much striped bass and crabs, they have a sweet flavor similar to the bass.” Find blackened blue catfish on his prix-fixe lunch menu.

For more details on the Chesapeake Soirée, see page 34 or visit charliepalmersteak.com.

Chesapeake bay
Chesapeake bay
Healing the Bay
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is committed to saving the Chesapeake Bay through educational programs, advocacy, restoration efforts, and even litigation. You might be pleasantly surprised to know that many of its employees are long-term career watermen who take seriously their jobs as stewards.
Captain John Page Williams Sr. is a senior naturalist who’s happy to call himself a “fish head.” “I have loved fish since I was four years old. No one ever told me it would turn into a study on municipal finance and constitutional law and all the rest,” he says, laughing. “We have a very powerful educational program that stretches from one end of the bay to the other that brings us in contact with everyone from senators and politicians to working watermen.” On the side, Williams is a licensed fishing guide, and he has his Coast Guard license.

As Williams explains it, the fishing industry is changing rapidly, and you have people who fight that tooth and nail and others that are deeply committed. “The best of these people are doing stunning work in a sustainable way, and we do everything at CBF to highlight that.”

“What’s great about getting chefs involved is that they ensure this is a high-profile market that allows watermen a year round business.”


He points out Tommy Leggett, a career waterman and marine scientist who developed an oyster restoration program around 2000. Oysters are important for improving water quality and habitat efforts, and their restoration is considered the most critical and significant way to save the bay. Ten billion oysters will be planted in the bay over the next six years.

Pairing skilled watermen with scientists is where progress shines. Another success story Williams highlights is blue crabs. “Crabs basically hibernate in the winter, burying themselves in the mud. Together, Virginia and Maryland state agencies developed a statistically accurate baywide winter dredging survey that looks at the state of the stock in total, right down to the ratio of males to females.” The harvest—and the limits that can be put on that harvest—is based on that survey’s results. One of the original dredgers was a CBF staffer who worked with scientists to come up with the survey.

In the end, Williams feels the bottom line is that many fishermen are deeply committed to the conversation about where the water business is going in the 21st century, from catching crabs commercially to how recreational fishing should look. But it’s not just fishermen, either. Williams points to the grazing industry, where they’ve built a network of livestock and dairy farmers who are converting from feed to pasture with intensive rotational grazing to yield tremendous water-quality benefits. “It’s exciting to see the transition with more and more farmers. It’s a great example of using traditional techniques with a 21st-century stamp on them.”

“The blue catfish business is really about making lemonade out of lemons,” explains Williams. “Getting rid of them all will not save the bay, but in DC it provides a valuable niche. What’s great about getting chefs involved is that they ensure this is a high-profile market that allows watermen a year-round business.”

“We think hard about what we harvest. And, like Chef Ellis, we celebrate it too,” says Williams. “None of us want to quit what we’re doing. We want Chesapeake Bay to be this way for our children and our grandchildren. That’s what motivates us.”

Chesapeake Bay Soiree, Friday July 19 2019
Chefs Charlie Palmer and Mike Ellis kick off the First Annual Chesapeake Bay Soirée on July 19, 2019 at the Charlie Palmer Steak Rooftop. Join them as they celebrate everything summer brings to the table in a family-style feast including Heirloom Tomato Salad, Peel and Eat Shrimp, Blue Crab and Fried Chicken, with ingredients sourced within 90 miles of the restaurant. Enjoy icy local craft beer, chilled white wine, and homegrown live music under a starry sky, knowing that proceeds benefit St. Jude. Purchase tickets at charliepalmersteak.com.