Seafood Revolution in Gwynn’s Island

With her award-winning “seafood,” Monica Talbert is making culinary waves.

Monica Talbert is calling from Gwynn’s Island, still delirious from the news: her Mind Blown scallops have just won another award, this time first place, beating out thousands of “natural” grocery store brands for a coveted Nexty. What’s mind-blowing about this news is Talbert’s entry: although she has deep roots in Chesapeake Bay seafood, her winning scallops aren’t seafood at all. 

Talbert comes from Virginia seafood royalty. At 15, she started helping out in her mother’s crab shack in Spotsylvania—Capt. Jack’s—taking customer orders and getting to know the watermen who supplied them with seafood straight out of the Bay. By 2013, they’d outgrown the crab shack and were selling their now-famous Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Pie and other delicacies under the family name, Van Cleve Seafood.

So why would a person like Talbert, who takes her seafood seriously, shift gears to develop a line of culinary award-winning shrimp, scallops, and lobster crab cakes—made entirely from plants? 

Like “jumbo shrimp,” the term “plant-based seafood” sounds like an oxymoron. But Talbert’s Mind Blown line, now available in grocery stores across 14 states, is not just for people who’ve gone meatless. It’s for anyone who loves the taste of seafood.

The Van Cleves have long partnered with local fishermen along the Chesapeake. As a child, Talbert remembers trips to Gloucester with her mother, Shelly, where they watched crabbers haul their catch into deadrise boats. She recalls the fog rolling in from the Bay, the watermen and their boats as quiet as ghosts. They came to know each other by name, forming deep friendships over time. 

But as their business expanded, the Van Cleves looked beyond the Middle Peninsula’s shores and came face-to-face with the global fishing industry. “The mega ships were coming into the Chesapeake Bay,” says Talbert, “and they really wreaked havoc.” 

One Canadian company alone was harvesting at least 75 percent of the Bay’s menhaden, a filter fish that, like oysters, play a crucial role in the marine life food chain. To control the damage, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission set strict limits, but these fishing restrictions are routinely violated by foreign companies.

Illegal Practices

With overfishing comes tangible consequences: fragile marine ecosystems have been thrown off balance, and “bycatch”—the unintended sea life that gets captured in the nets—is estimated to be up to 40 percent of the industry’s combined haul. Some fish, including bluefin tuna, grouper, and orange roughy, are already inching toward extinction, while others have been seriously compromised. 

Because they operate offshore, mega ships are largely beyond oversight. Open water is akin to the Wild West, where in addition to fishing quotas, labor laws, environmental codes, and ethical business practices are often flouted and almost impossible to enforce. The industry calls this IUU fishing—illegal, unreported, and unregulated. 

The Van Cleves’ high standards were always in sync with the local watermen they’d come to know. But doing business on a global scale was another thing altogether. 

Faux Meat Goes Mainstream

At the same time, Talbert was keeping tabs on a seismic shift taking place in grocery stores and on restaurant menus nationwide. Consumers were exploring plant-based foods—think Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat—and they weren’t all vegetarians. 

Even the big boys are betting that the faux food industry is about to explode. According to a recent study by financial giant UBS and Tyson Foods, sales of faux meat products are projected to reach $85 billion by 2030, with Tyson making plans to introduce its own plant-based line. “The meat alternatives were going mainstream,” says Talbert, “so, for us, spinning off a plant-based seafood company was a no-brainer.” 

Talbert saw a win-win opportunity: she could capture a new slice of the market while giving the oceans and the Bay a much-needed break. She and her team got together in Gwynn’s Island, diving in headfirst to create the perfect alternative to real shrimp, scallops, crab, and lobster. “We wanted to create something that was super clean and natural, using superfoods that are not just good, but good for you,” she says. 

Patience Pays Off

To get there, they needed to hit the sweet spot. Talbert knows what seafood should look like, taste like, smell like, and cook like, and she was determined to come as close to the real thing as possible. Plus, the good-for-you nutrients needed to be plentiful. 

So they looked at grains and legumes and identified fungi, microalgae, and seaweed—ingredients that could replicate the subtle nuances of real seafood. And they discovered konjac, a root vegetable rich in soluble fiber and nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium. Long a staple in Japanese cooking, it became a major Mind Blown ingredient. They dabbled in herbs and spices to get the seasoning just right. 

Once the products began to take shape, Talbert invited tasters to sample the results. “They kept telling us the taste was mind-blowing,” she says. That’s how she hit on the name Mind Blown—and it stuck. The line includes dusted scallops, dusted shrimp, coconut shrimp, and lobster crab cakes. 

“Perfecting our shrimp was a relatively quick process,” says Talbert, “but getting scallops ready for market was much more time-consuming.” The challenges included successfully replicating its fibrous appearance and the sweet, tender, slightly bouncy meat inside. It took over a year to get right, but patience paid off: in a blind taste test, when the final version was fried and served with cocktail sauce and lemon, Talbert fooled them all: tasters couldn’t tell the difference between her scallops and the real thing. 

Since its introduction, Mind Blown has been sweeping culinary awards and winning over die-hard seafood fans. In December, Dusted Scallops were crowned the Best Plant-Based Seafood Product of the Year at the World Plant-Based Awards in New York, where Mind Blown’s Oyster Po-Boy—coming to stores later this year—debuted to rave reviews. 

An Easy Choice to Make

“We want to be part of the solution,” says Talbert. “It’s easy to give the oceans a break when you have an alternative right there in your grocery store.” Even if you eat Mind Blown seafood half the time, she notes, you’re making a difference. And for anyone who loves seafood, she adds, that’s an easy choice to make. 

Commercial fishing vessels make up only two percent of the global fleet, but they’re responsible for over 50 percent of the global catch. So, it comes down to simple math. “By 2050, we’ll have more than 10 billion people on the planet,” says Talbert, citing a figure projected by The World Bank and the United Nations. “The oceans simply can’t keep up.” It’s about grocery math, too: She remembers crab being $4 a pound when Capt. Jack’s started out. Now that the price has inched to $30, a simple crab cake has become out of reach for many. Plant-based seafood, she believes, is the food of the future. And it just happens to be delicious., 

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue.

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