Can I Serve Piranha at This Food Festival?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 10, 2019

"I was extremely obsessed about bringing piranhas because we serve piranhas in the Amazon at Central, so I said, 'Guys, why not take a risk to bring piranhas to L.A.?' You probably have preconceived notions about piranhas because of movies, but for me, piranhas, we go fish them."

Well, that was famous chef Virgilio Martinez's take on the matter. But when confronted with a duffel bag full of 40 vacuum-sealed, frozen piranhas at LAX, customs officials had a slightly different response. Specifically, a private interrogation about his fishy carry-on.

A Special Dinner

"Why are you bringing piranhas?" officers asked.

"I'm doing a special dinner with a friend who I really respect and I’m going to do a dish I really enjoy doing," Martinez replied.

And on it went, according to the Los Angeles Times, for five hours.

"I told him that it was from my heart and showed him a few photos," Martinez claimed. "I took my book and said, 'Look, this is what I want to do with the piranhas.' And he finally said, 'Oh, wow, go ahead.'"

Martinez, the owner of Peru's Central restaurant, was a guest chef at L.A.'s Somni and Vespertine as part of the city's Food Bowl festival. When he was finally released (with the fish and without criminal charges), he used the piranha meat to make a salad at Vespertine, then dried the piranha skins and served them in the piranha heads at Somni.

Piranha Permits?

For those wondering, piranhas aren't poisonous, but their bite can pack a punch. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declares: "You do not need a permit from us for possession or for the non-commercial import or export of piranha (Serrasalmus sp.) into the United States." That Martinez's piranhas were dead and frozen probably helped as well. But you might want to think twice before trying to sneak exotic animals, alive or dead, past customs.

A California man who strapped 15 live lizards to his chest was caught at LAX and charged with smuggling wildlife into the United States, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. LAX customs officials also nabbed Sonny Dong, who attached 14 live red-whiskered bulbuls, magpie robins, and shama thrushes to pieces of cloth wrapped around his lower legs.

If you're planning on putting something exotic on the menu at a food festival, maybe clear it with TSA first.

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