Chefs Are Driving Change To Protect Canada’s Seafood

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It’s no secret that keeping our oceans’ inhabitants safe from extinction is an ongoing concern in today’s restaurant kitchens, and as diners adopt lighter, healthier diets, it’s important to educate them. At least that’s the mantra of many chefs who are at the forefront of change, introducing tasty sustainable seafood to their menus.

Geoff Bolan, commercial director of the Americas for the U.S.-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) — a leading third-party certification and ecolabelling program for sustainable seafood — says Canadians consume between eight to nine kilograms of fish a year, per person. Top choices include (but are not limited to) canned tuna, tilapia, salmon and shrimp. The problem is some of these may not be sustainable or local.

“Sustainable seafood can be defined as species that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of that species as well as the greater marine ecosystem,” according to Ocean Wise, the Vancouver Aquarium’s conservation and education program. The sustainability of our oceans is an important issue, since the world’s marine life is being depleted at breakneck speeds, with an estimated 90 per cent of all large, predatory fish having already disappeared from our oceans. Ocean Wise research also shows that recent studies predict a global fisheries collapse by 2048 if we don’t change our ways.

The good news is Canada is a leader in procuring sustainable fish, says Bolan. “More than 80 per cent of Canadian fisheries by landings, by value, are engaged in our program, which means they are certified or undergoing a full assessment. Ninety-five per cent of Canadian lobster, for example, is either MSC-certified or in assessment,” he says. And that’s tasty news for a country that touches the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.

According to Bolan and Teddie Geach, Ocean Wise’s account representative for Western Canada, there are many good-tasting sustainable options to choose across the country — from Pacific halibut to B.C. salmon, B.C. spot prawns, Atlantic mackerel, Eastern oysters, cockle clams, B.C. Bay mussels, Atlantic lobster from the Northumberland Strait and more.

It’s this focus on providing customers with deliciously sustainable choices that revs up Ned Bell. The chef, and 2014 F&H Pinnacle Award winner, recently completed a 72-day bicycle journey across Canada for his Chefs for Oceans organization, which raises money and awareness for Ocean Wise and the like-minded Vancouver-based Sea Choice program (just as the bike trip did).

So, it’s no surprise that the executive chef of Yew Seafood + Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, helms a concept dedicated to creating sustainable fare. “We gave ourselves a very clear, hyper-focused identity where all of our menu choices are good ones. We went from $6.5 million a year to $8.5 million in 18 months because of that focus,” says Bell, whose menu is Ocean Wise-approved.

Customers responded to offerings varying from the scallop crudo with passion fruit, avocado and sweet-and-sour cucumber ($17) to a Pacific Haida Gwaii halibut main with seasonal vegetables ($33). And, Bell emphatically notes that diners don’t eat at Yew for a once-a-year special occasion; his clients return multiple times a month, craving everything from lobster tacos ($19) to cod and seafood chowder ($13).

In Regina, Jonathan Thauberger, of Crave Kitchen + Wine Bar, offers a varied menu, which includes Ocean Wise-approved seafood options. “One person might only eat salmon, well done, while another might order a second portion of our 24-hour camelina-braised octopus [under the preserved seafood menu, $15 for three selections]. We try to challenge people’s perceptions while still offering choices that are less adventurous.”

On the East Coast, mussels and Annapolis Valley-based, sustainably farmed Arctic char are favourites. Jamie MacDougall, executive chef at Five Fishermen Restaurant in Halifax, serves the char blackened with roasted corn and Andouille sausage succotash over tomato orzo ($25). “Restaurant owners and chefs have a good grip on the offerings of seafood at their establishments, focusing on geographical location and maintaining a continued awareness by asking where the product originates from and how it’s caught or farmed,” surmises MacDougall.

That said, the Ocean Wise seal of approval at partner restaurants, such as Crave and Yew, appeals to patrons looking for ocean-friendly menu options, and the list of informed customers is growing, according to the most recent research. “A study published in 2011 showed 91 per cent of Canadians feel it’s important that fish and other seafood on sale in Canada come from sustainable and non-overfished stocks,” says Geach, pointing to data from Canada-based EKOS Research Associates on behalf of the Toronto-based WWF Canada.

This demand is also being felt in QSRs across the country. According to NPD CREST research, the popularity of fish sandwiches (measured by servings) experienced a 34-per-cent gain since 2008. For Jeff Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, senior manager, Sustainability at McDonald’s Canada in Toronto, it’s simple: “We cater to our customers by providing them with relevant products that satisfy their evolving taste preferences,” he says.

McDonald’s Canada has been sourcing sustainable fish since 2001, but, in 2013, the company completed its MSC third-party chain-of-custody audit, aided in part by Lunenburg, N.S.-based High Liner Foods Inc., which helped navigate sustainable sourcing practices. This now enables McDonald’s Canada to use the MSC eco-logo while offering customers Alaskan pollock in its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches ($4.69) and limited-time-offer meals such as the McLobster ($6.79) and the Asian Crispy Shrimp Signature McWrap ($5.49).

From quick-service to fine-dining, the shift towards “healthier” and lighter options is being felt. And, as people learn about the hormones found in conventionally produced land-based proteins, the switch to sustainable seafood becomes an attractive choice, notes Five Fishermen’s MacDougall.

But, sourcing sustainably is only part of the battle, the trick is wooing diners to order unfamiliar seafood dishes. For their part, chefs such as Crave’s Thauberger source seasonal options and inject different choices into their menus so diners get exposed to new or “secondary” (less popular) species, which is healthier for fish stocks. “It’s a little more of a chore to find interesting choices for guests, but I work closely with local seafood purveyors who have access to both coasts; it just takes a little lead time and planning,” he says. Some of Thauberger’s lesser known but equally delicious choices include crispy Humboldt squid with puttanesca sauce and preserved lemon as a starter ($14), Pacific white anchovies in puff pastry and pickled Spanish mackerel (both part of the seafood preserves selection, three for $15).

Meanwhile, Yew’s Bell gives customers something they know and love, while adding an unexpected sustainable seafood component. He’ll serve a flaky halibut filet topped with gooseneck barnacle ragout, sautéed with olives, shallots, garlic and tomatoes ($30) or a surf-and-turf that might include a cube of crispy buttermilk-marinated and cornmeal-crusted Humboldt squid with spiced pork belly (not on the menu at press time). But, beyond making the food more recognizable to the customer, mixing sustainable seafood with other ingredients is also a smart flavour-boosting technique. “Some farmed sustainable seafood can lack the fat and flavour of wild caught. In this case, we try to pair it with foods and flavours that enhance the lack of fat, which is the basis of flavour,” says The Five Fishermen’s MacDougall, whose aforementioned Arctic char blackened with Andouille sausage is one such example.

But, chefs shouldn’t worry about offering lesser known or secondary species. Ocean Wise’s Geach suggests looking to B.C. spot prawn as an example. “At one time, these prawns were largely unfamiliar to the public, but as more chefs offered them as a sustainable alternative to tiger prawns, the more people requested them. Now they’re considered one of the most popular seafood choices,” she notes.

And, the cost of sustainable seafood shouldn’t be a deterrent, either. “If a restaurateur or chef says he or she can’t afford to put sustainable fish on the menu, they need to look closely at the actual costs. It’s not more expensive, but it may be potentially more difficult to find, because big suppliers may not carry as much as sustainable suppliers,” Bell says. “If suppliers and restaurants make the commitment to serve only sustainable, this will automatically control the price point and make it more consistent.”

Bell believes that creating sustainable options is about more than just putting the product on the plate. He guarantees customers will make better decisions — even if they are asked to pay $1 more a plate — if they’re told about the fisherman who caught their fish and the quality of the meat. It takes a commitment, and, thankfully, many Canadian chefs, and leaders of culinary change in the country, already seem set on the right path.

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