Volume 47, Number 9
In his collection of essays, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell wrote of a rare personality type. “These people on whom we rely on more heavily than we realize are Connectors, people with a very special gift of bringing people together,” he wrote. Social advancements depend on these influencers, who are curious, self-confident, sociable and energetic, he adds.
Ned Bell is one such Connector who has had a profound impact on how chefs and Canadian consumers perceive seafood. Through advocacy against overfishing, and tireless promotion of identifying and sourcing sustainable seafood, the West Coast toque is part of a growing generation of chefs who consider the environmental impact of each dish.
The Okanagan, B.C.-native has enjoyed time in the kitchen since the age of 11, when he’d whip up kid-friendly lasagna and stir-fry meals for his younger siblings. As a teen, he took on dishwashing jobs and catered his parents’ parties. At first blush, it wasn’t the food that drew Bell toward a culinary career but socializing with his guests and getting feedback on the dishes he was serving. “I’m a pretty gregarious person, so I really enjoyed that interaction. It wasn’t until right after I graduated [high school] that I realized I wanted to go to culinary school,” he explains.
As a student at Dubrulle Culinary School in Vancouver, Bell studied all facets of culinary arts, from savoury to sweet. He was the only student chosen out of his class to become a kitchen apprentice for instructors such as celebrated chef Rob Feenie. After graduation in 1993, Bell followed his mentor to the upscale French restaurant Le Crocodile in Vancouver.
While the chef was advancing his career, he became inspired by the work his peers were doing to advocate for sustainable seafood. “I stand on the shoulders of great Vancouver chef Rob Clark and guys who were co-founders of the Ocean Wise program. I was just along for support and became really intrigued and started to educate myself about what sustainable seafood was and how I could effect change,” Bell explains, speaking of The Vancouver Aquarium’s program designed to educate the public on seafood species that are caught (or farmed) to ensure long-term health of the ecosystem. Chefs follow its guidelines to identify which seafood species are sustainably caught and good to highlight on the menu (such as handline-caught Pacific halibut) or over-fished species to nix from the menu (such as black tiger prawns).
Fast forward to 2011. After Bell had helmed the kitchens of award-winning restaurants across the country, such as Accolade in Toronto, Murrieta’s Bar & Grill in Calgary and the Rosewood Hotel Georgia in Vancouver, he landed at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver. His ideas about implementing a sustainably sourced menu came to fruition at the helm of the hotel’s 120-seat Yew Seafood + Bar. “I first met Ned in the summer of 2011 when the hotel was searching for a new executive chef with the passion, personality and purpose that the position demands,” Robert Cima, GM of Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver and regional VP of the Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, recalls. “Yew had just made a concept shift to seafood and finding the right person for the role was pivotal. My first impression of Ned was … energy. Ned’s got a lot of it — a lot of ideas, creativity, enthusiasm — and it’s infectious, which speaks to his leadership qualities.”
Bell’s new seafood-focused menu had no place for Atlantic salmon or Chilean sea bass. “We took things off the menu that weren’t designated-Ocean Wise or weren’t from wild, well-managed fisheries or closed containment aquaculture, which is basically like fish farming or fish farming done on land,” he explains. Instead, raw dishes took the spotlight such as halibut topped with avocado and corn ($19) and mains such as sablefish paired with celery and baby kale ($35). It was all part of his philosophy of creating globally inspired but locally created food, featuring nutrient-dense, plant-based cooking.
“As our menus became more progressive, we started to take more risks and put on more interesting ingredients (its hearty Yew chowder, for example, combines smoked black cod with Okanagan apples and vanilla bean honey, $12), and as customers started to get really excited about those ingredients, we continued to push and grow,” he adds. That excitement fuelled a business boom. “We took the restaurant from $6.5 million annually to $8.5 million in our first year, which was pretty extraordinary. Clearly by giving ourselves a really focused identity — not only were we a seafood restaurant but a sustainable seafood restaurant — customers connected with that and supported it by coming back and loving what we were doing,” he raves. The Four Seasons in Vancouver became Canada’s first 100-per-cent Ocean Wise-certified luxury hotel, and the award-winning restaurant is on track to reach $9 million in annual sales by the end of 2014, from $8.5 million in 2013. Today, it’s averaging 250 covers for lunch and 300 for dinner.
With growing support from his community, Bell’s activism has blossomed. In 2013, the chef spent four days cycling nearly 900 kilometres across Vancouver island to raise funds. This year he founded Chefs for Oceans, a grassroots campaign that was dreamed up during the Halifax Canadian Chefs’ Congress two years ago to raise money and awareness for Ocean Wise and the like-minded Sea Choice program. This past summer, he took his biking challenge up a notch, cycling from St. John’s, N.L. and hitting every province west to Vancouver.
“I wanted to do something outside of the box from a culinary point of view,” Bell explains. “So, I thought maybe there would be some shock value to that, and maybe people would pay attention to the message more.” Over the course of 10 weeks, Bell cycled 150 to 200 kilometres per day and made two-dozen appearances at restaurants along the way, hosting brunches, receptions and even dock ’n’ dines to share his story and spread the message about sustainable seafood, raising more than $24,000. He also returned from his travels teeming with new menu ideas for Yew, including a Shore Lunch inspired by Manitoba and Western Ontario. It features shallow-fried walleye with baked beans, wild rice, bread and butter.
The emotionally and physically taxing feat is just one way chefs across Canada are stepping outside the kitchen and advocating for the environment. “Chef Ned Bell is an ardent supporter and defender of our oceans, and his cross-country bike trek across Canada this summer exemplifies that perfectly,” says Ann-Marie Copping, manager of Ocean Wise. “The Ocean Wise team is so grateful for his work to raise awareness of the issues facing our quickly depleting oceans, and it’s through influencers such as Ned and a national network of sustainably minded chefs, suppliers, producers and partners, that we hope to turn the tide of overfishing.”
Bell has two “big hairy audacious goals” for the future, “B-hags, for short,” quips the chef. He wants to introduce a national sustainable seafood day in Canada on March 18 (a day celebrated in Australia); and, over the next decade, he’d like sustainable seafood to be accessible to every Canadian, a feat he says can be accomplished by zeroing in on the retail markets first to revolutionize the supply chain. In the meantime, the father-of-two is looking forward to growing his network of chefs and influencing the future generation of toques, one by one. “Sustainable seafood is [at the centre of] a conversation people are having, but they still need so much more information. Chefs for Oceans’ work is just beginning.”