Gee, where did that fish come from? I ask celebrated chef Ned Bell of Vancouver, and talk about the elephant in the lagoon
JUL 31 14 – NOON — In the days before everyone had a food blog, shopping for groceries was pretty carefree as no one much cared where all the broccoli, processed starch and factory chicken came from — never mind pose the question. It all just magically appeared on the shelves, frequently hermetically vacuum-packed in clingy plastic, much of it shipped incredible distances at enormous hidden cost to the environment and, ultimately, the health of society.
It still does, as even today most folk don’t care where or how strawberries arrive at $2 a basket (compared to, say, local berries at more than twice the price).
And so I applaud efforts by responsible chefs like Ned Bell of Yew Seafood + Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver, who in partnership with Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program and SeaChoice is pedalling on a 10-week cross-Canada bicycle tour to preach the virtues of sustainable seafood. As founder of Chefs for Oceans, an organization that hopes in 10 years to see all Canadians have access to fresh sustainable seafood, he’s biking more than 8,000 kilometres and dropping by 20 communities to raise awareness that may one day see a National Sustainable Seafood Day officially recognized, proclaimed and celebrated.
(In addition, Ned has also come out with his own brand of sustainable canned “Ned’s Tuna.”)
I caught up with the Ned on Monday as his Chefs for Oceans ride took him to Navarra restaurant on Murray Street, the home of celebrated chef René Rodriguez who recently won national attention as first-place contestant on the former TV show, Top Chef Canada. Rodriguez and Bell have been friends since they appeared more than a decade years ago on a clever TV show, Cook Like a Chef.
“We connected with our strong passion for cooking with great ingredients,” Rodriguez says.
“I admire what he’s doing with such a great cause. It’s really very simple: The better we eat, the better we live.”
Navarra, incidentially, is among almost 30 restaurants and retail outlets in Ottawa with Ocean Wise certification, and not surprisingly sustainable seafood was front and centre on the five-course menu that was completely sold out at $79 a plate including wine pairings from the Okanagan.
Of course, what is and is not sustainable is open to debate. Until recently, for example, I believed all Chilean sea bass a.k.a. Patagonian Toothfish was overfished, in danger of extinction, and should be avoided. Yet more recent reports suggest some Chilean sea bass is perfectly fine and can be considered sustainable, which perhaps explains why I found it at my local Metro supermarket the other day. Who do you believe?
Beyond that, I wanted to take Bell a little off script by asking about more than just his favourite way to prepare salmon.
And so we wandered toward what I think of as the elephant in the ocean — the environmental catastrophy created by radiation leakage following the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan in March 2011 as a result of a tsunami, and incredibly poor safety procedures.
Normally the thought wouldn’t occur to me, except the man-made nuclear mess is ongoing as sea water continues to be poured on the reactor, contaminated, and dumped into the sea to prevent it from melting down.
What triggers my interest is that two chefs I know in Ottawa, Michael Blackie at NEXT in Stittsville and Norm Aitken at Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar in Westboro, both of them friends with Ned Bell, categorically say they won’t serve West Coast seafood precisely because of Fukushima. They cited websites like ourradioactiveocean.org as a cause for concern.
Says Blackie: “Radiation levels published online shows everything is below normal in milk and fish, but they stopped published numbers after February 2012. Why? I just don’t want to take a chance.
“I understand seafood represents the livelihood of many people on the West Coast,” Blackie says, “but ultimately I have to think of the future of not only myself and family, but also my guests … It’s great to say the fish is safe, but where’s the data? It’s just a cautionary measure on my part, and if things change and we get better data saying everything is fine then I’m happy to put West Coast seafood back on my menu.”
Says Aitken: “The thing is, no one knows! Which is scary.
“I stay away from Pacific seafood because I don’t know and I never want to look back and say I had a bad feeling … I wouldn’t do that to my kids, so I’m not going to serve it wondering if it is OK.”
For the record, I do not share their cautionary concern, but the fact two notable chefs in our community feel this way and reject Pacific seafood makes it a significant concern.
What follows is my slightly edited chat with chef Ned Bell before dinner service this week.
Ron Eade: What is the point of your cross-Canada bicycle tour?
Chef Ned Bell: My mission with Chefs for Oceans is to raise awareness, promoting healthy sustainable seafood and educating people about what sustainable seafood is. There’s a real lack of knowledge among consumers as to what is sustainable.
Ron: Big grocery chains like Loblaws and Metro have recently pledged to support sustainable seafood. So what’s the big deal?
Ned: The reason I’ve launched this journey, this movement of Chefs for Oceans is not about me, it’s about my peers. It’s about celebrating local champions in the markets that I roll through. I recognized three years ago there was a need to bring together my peer group on a national scale. Three years ago at the Canadian Chefs Conference in Halifax we were all having the same conversation but we weren’t doing a very good job of celebrating healthy lakes, oceans and rivers, and sustainable seafood on a national level.
So I had this idea to create a National Sustainable Seafood Day, which we’re in the process of trying to create on March 18. We hosted a first event for almost 600 people with David Suzuki as my keynote speaker last year at my hotel. And we did a couple of other events, so it’s already happening. It’s now whether the government officially recognizes it as a national day, which is what we’re working toward – a day nation-wide when we celebrate sustainable seafood that’s officially recognized.
Ron: To what extent is record-keeping key to the effort where fish you purchase is traceable from where it is caught, how it is caught, by whom, and who handled it up and to the time it reaches consumers?
Ned: It is incredibly key. We need to know where our fish comes from. My big hairy audacious goal is to have sustainable seafood accessible to every Canadian within the next decade. So, yes, traceability is part of sustainability.
Retail plays an incredibly important role as two-thirds of all seafood is purchased from stores. So retailers play an incredible role in allowing and giving the consumer the ability to purchase sustainable seafood. Of course, as consumers we go to a grocery store and we potentially want Chilean sea bass and they’re going to sell it to us because they’re business people. What I have to do is start educating you to realize you don’t want Chilean sea bass any more, you want sustainable halibut, you want sable fish, you want whatever it might be. As soon as we stop asking for Chilean sea bass and farmed Atlantic salmon then hopefully we can really rely on a partnership with retail to be there for us.
Ron: What is your response, then, to the initiatives of Loblaws and now Metro, to cite two stores, to favour sustainable seafood?
Ned: Well, it’s a start. But I think it would be potentially foolish of me to think they could all be there already. The Ocean Wise movement is really only a decade old. The cod fishery on the east coast only collapsed in 1990, so this is a conversation that has happened only in the last half of your and my generation where we ever started to give a shit about where our fish came from.
We need to know where our fish comes from, and what it is.
Ron: To what extent is fish being mislabelled? I’ve seen some reports that as much as one-third of fish sold to consumers is mislabeled — something it purports to be, when it is not.
Ned: I’m not an expert in labelling, but I do know it is a serious issue. We have to do a better job of asking the question of where our seafood comes from. If our retailer can’t give us the answer and they can’t prove where it came from then we have no idea what we’re eating.
Ron: Who is mislabelling the product? Is it because one fish is cheaper than another, so it’s mislabelled to increase the value?
Ned: It could be any one of probably six different people who touched the fish all the way down the line.
Ron: I wanted to ask you about the elephant in the pond: There are two chefs in Ottawa I know of – Michael Blackie at NEXT in Stittsville and Norm Aitken of Juniper in Westboro, both of whom you know – who won’t touch West Coast seafood because they’re concerned about contamination of the Pacific Ocean due to radioactive leakage following the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan triggered by a tsunami in March 2011.
Ron: Absolutely won’t touch it, nor will Aiken until they see better information based on impartial studies that show West Coast seafood is truly safe. Blackie tells me while the contamination level on our side of the ocean is officially low and well within acceptable human thresholds, no numbers have been published since February 2012 so, he says, he doesn’t want to take the risk. Period.
While Blackie concedes he may be over-reacting, he says he’s just being cautious.
Ned: I think they – chefs and retailers – have to do a bit more research about what has happened. Me, all I serve is West Coast seafood and, you know what, we have 660 Japanese restaurants serving West Coast seafood and we have an incredible amount of people who are passionate about West Coast fish. The truth is, by the time Fukushima gets to our waters, it’s a non-issue.
I’m surprised that Blackie was that cut-and-dry about it. So what’s he serving?
Ron: He’s serving East Coast seafood. Blackie tells me he’d love to put West Coast seafood on the menu, but he told me he’s being cautious until the public gets better data to show everything is absolutely fine. When more and better information comes in that shows there is no cause for concern, then Blackie says he’ll happily put West Coast seafood back on his menu.
Ned: Well, I respect that. As a cautionary measure, I totally respect that. I think that’s his prerogative. Maybe he’s got a consumer who’s a lot more cautious, maybe I’m getting better information, maybe my peer group as the Chefs Association of Vancouver Island feel quite strong the information we got says by the time it gets to our shores then we don’t have anything to worry about.
None of the fish are migrating from Japan. Radiation doesn’t live in strength to travel thousands of kilometers …
I respect both Blackie and Norm Aitken, I think those opinions are valid for them and their consumers, but I don’t feel that way.
Ron: Are there other points you would like to stress about your initiative?
Ned: The goal for us is to create a National Sustainable Seafood Day so that Michael Black and Norm Aitken, and chefs Marc Lepine and Rene Rodriguez and the other incredible chefs here in Ottawa and around Ontario through to the east, have an ability to communicate with each other on a more consistent information-driven initiative. Through programs like Ocean Wise, SeaChoice, and Menu Bleu Marin from the Quebec City Aquarium there is a lot of information out there. We focus so much on our region and our community that we don’t do a very good job of celebrating sustainable seafood on a national level.
So I’m hoping we can celebrate the three oceans surrounding our country. I’m aware that farmed seafood is a question a lot of people are asking – what is good farmed seafood and what is bad. I’m a passionate supporter of land-based, closed containment of aquaculture where, say, halibut are farm-raised in tanks in Prince Edward Island, and it is great. It gets away from farmed fish raised in pens along the shore with antibiotics, the fact farmed fish are overfed and the excess sinks to the bottom and destroys the ocean floor.
Ron: So there is a way to farm fish in a responsible way … ?
Ned: Absolutely. You look at the shellfish industry and it’s all farmed anyway. Farmed shellfish is a good thing if it’s done properly. Farmed fish if it’s done in a closed environment where you can recycle the water, you know what comes in, and there is no accidental release of a foreign species into the wild. We have five species of salmon on the West Coast and I want to make sure we protect that.
It’s just about increasing awareness among chefs and using their voices so consumers hopefully go to their retailers asking for more sustainable choices. Stop buying farmed Atlantic salmon and Chilean sea bass and start supporting halibut when it’s in season, and we look at the cost of seafood and start to pay what it’s truly worth. Maybe we can consider using a bit less, smaller portions, quality – it’s no different than what’s happened in the last few years with the explosion in farmer’s markets where I think people are really engaged about where their food comes from.
We have to have to realize 2 billion people rely on the world’s oceans for their daily source of protein … From a perspective of sustainable seafood in this country I think we can do a better job of celebrating it. By the year 2050 when there’s going to be 9 billion people in the world, how are we going to feed those people?
If we continue to overfish and if we continue to destroy our oceans it’s going to get scary. It’s scary already, and I don’t think we’ve given Mother Nature a chance to show us what she’s got.
You know, chefs are kind of like doctors — people just believe what we say.
Ron: You have great influence on the dining public.
Ned: I think we do, we really do. In the world of chefs we have a responsibility. I feed thousands of people a week and I want to make sure the food I’m putting in my customers’ bellies is of the highest quality, comes from people who I know their names and the community they come from.