Story Ideas

Canadian chefs lead the way in discovering new and sustainable seafood.

‘Sustainable’ equals plentiful, well managed and responsible.

15 February 2011

Invited to tour some of Steveston Village’s seafood restaurants, I was salivating before I even arrived at the historic fishing village near Vancouver, BC.

But when I looked at the menu created especially for the occasion at Tapenade Bistro, my appetite waned. Last of the Season Sardines was to start things off, followed by a Surf and Turf featuring lingcod. 

Sardines and lingcod? You’ve got to be joking, I thought, recalling that sardines are mostly ground up and fed to pigs, cattle and farmed salmon, while lingcod could win an award for ugliest fish in the ocean.

But since I was a guest on this seafood tour, I kept my mouth shut. Until, of course, I opened it—reluctantly—to taste both dishes.

What a delicious shock. Chef Alex Tung had pan-seared the sardines so they were crispy on the outside, yet moist and meaty inside. I expected a strong, fishy flavour, but there wasn’t one. The sweet, white flesh of the lingcod was equally tasty.

Across the table from me, Frank Keitsch had a big smile on his face. Frank was a fisherman who may well have caught the very lingcod I was savouring. Over the next hour or so he opened my eyes to the way fishing—and dining on seafood—has changed for the better in Canada.

“It’s not about filling your boat every day,” he said. “That’s the old way of thinking. It’s what you do with the fish.”

“You don’t leave it lying on your deck for six hours,” he explained. “The fish is bled and chilled immediately. I always have four tons of ice on my boat.”

Another big change is the length of time that fishermen stay out on the ocean. “We used to go fishing for ten days at a time,” Keitsch told me. “It could be 14 days by the time the fish got into restaurants. Now, three days is the longest we’ll stay out.”

The result is a more sustainable fishery, with fewer fish being caught. Those that are caught are the highest quality, so when you order fresh fish, it tastes fresh, even if you don’t live on Canada’s west coast.

“I was sending salmon that had been out of the water only three hours to Ottawa [last fall during the sockeye salmon run] and they arrived that night,” Keitsch said proudly. “The chefs there hadn’t seen anything like it.”

And what about the lingcod on my plate, I asked. “They’re ugly to look at,” he admitted with a laugh. “For many years people didn’t want to eat them.”

But that’s changing too, Keitsch explained, with the help of innovative and curious chefs who aren’t afraid to try new seafood as long as it’s sustainable. That means it’s plentiful, well managed and can be caught without catching other species accidentally at the same time, or hurting the ocean environment.

In addition to salmon and lingcod, Keitsch and his three partners in Organic Ocean catch and sell spot prawns, halibut, oysters, scallops, mussels and albacore tuna directly to chefs at almost 150 restaurants in Canada. They fly their freshly caught fish as far east as Montréal, where chefs Derek Dammann and Alex Cruz are committed to serving sustainable food at DNA

Other chefs who have built a reputation for using sustainable products and who buy fish from Organic Ocean are Matt Carmichael at Restaurant 18 and John Taylor at Domus Café, both in Ottawa, and Anthony Walsh at Canoe in Toronto.  Closer to home, Organic Ocean sells to chefs Robert Clark at C Restaurant and Quang Dang at Diva at the Met, both in Vancouver.

The trend to fishing and dining sustainably has been supported by Ocean Wise, a conservation program run by the Vancouver Aquarium to educate diners and promote responsible fishing and eating. Member restaurants can show the Ocean Wise symbol on their menus next to seafood items that are sustainably caught.

Ocean Wise started in 2005 with just one founding member: C Restaurant in Vancouver. Today you can find Ocean Wise dishes at about 2,700 locations across Canada, including chain restaurants such as Cactus Club Cafe, Earl’s and Panago Pizza.

One of the first restaurants to join Ocean Wise was Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar in Vancouver’s Yaletown. In fact, chef Frank Pabst is so keen to use sustainable and lesser-known seafood that every year Blue Water Cafe hosts a month-long Unsung Heroes Festival.” The restaurant donates 10% of the proceeds to Ocean Wise.

In 2011, the Unsung Heroes Festival is in February. “This is the ideal time to experiment and explore new potential,” explains Pabst, noting that salmon and halibut are out of season.

If you’re wondering just how daring Pabst is, consider that last year he included red sea urchin, sea cucumber and jellyfish, items you would be hard pressed to find on any menu anywhere. And sardines, too. Pabst stuffed his with green chard, artichokes and pine nuts.

It’s enough to make me salivate—and plan a visit to Blue Water Cafe in February. Perhaps on my way, I’ll stop at Tapenade in Steveston Village and see what new delights Chef Alex Tung is dishing up. With chefs like these, you can count on finding something tasty—and sustainable.

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