Chef Special – Interview with Ned Bell

Ned Bell

Ned Bell is an esteemed chef and sustainable seafood ambassador, founder of Chefs For Oceans, and the Ocean Wise executive chef based at the Vancouver Aquarium.

How has the way you design a menu evolved?
NB: We’ve been exposed to more ingredients, and it’s opened the doors to more possibilities. It’s the influence of global cuisines and cultures; of chefs on each other; and of our diners. It has changed immensely in the last three decades, and what it represents to people is incredible. My food is globally inspired and locally created. Sustainability, ethical dining, and responsible eating have really exploded. The fringe has become the norm. Across Canada people really care about the Earth, where their food comes from, and who is the farmer or fisherman. Farm to table is no longer unique; it’s the expectation. The chemicals in some food containers and frying pans are harmful, and people are starting to wake up to those facts. It’s not only about what is in our food, but also how we’re packaging it. We have to be conscious of things that previous generations didn’t consider.

Whose responsibility is ethical dining: the restaurateur or the consumer?
NB: It’s your responsibility as a consumer to ask the question, “Is this seafood sustainable?” It’s the responsibility of the retailer or restaurateur to have the proper answer. Ocean Wise, SeaChoice and Seafood Watch provide that information. If you’ve got your phone with you, the Ocean Wise app or a quick Google search will tell you if a fish is sustainable. You could even tweet the question.

The Four Seasons Hotel, Vancouver is the first luxury hotel in Canada to be 100% Ocean Wise. It’s still rare, because with large format events there seems to be a stigma that it’s more challenging to be sustainable, but that’s just not true. It’s a lack of education. I rode my bike 8,700km across Canada to promote “Chefs For Oceans”, and engage people on the importance of healthy oceans, lakes and rivers. The number one question I was asked was, “What is sustainable seafood?” We need to ask more of these questions. Two thirds of our planet is covered by ocean, and we’re in peril of a global fisheries collapse.

There is a lack of awareness of seasonality in seafood. People generally don’t think of NB: proteins in terms of season.
The explosion of fish farming has enabled people to get fresh seafood twelve months of the year. The lifecycles of fish are relevant, because wild seafood is probably the last protein on the planet that we get to eat from the wild. We don’t eat wild chicken, wild beef or wild pigs; they’re all cultivated or farmed. Most seafood we consume is wild, and that’s pretty special. We need to protect it. Chefs have a unique opportunity to know where their seafood comes from and then educate their staff, customers and partners. “Fresh” isn’t necessarily better. A fish frozen at sea the moment it was caught and then thawed properly is absolutely delicious. I believe that responsible aquaculture is crucial to the health of our oceans, because we need to increase the biomass, and replace the wild proteins that we’ve already taken. 90% of our ocean predators are at-risk or over-fished, and that can’t continue.

Has this affected the way your restaurant does business?
NB: We’ve grown our business by 40%, because we chose to focus on seafood and hyper-focus on sustainable seafood. Even if I had to go middle of the road, I could still be 100% sustainable at that price point and keep my costs in line. We, as North Americans, expect to eat strawberries and asparagus year round, and shame on us for expecting that. Doesn’t a local field strawberry from Ontario taste way better than one that was gassed on a truck on the way up from God knows where, and ripened artificially? I’m a capitalist. I want my business to grow, but I can do it ethically. I’ve never been more proud of a culinary program.

How do you foresee this progressing?
NB: We have to know where our ingredients come from. We have to care; we have that responsibility. There are six hundred restaurant partners of Ocean Wise. I want to see thousands across Canada. The Arctic is going to influence fisheries moving forward. You’re going to see more responsible farming of shrimp, trout, char and salmon. The true superstars are going to be the farmers and the fisherman. We want to make delicious food, but we want to make it ethically.

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