Because he cooks for a living in a country bound by three oceans and home to more lakes than the rest of the world combined, Ned Bell came to care about the source of the seafood on his menus. And when he discovered just how damaged and endangered fish habitat in and around Canada has become, the Executive Chef at YEW Seafood + Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver became an activist, biking 8700 kms in just 10 weeks across the country to raise awareness about the issue. His ride “Chefs for Oceans” included dozens of meals prepared by over 100 chefs for thousands of lucky diners.
Chef Bell kicked off his cross country campaign on Canada Day in “one of the best restaurants in the country, Raymond’s in St. John’s.” Says Chef Bell, “The fishing industry was the birth of our country. It’s what brought the original settlers here, the abundance of seafood.” While fishing wasn’t the only resource to attract Europeans, within 100 years of John Cabot’s landing in 1497, the Grand Banks – then teeming with fish – employed 10,000 sailors on 300 seasonal ships. 500 years of fishing exhausted the cod that sustained outports and nations.
But Chef Bell isn’t much interested in talking about the past. Instead, his efforts are aimed squarely at the sustainability of what’s left. He wants to make March 18 National Sustainable Seafood Day while drawing attention to the Oceanwise and Seachoice programs that identify and promote sustainable seafood. “There’s a real need for awareness and education of what sustainable seafood is,” he says. “I want to spread that message to the community of chefs, but also to consumers and to customers in our restaurants.” To that end, Chef Bell’s cross-Canada cycling campaign included food events at many stops on the road to Vancouver.
“Every event, I want to get my hands dirty in the kitchen,” says Bell. On Prince Edward Island during the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, a meeting that eventually led to the founding of the country, Chef Michael Smith hosted Chef Bell and five others to create a seafood feast that sold out in no time. “We could easily have done two seatings,” says Bell. When Chef Bell speaks of awareness-raising to the worldwide community of chefs, he includes himself. “My goal was to enlist local champions and to get them to educate me on the sustainable world that exists in their community and highlight that to the broader community.”
Beyond the environmental issues, why is Chef Bell so driven to raise awareness about sustainable seafood, one meal at a time? One clue can be found in his two-person support team trailing him from coast to coast which consists of his father and oldest of two sons. He wants his kids to live on a planet that continues to be as inspirational to him as it was to his father. “My dad was a farmer in the Okanagan. I’ve always been in touch with the land, and living in Victoria from the age of 2 to 12 and Vancouver after that, really in touch with the ocean. It might have been a visit to the aquarium when I was a young boy, but it also might have been the fact that we really are concerned about the environment in British Columbia.”
Chef Bell also links his campaign for sustainable seafood with healthy living. “The goal for me was health and wellness, not only for me but also of my communities – the fishermen and the farmers, but also the chefs. You’d be hard pressed to find a chef worth their salt these days who isn’t passionate about where the food they serve comes from. Look at the explosion of farmers markets. For me, seafood is a major void in that conversation.”
And why a campaign from a bike saddle? “I probably could have driven across the country and done a hundred events,” says Bell. “I thought people might pay more attention to a chef riding across the country as opposed to driving or flying. I’m a pretty fit guy –why not me, why not now? If my voice is heard a thousand times, and in ten years a million times, maybe we can affect some change.”
To be sure, change will take time. Chef Bell believes that land based aquaculture and clean ocean shellfish farming such as for mussels, oysters and scallops are two important parts of developing a global sustainable seafood chain. And while he suffers no illusions about the pace of such change, he sees how he can help bring it about. “This is a slow process,” he says. “This is not just a Canadian issue. Chefs for Oceans is not a Canadian only opportunity. I want to continue to do work in the US. I have peers in the culinary world down there and in 90 hotels around the world that I will continue to engage.”
Within in the next ten years, Chef Bell wants every Canadian to have easy access to sustainable seafood. And while he knows that goals is ambitious, he also recognizes that his particular position can help achieve such a goal. “I have this wobbly soapbox I can stand on as executive chef at a major hotel chain.” With such a selfless, strategic approach, he might just get there.
All Photos by Darcy Rhyno – All Rights Reserved