There aren't many places in Canada that Vancouver-based chef, Ned Bell hasn't seen firsthand. Throughout his career, he's worked in cities like Toronto, Calgary and Kelowna, but it was his drive for seafood sustainability that allowed him to experience the sweeping Canadian landscape when he cycled across the country in 2014.
After joining the team at Four Seasons Vancouver five years ago to rebrand their food program and YEW into the 100 per cent sustainable, contemporary, seafood eatery, Bell is following his love for the oceans and all that lies beneath the waves and joining the Vancouver Aquarium and Ocean Wise team.
With a book on the horizon (tentative release in fall 2017) and a year chock full of travels across the country, he may have left the hotel business behind, but this chef still has a lot on his plate.
From why he's so passionately involved with Canada's premier seafood sustainability program (just eat more mussels already, OK, everyone?) to taking a huge loss on a restaurant concept in Kelowna, Bell opens up about his career thus far as one of Canada's most recognized chefs and figuring out his new path ahead.
Everyone in Western Canada has been talking about you leaving your head chef position with the Four Seasons. How are you feeling about it?
First and foremost, it’s bittersweet, obviously. It’s been an incredible five years here at the Four Seasons. They’ve been extraordinary to me. I’ve never been more proud of an organization than I have of this one. To get this gig was amazing. To get this restaurant and be able to rebrand it as a seafood concept was a dream come true for me too.
The journey has been amazing. We’ve had huge success, huge growth and profitability, critical acclaim. The goal was to be the best seafood restaurant in Vancouver and we got to number two three years in a row, but couldn’t seem to quite clench the number one.
Which restaurant awards setup are you talking about?
So, is that sort of accolade the be-all-end-all in Vancouver, in terms of restaurant success?
Well, in Vancouver, of course we have Where magazine, the Georgia Straight, both of which are incredibly important in their own rights, but [the Vancouver Magazine awards] is sort of like the Oscars of the Vancouver restaurant scene. I think most people look at it as the pinnacle of achievement when it comes to media acknowledgment.
Between all of your advocacy work and travelling, you have a ton on your plate. Is that why you’re stepping away from the kitchen here?
I’ve had so many cool opportunities through Chefs for Oceans and writing my first book. We’re working on a digital series to go along with the launch of it as well and it got to the point where all of my sustainable seafood initiatives were taking over more and more of my desk--half of my desk, so to speak, and you can’t do everything. I can’t be the executive chef of the Four Seasons here and have a family with an incredibly successful wife, two young sons, have this intense passion for sustainable seafood and try and travel the country to spread the message. I couldn’t do it all.
Do you think that YEW's mentality for sustainable seafood will walk out the door when you do?
No, I don’t think so. They’ve recognized it's [very important]. They chose seafood before they chose me, but I was the one that told them I was interested and honoured and wanted to accept the opportunity, but I said, “In Vancouver, we have to be 100 per cent sustainable; otherwise, I’m not interested”. They said yes to me, not really necessarily knowing what that meant.
Publishing a book is no easy undertaking. How are you planning to tackle that?
The book was really the catalyst for me to say, “Ok, if I want to take Chefs for Oceans to the next level, I want to keep telling stories and I want this book to be phenomenal.”
It’s going to be 360 pages, Figure 1 Publishing is doing it. It’s going to be the best seafood book to ever come out of Canada.
So, are we talking a big cookbook, something more information-based or a bit of a storybook and a bit of recipes?
A little bit of both. Val Howes is co-writing it with me. There are four sections: the Arctic, Pacific, Atlantic and in-land fisheries from across Canada. It’s a recipe book that I want everyday people to pick up and want to cook from. It’s not a chef-driven book, although I hope that chefs grab it too. [Professionals like] Justin Leboe is not going to grab it and get inspired by the recipes, but maybe he’ll enjoy the conversations on how seafood plays a part in different cultures in different parts of the country.
Sustainbility and locality are two different things, especially when you look at Ocean Wise approving seafood from around the world for use here. How do you explain to people that being "local" isn't the only important thing when it comes to food?
I love vanilla, coffee, lemon and tea, cool ingredients from somewhere else, but I’m also lucky enough to enjoy fish from my backyard and a lot of seafood that comes from other parts of the world. What I’d like to see is more people celebrating the seasonality when they can. Local strawberries? Cherish them! The spot prawn festival is a great example of celebrating seasonality. We have to be careful not to glorify ingredients so it becomes inaccessible for people and that’s an ongoing conversation on certain things, spot prawns obviously being one of them.
To you, what’s an unsung hero of the seafood world people could embrace more?
Well, in North America, people primarily eat four types of seafood. Prawns are the number one most consumed, then salmon, tuna and whitefish. That’s pretty all we eat. There are thousands of species in the ocean. It really could be something as simple as sardines, mackerel or anchovies, octopus, even gooseneck barnacles. I would love for people to eat more clams, mussels and oysters because they’re filter feeders. They're the perfect sustainble seafood because they leave the ocean cleaner than they found it and you don’t have to feed them anything.
They're like an underwater best case scenario!
Mussels are the real fast food when you think about it and they are cheap too! In three minutes, you can make a pot of mussels. My little boy, Max, didn’t love them right away, but I make them with a ltitle butter and some apple juice and he loves it. He’s not eating hundered of them, but he goes for six or seven and that’s enough.
You've created a huge brand for yourself without having a restaurant to call your own. I've always found that really interesting. You are the only chef in the country that's been able to do that.
Well, Cabana [in Kelowna] was that hope for me. It was supposed to be the evolution of Murrieta’s or Red Water Rustic Grill. That failure cost me a lot of money. The last five years has partially been me trying to recover that loss. It was definitely an epic failure that we all learned a lot of lessons from.
How long do you think it will take Canadian programs like Ocean Wise and empassioned chefs like you to bring this kind of sustainablity to the forefront of people's minds?
It’s going to take another good 15 or 20 years to get people to really embrace the sustainability movement. I liken it to the organics movement from 25 or so years ago, where organic food would have just been sitting in the dark corner of a grocery store and now it dominates. I hope 20 years from now, sustainble seafood is the only conversation we’re having. If not, we’re going to lose species that are crucially important to our nation’s identity or another nation’s identity. The time is now.
Robert Clark led the charge and I’m following his lead. I’m hoping that five or ten years from now, I can pass the baton to another young chef.
You're done at the hotel very soon, so how is the coming year shaping up for you?
There will be a lot of travelling and a lot of fun, collaborative chef dinners across the country. The book is supposed to come out in fall of 2017 and that will involve a 24-city book tour with collaborative events. My real dream, though, is to open the signature Ned Bell seafood restaurant here in Vancouver. Ocean Wise is my main contract now, but the restaurant is what I’m working on. I want to open the best seafood restaurant in this country right here in Vancouver. I hope it’s something like Hawksworth-meets-Model-Milk: not super high-end, but a place to get the best ingredients that you can get your hands on.