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Behind the Line: Vancouver chef turns ‘trash’ into treasure

Blue Water Café celebrates niche species

Obscure seafood species like octopus have a chance to shine at Blue Water Café. - Photos courtesy of Blue Water Café
By Lauren Kramer
April 01, 2014

When Frank Pabst started his Unsung Heroes sustainable seafood festival at Vancouver’s Blue Water Café 10 years ago, his main motivation had nothing to do with increasing traffic at this trendy, fine-dining hot spot. A founding member of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise conservation program, the 47-year-old executive chef was driven by a sense of responsibility to initiate, promote and improve the festival held each February. He hoped to bring awareness to local, niche seafood species that are often overlooked, and to avoid species that he deems unsustainable. 

“Being a chef at a seafood restaurant and the father of two children, sustainability is kind of a no-brainer,” he says. “I have a responsibility to choose seafood that’s sustainable, plentiful and high quality. I want to make sure that in 10 years, when my kids are adults, there’s still salmon and halibut around and they can enjoy going out and seeing all these fish on restaurant menus.”

It’s no coincidence that the festival takes place in February, when West Coast salmon are out of season. The goal of the menu is to encourage diners to try underutilized species by packaging them with more familiar ingredients. The sturgeon liver is served as a pâté with white anchovy bruschetta, marinated red pepper and buffalo mozzarella, while the sardine is stuffed with pine nut gremolata and wrapped in a thin sheet of fried bread and the herring tartare is paired with ginger, shiso and green onion and ponzu sauce. Among the 12 items on the Unsung Heroes menu are jellyfish, mackerel, octopus, seaweed salad, sea cucumber and whelk, and all of them are priced between $9 and $12 per entrée. Previous years have featured steamed gooseneck barnacles and poached periwinkles.

“The menu is not really meant to commit our guests to a whole evening of Unsung Heroes,” says Pabst, who hails from Aachen, Germany. “Our initial thought was to have them as sharing plates on a table, so people could try them and discuss the textures and flavors. Often they have a stronger flavor than, say, halibut, so we’re trying to come up with packages to make them approachable. For example, we use the sea urchin as an ingredient in a mousse with scallop meat, eggs and whipped cream, to give diners the flavor of sea urchin, but slightly toned down.”

The opportunity to work with different species each February is also a fun one for the kitchen staff, he says. “As much as we like to work with halibut, sturgeon and Arctic char, it’s nice to work with stronger flavors, items that are a bit more unique.” 

Housed in a brick and beam heritage warehouse, the 450-seat restaurant is owned by the Toptable Group, which has five eateries in British Columbia. Blue Water’s menu is focused almost entirely on seafood, both wild and farmed.

“I’m a proud supporter of farmed products, as long as they’re farmed sustainably,” says Pabst. He sources Arctic char farmed in the Yukon, white sturgeon farmed by Target Marine Hatchery in Sechelt, British Columbia, and oysters, shellfish, mussels and clams shipped from various farms several times a week. Of the wild seafood, the majority is line- or trap-caught. A raw bar on one side of the restaurant delivers nigiri, sashimi and innovative combinations of sushi rolls, while two live tanks in the kitchen contain geoducks, sea urchins, spot prawns, crabs and lobsters, depending on the season. Opposite the raw bar is an open kitchen where staff prepare seafood on ice and a variety of entrées that accentuate its east meets west theme, including sablefish in a miso sake glaze and Arctic char with wakame seaweed. 

Pabst is thrilled that sales of the Unsung Heroes entrées have increased by 400 percent over the years, demonstrating that they are not just palatable, but popular. On a recent February evening his staff prepared 50 plates of sturgeon liver, a dish he never imagined would be so well received. 

“It’s always challenging to make an interesting menu that sells, but that’s also Ocean Wise-approved or in keeping with the best alternatives on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program,” he reflects. “You look at those organizations’ judgments of what species are good and what’s bad and you have to make your own mind up about what you can stand behind. I’ve learned that everything is not always black and white — I have to talk to my suppliers, read stories online and then decide for myself what I can serve.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia

February 2014 - SeaFood Business  

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