Ned Bell is an internationally-renowned chef and long-time advocate for sustainable seafood and the local food movement. He is the executive chef at Ocean Wise and the Culinary Director at The Vancouver Club, where he helped curate a sustainable seafood menu for Aeroplan’s first Status Dinner for Diamond Members. We sat down with him to find out more about the role sustainability plays in his work and travels.
How have your travels impacted your relationship with food?
Food is a universal language, and travel is such an extraordinary way to broaden your palate. Two places that have influenced me recently are Vietnam and the northern part of Canada. In both cases, I went into these very small communities and experienced food and life in ways I never have before.
Last year, I took part in this extraordinary trip across the top of Canada and found myself in communities that I would never have imagined I would find myself in. Going to Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet reminded me that Canada has a long-spanning food heritage, and it was such a gift to be able to experience new food within Canada but almost feel like it was another world.
I also went to Vietnam to study the shrimp farming industry and spent weeks traveling deep off the beaten path, getting to experience life there the way most tourists never do. Traveling like this allows you to expand your horizons about how people engage through food.
How much does local cuisine influence the destinations you choose?
The emphasis I put on food depends on whether I’m traveling with my wife and kids or whether I’m on a more personal journey. Typically, I look for four Fs: food, family, fitness and fun. If we just want to go lie on the beach, food isn’t as important as if we’re going somewhere to explore local history and culture.
That said, the only thing I’m going to do at least three times a day is eat, so I want to experience local food when I travel. There are places where I felt a true curated passion for delicious food and that inspired me to bring some local influences and flavours back to my own kitchen.
Which places have made the biggest impact on your sustainable seafood mission?
I love going to countries or regions that are surrounded by water and seeing how this plays such an integral part in the lives of locals. Appropriately, the place I’ve been to most in the last few years is Newfoundland. Very few Canadians actually go there because it is quite a long way away, but it’s always an exceptional look at an ocean-sustained lifestyle.
Another place that has left an indelible mark on my culinary journey is Japan, specifically the outskirts of Tokyo. Japan has this incredible respect for food and wellness. Everything has a place and a purpose in your diet, whether it’s a certain style of eating or a specific ingredient. Japanese cuisine intrigues me because it feels like a celebration of the ocean.
About a year ago, you spotted a blue fin tuna from PEI at the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. What did that mean to you?
It was such a powerful moment for me, to be at the most famous fish market in the world and see this tuna auction. Looking at this apex predator that is at risk of going extinct in our lifetime, I thought: “Here we are, part of the end of this species’ life”. Blue fin tuna are exceptional fish. NASA studies them because they travel through the ocean at huge speeds and can touch 50-odd countries in their life span.
But blue fin tuna also happens to be delicious and we tend to take too much of it. Oceans are the lungs of our planet and give us everything we need to grow anything, but taking out a species would cause the entire ecosystem to collapse. My trip to Japan, and this experience specifically, really rocked me in an amazing way and made we want to dive even deeper into my work for sustainability.
How do you incorporate sustainability into your travel choices?
I’m always looking for what makes a place unique, like what food is in season. You might be traveling to the south pacific or Australia in the middle of summer when it’s the middle of winter in North America, so you get to enjoy a different freshness of product. When I come back from my travels, I want to be able to pin-point a scent or a flavour that immediately brings me back to that moment. I want to remember who I was with, a new ingredient that I tried or a new flavour that I want to incorporate into my own food.
What advice do you want to share with travelers who want to make more sustainable choices when they go abroad?
When you’re booking a hotel or restaurant, work with your travel agent or call the concierge and tell them what’s important to you to make sure they fit in with your values. Social media has also opened the world up like never before. You have instant access to a huge network of people across the planet at any moment. Reach out and you’d be surprised who answers back sometimes.
What is a small change all of us can make to lead more sustainable lives?
A big issue right now is single-use plastic and the effect it’s having on ocean life. When plastic breaks down, we get micro-plastics that infiltrate our food chain and clog the ocean’s ecosystems. I believe our planet can recover but we need to give it a chance to do so.
My passion is sustainable seafood, and that really means healthy lakes, oceans and rivers. To achieve that, we all need to become conscious consumers and make changes in our daily lives – like cutting out plastic straws and single-use plastic bottles. These small daily impacts have the potential to set us on path to making bigger and better decisions as a society.
What was the last thing you used your Aeroplan Miles for?
I last used my miles for that trip to Japan I mentioned earlier. Anytime I go to a country surrounded by the ocean, it’s an extraordinary experience. Water really is such an integral part of local life in Japan and that really speaks to me and my mission for sustainable seafood, so it was worth using my Aeroplan Miles to get there.