Lance Richardson savours the flavours of Vancouver at a food market that turns sustainability into an art.
When you turn up for a food tour to find your guide wearing a white smock and channelling Madonna, chances are you're in for something memorable. "Strike a pose, there's nothing to it," Julian Bond says, adjusting his headset as we stand on a fishing dock outside the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, a school just south of Granville Island, Vancouver.
Moments later he is pulling a spot prawn from his pocket and lambasting ocean dredging in south-east Asia. Then we're on to seafood snap-freezing (good), Styrofoam (bad) and the difference between brie and camembert (60 kilometres in France). Impassioned and furiously paced, Bond is nothing if not eclectic.
In April, he won the inaugural mentorship award from Vancouver Magazine. As executive chef of the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, Bond has graduated more than 1700 students during his tenure. Simultaneously, the institute has become something of a city mainstay. Bistro 101, with glass windows opening to the training kitchens, serves restaurant-quality food at nominal prices. There is a good chance the waiting staff made the cannelloni they are serving.
Perhaps the secret to the school's success is location. Students are frequently ushered beneath a highway overpass, across the dock past trawlers and fishermen, and into the legendary Granville Island Public Market. Historically, the island was a reclaimed sandbar, built up by sawmills and industry. Today, it is a frenetic social hive offering everything from a theatre company to recharge stations for electric cars. The market is a marvel, filled with mounds of strawberries, British pork pies, peonies and swollen meringues. The smell of tamarind folds into cinnamon and freshly boiled bagels.
Bond seems perfectly attuned to the pace of Granville and yet, with his booming voice and emphatic arms, he is also hard to miss. Vancouver residents began to notice his training expeditions early on. Soon they asked to tag along. So here we are on a brisk Friday morning, passing beneath a neon sign where the public "Plugged-in Tour" kicks off. During 1½ hours we will cover a dizzying checklist of topics, from hydroponics to pod fishing to 10 types of apple ("Want to know which is best? Buy one of each and try them all," Bond says). We will even glimpse a harbour seal. The spot prawn Bond pulls from his pocket leads to an overview of sustainable fishing. When he is finished talking, he lobs the prawn over his shoulder into the sea; a whiskered face emerges from the deep to swallow it up.
Sustainability is more than just a key theme for Bond: it's a Vancouver-wide obsession. The city's This Fish initiative serial codes individual animals - 339,901 at the time of writing - on the premise that people need to know the origin of their food. Customers can trace their plate or buy back to the specific boats, pinpointing the exact time and location of a catch. One chef tells me this scheme means aficionados of Northern Divine caviar, for example, could feasibly source the product again and again from the same fish.
Vancouver is also the birthplace of the Ocean Wise program. A collaboration between Vancouver Aquarium and more than 450 suppliers, restaurants and markets, its aim is to promote sustainability by colour-grading seafood according to population health. The program has become so ubiquitous in the city that savvy diners all but expect it in their choices.
Oru Cuisine, with 55 metres of Jason Wu origami glued to the ceiling, is one such adherent, meaning its tremendous sake-cured Haida Gwaii sablefish is served up without an ounce of guilt.
At C Restaurant, opposite Granville Island, "Caviar returns with a conscience" is written at the top of the menu. Rob Clark, the eatery's executive chef, worked closely with the aquarium to develop Ocean Wise. I ask his chef de cuisine, Lee Humphries, if he finds the rules of the program limiting. "No, it's not limiting," he says. "And it's the right thing to do. We're so lucky in this part of the world to have such abundance. Why wouldn't we protect that?"
Certainly, there's no discernible impact on quality. Halibut - that grotesque fish with a migrating eye - becomes a snow-white beauty on a bed of kale, propped up by a quesadilla wheel. Prawns on zucchini ribbons come dabbed with fiery jalapeno sauce; the inspiration was "a Corona on a beach in Mexico". Then there is a lobster claw in cognac cream sauce, which is so delectable it blurs the boundaries of dessert.
Back on my Granville Island tour, Bond steps past tubs of crabs and kusshi oysters and plunges his hand into a tank. "They say that lobsters have the central nervous system of a fly," he says, pulling one from the water. "I don't know what that means, but it makes you feel better, doesn't it?"
Afterwards, we bustle from shop to shop, passing galleries and artisans. When we step into a larger hall, entering the labyrinth of produce that is the Public Market, Bond's full passion pours forth in a torrent of words. When making tomato sauce, he advises, place the vine in the cooling stew and leave overnight for added aroma. Before genetic modification, portobello mushrooms were just mature brown mushrooms relabelled for "sexiness". The problem with blue cheese is plastic: "If you wrapped your foot in plastic for three days, it wouldn't smell good, either. This is alive. It sweats. You have to let it breathe."
Margarine, once intended for the war effort, sends him into a rage.
We reach the Oyama Sausage Company, where displays are lined with pates and terrines. "You know when you kill pigs?" he asks me suddenly.
"Not really," I answer.
He continues anyway, explaining that pigs that see other pigs getting slaughtered tend to become stressed, which affects the quality of their meat when they are slaughtered in turn. I then follow him out of the market into a square, where we settle down at a table to make mid-morning canapes with Black Heritage pig prosciutto.
Bond was born in a small mining town in Britain. Cooking skills were not exactly valued in a man, he tells me. Yet he pushed on regardless, enrolling in a Yorkshire culinary school at age 16 before training in Michelin-starred restaurants across France. Then he migrated to Canada.
This unlikely path to award-winning maestro has fostered an attitude of "anyone can do it". Today, he has the hallmark of every successful teacher: he targets confidence, encouraging a self-belief that anyone can become if not a Ferran Adria, then at least a better cook, a better eater and a more responsible consumer. All it takes is small choices. At base, this is the common thread through the Vancouver food world, from the Ocean Wise program to the collective reverence for all things "local".
Bond hands me a piece of brie (or is it camembert?) that is hidden beneath a circle of fragrant truffle salami. "Shove it in," he says, flashing a grin.
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Tourism British Columbia and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Air Canada has a fare to Vancouver for about $1780 low-season return from Sydney, including tax, for the 14hr 10min non-stop flight. Melbourne passengers pay about $2000 and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. See aircanada.com.
The Pacific Rim Hotel departs from the classic Fairmont style, offering a modern environment that prioritises design. Rooms start at $C309 ($298) a night. See fairmont.com/pacificrim. Oru Cuisine at the hotel is an Ocean Wise adherent, offering an extensive and worthy menu with west coast and Pacific influences. The chef maintains a blog on dish creation and sourcing produce from the region. See orucuisine.com.
- The Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts offers Granville Island market tours up to four times a week. Cost is $C40 a person for the 1½-hour tour, or $C60 for a tour and buffet lunch at Bistro 101. See picachef.com.
- C Restaurant, on the shore of False Creek opposite Granville Island, is one of the leading proponents of the Ocean Wise program. See crestaurant.com.
- A database of Ocean Wise participants is available at oceanwise.ca. Information on the This Fish initiative can be found at thisfish.info.