Chef Robert Wong is already something of a culinary hero. In 2009, his Hong Kong restaurant, Chilli Fagara, was the first Szechuan eatery in the world to receive a Michelin star. Then, in December, the soft-spoken chef took another pioneering step: His Vancouver restaurant, Szechuan Chongqing, which his family has owned and operated for 30 years, became the first traditional Chinese dining establishment in Canada to join Ocean Wise. The Vancouver Aquarium’s conservation program partners with restaurants, markets and suppliers to ensure they’re making fish-friendly decisions, such as keeping endangered species off their menus.
“I heard about the program from visiting Canadian chefs when I was in Hong Kong, so when I came home, I wanted to do my part,” says Wong, who grew up in Winnipeg and in Vancouver.
“We’re at a tipping point right now with the oceans,” explains Mike McDermid, Ocean Wise’s partner relations manager. “Scientists have been warning us for years that if we don’t change our behaviour, we’ll face a mass extinction of species.”
Since its launch in 2005, Ocean Wise has grown to encompass more than 3,000 partners across Canada and 86 restaurants brands in Vancouver alone. Building awareness is no easy task, especially when many cultures are accustomed to cooking traditional dishes that call for specific seafood ingredients.
“Growing up Chinese, you eat what your parents and grandparents eat,” says chef Wong. “We were never taught about how to protect our oceans.”
Part of the initiative involves finding sustainable ingredients to replace those that are becoming increasingly scarce. As one of the first restaurants in Vancouver to partner with Ocean Wise, Yaletown’s Blue Water Café is at the helm of this movement. Every February, their Unsung Heroes Festival serves as a showcase for the different sustainable proteins that swim in British Columbia’s waters. Diners can try dishes like smoked potato and shiitake mushroom chowder with sautéed sea cucumber and grilled scallion.