The Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program couldn’t arrive in Calgary quickly enough for River Café’s Sal Howell and Scott Pohorelic. So one day in the mid-2000s, the restaurant’s owner and chef simply materialized on the doorstep of the Vancouver Aquarium.
Partner relations manager Mike McDermid had never met them, but he knew who they were – the Aquarium had launched its sustainable seafood awareness program in January of 2005 and the pair had been phoning him ever since.
“I’d explained to them that we weren’t ready to expand the program to Alberta,” McDermid recalls.
Vancouver restaurants had signed on so eagerly – 16 of them by April 2005 — that McDermid, then a one-man operation, was scrambling to keep up.
“The next thing you know, as we were looking at expanding to places like Victoria and the rest of B.C., Sal and Scott were literally at my office, totally unexpected,” he says, laughing. “They hadn’t called or e-mailed – they just hopped on a plane and showed up and said ‘We want to do this. Let’s go.’”
At that point, McDermid realized that he’d have to set aside his cautious expansion plan and take advantage of their Alberta zeal.
“I realized that here was not only a flagship restaurant in Calgary, but a chef and owner who were hugely passionate about sustainability. It was just crazy to say no to them.”
Howell had established a modest version of River Café in 1991. As it grew into one of the city’s most revered restaurants, she had been inspired by the local focus of Sinclair Philip, owner of Vancouver Island’s Sooke Harbour House, and Vancouver’s Chef Robert Clark, who presided for many years at C Restaurant (Ocean Wise founding restaurant partner).
Howell and her team had focused on using indigenous ingredients to offer “prairie-mountain cuisine.”
“We’ve always had a tendency to make very conscious and thoughtful choices,” she explains.
Howell’s visits to her brother in Monterey had taken her to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she’d learned about its Seafood Watch program, which recommended types of seafood to consumers on the basis of their sustainability.
She’d met with its spokespeople and had even brought one of them to Calgary to speak to her staff. So when she learned that the Vancouver Aquarium had started up a similar program, she and Pohorelic began using its recommendations to select River Café’s seafood. They went 100 percent Ocean Wise right off the bat, as they were fully committed to the program and its practices.
They’d already surprised customers by making a point of serving salmon only when it was in season – despite it being the most popular thing on the menu. With more information at hand, however, they could start introducing delicious alternatives, like sablefish and sustainably farmed sturgeon.
Pohorelic left River Café to be Chef Instructor at SAIT in 2010, but current chef, Andrew Winfield is an Ocean Wise keener as well, taking on challenges that might defeat lesser cooks. He marinates giant Humboldt squid, for instance – which might otherwise be alarmingly chewy – in buttermilk for 24 hours and then cooks it on the restaurant’s wood grill for a show-stopping Ocean Wise starter.
River Café’s approach is mindful in other ways, too.
“The conservation of the ocean isn’t about going out and eating as much sustainable seafood as you can,” Howell points out cheerfully. That’s why River Café’s fish dishes often arrive in “delicate” portions, are included as part of a larger plate, or are presented as a tasty garnish.
Howell believes that deep down, most people want to make the right decision, and that River Café has set a good example for its diners and for Calgary’s restaurant community at large. She thinks the café’s culinary philosophy also helps it attract and keep like-minded employees.
“There’s no question that everybody looks to see what River Cafe and Sal Howell are doing,” McDermid says. “The success of Ocean Wise can in part be attributed to early adopters like Sal Howell and Scott Pohorelic, who have acted as ambassadors.”
He acknowledges that it’s about time for the program to have its official launch in Calgary – naturally, at River Cafe. Thanks to enthusiasts like Howell and Pohorelic and other early adopters like Paul Rogalski, the chief culinary officer and owner of Rouge, Ocean Wise already has more than 40 Calgary members. There is, however, still room for the program to grow.
“We’re ramping up Calgary and the rest of Alberta,” says McDermid. “We’ll have a much bigger presence in Calgary and look forward to partnering with other restaurants, markets and suppliers in this passionate and growing market.”