Rob Clark – former executive chef at “C”, co-founder of the Chefs Table Society of BC, two-time Gold Medal Plates Vancouver winner (and other things besides) – has joined forces with his good friend from the Vancouver Aquarium, Mike McDermid, to open a sustainable fishmongers on Main Street this summer called The Fish Counter.
You’ve likely heard these two names together before. Clark and McDermid are the co-founders of the hugely successful Ocean Wise program. As such, they were instrumental in founding the annual Spot Prawn Festival, raising Vancouver’s awareness about making the right choices when it comes to purchasing seafoods, and schooled an entire generation of Canadian chefs on their dual responsibilities to the environment and the plate. Truly, if it weren’t for their efforts over the last decade, we’d probably still be eating Chilean Sea Bass, smoking the lice from farmed salmon and snorting the polluted brains of imported black tiger prawns.
I paid a visit to their 1,200 sqft. construction site at 3825 Main St. yesterday, right after they’d exhausted themselves by picking fist fights with the space’s thick concrete flooring. It’s pretty stark and dark in there, but it’s not hard to imagine the small-ish space turned into a thriving fish market with super fresh, line caught locals and live tanks full of crab and assorted shellfish, but I don’t envy the hard slog they have in getting there! They’ve only just begun, but the truth of it is that they’d searched for the location for upwards of a year. “We really wanted to be here,” McDermid says. “It’s a good community and we want to serve it.” And if building a fishmongers with a food service component out of what used to be a simple retail clothing store might prove difficult (no venting, no grease trap, nor any of the other goodies), then so be it. It’s still an excellent address right in the heart of the Portland Craft, Crave, Sun Sui Wah, Acorn matrix, and they won’t want for foot traffic. Though parking can be a nasty bit of business in these blocks, there’s residential heartland on either side of Main, which means a lot of willing and curious pans, BBQs, fridges, and freezers.
The Fish Counter marks the first time either of them have ventured out on their own. That usually means that they have a major learning curve to surmount, not to mention all the usual mountains of red tape (and, seemingly, concrete), but listening to them talk about it makes me think they might just be able to leap over them using jet packs of their own enthusiasm. These guys are stoked to be doing what they’re doing, and that usually translates into good food. Add to their enthusiasm the authority of their expertise and the respect of pretty much the entire province and you have a favourable combo.
Expect them to leverage their well established relationships with local fishermen and administer their mastery of the local fish trade in such a way that translates into the best sustainable seafoods that this city has ever seen wrapped. “Our ultimate goal,” Clark states, “is to encourage people to source and cook sustainable seafood at home.” Think the best salmon, the best spot prawns, the best halibut, the best mussels, the best oysters…pretty much the best of everything that swims in our oceans, rivers and lakes and isn’t in danger of being over-fished; all handled in a way that makes other seafood stores look a little like withered apparitions from the Battle of Jutland.
“The system for retailing fish hasn’t changed in a hundred years,” Clark says, describing – in detail to me – how seafoods are treated elsewhere; rotated, squished, exposed to fluctuations in temperature, light, and pressure. “Our idea is to turn the whole idea of a fish store on its head,” he says, and if there’s any pair that could do it, it’s this one. Expect the daily-delivered products to be coddled in a system developed specifically – one might add meticulously – for The Fish Counter. “It’s not going to smell like a fish store in here. I can tell you that for sure,” Clark adds confidently.
In addition to its over the counter sales, The Fish Counter will come equipped with two kitchens to dish up take-out foods like Po’boy sandwiches, fish tacos, chowders and, according to Clark, “the best fish and chips in town.” This latter claim I do not doubt, as they’ve brought in Ian Johansen for the execution. Johansen is kind of an undersung maestro in Vancouver, an arbiter of the art of fish and chips. To join Clark and McDermid, he is moving on after a lengthy tenure at False Creek’s famed Go Fish. (Johansen’s brother Steve is the captain of the Organic Ocean fishing vessel moored nearby, and co-founder of the Spot Prawn Festival.)
There will be a few places to sit (modular benches at the front windows) but no liquor license. I imagine, however, that they’ll get to know the rules regarding special events licensing, as they plan on hosting special suppers, seminars, demos, and in-depth cooking classes once they’re up and settled in. We can also expect a small, branded retail component – mostly sauces and soups – which they’ll stock in boutique stores around town. Clark and McDermid insist that it won’t be anything fancy or complicated. “Try to imagine a farmer’s market” they quip, “but with fish.”