One thing I’ve learned about Eric Pateman: he doesn’t do anything by half measures.
The dynamo behind Edible Canada rattled a few people last week by putting seal on his Granville Island bistro’s Dine Out Vancouver menu.
In the last ten years, Pateman has built a small concierge-based business into one of the most successful culinary tourism businesses in North America. It’s just six years since he opened Edible Canada at the Market. It’s now an immensely popular bistro and store based on Canadian cuisine.
Before Dine Out launched, Pateman invited me over to sample the dishes and talk about it.
I jumped at the chance. Much like a seal after a salmon, you could say. I was really curious to see how it tasted.
Even though I was slightly apprehensive, in the end I was pleasantly surprised.
And yes, I’m well aware of the controversy surrounding the Newfoundland seal hunt. (Although the harvest of harp seal and hooded pups has not been permitted since 1987.) So is Pateman. He told me:
“I certainly didn’t take the decision lightly to put it (seal) on the menu. It would have been way easier just to have mac and cheese!”
He says the last few days have been a crazy ride.
“This past week has been pretty intense, with everything from threats of vandalism to protests. We knew this was going to be controversial. But the positive elements far outweigh the negative.”
How come seal?
The idea to put seal on the menu came to Pateman about six months ago. He was looking for inspiration for his upcoming “Across the Top of Canada” culinary adventure. It’s a Big Deal. A once in a lifetime opportunity.
Sixty Canadians will hop on a private Air North 737 with eight of the country’s best chefs. They’ll visit and dine in a number of remote places. The journey will coincide with the northern summer solstice (itself a unique experience) of Canada’s 150th birthday.
The group will fly from Vancouver to Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Iqualuit, Rankin Inlet and St Johns Newfoundland and back to Vancouver. (At this time there may be seats still open if you want to hop aboard.)
Obviously, the adventure fits well with Edible Canada’s identity. But a good part of the program involves awareness of Inuit cultures, touching base with First Nations.
“Seal is a part of that menu, so I wanted to have an understanding before we got up there,” says Pateman.
A story to tell
“Dine Out offered the perfect opportunity to focus on the North and support the Inuit culture, the hunters of the west and north coasts, to give them an outlet for their meat.”
The seal meat comes from last year’s harvest. And for the first time, instead of left to rot on an ice floe, it’s winding up on plates in Vancouver.
Pateman notes that “at the end of the day fur drives the industry.” He says 80 percent of the meat is never even used.
“The bigger story is: how do we support these communities? This isn’t just about the seal hunt. It’s about livelihood.”
Pateman feels it’s very much his role to get the message out.
“In our retail store we have about 500 end products. It’s about telling those peoples’ stories, about helping them find a distribution channel. This is no different. It’s about engaging with those communities to get that product out here.”
Canadian Cuisine, eh?
That age old question of just what defines Canadian cuisine pops up again. In fact, says Pateman, at Edible Canada it never really goes away.
Part of what we’ve always done here is playing around with different ingredients and different styles. As in: what is Canadian food?”
“If you look at the (Federal) Ministry of Agriculture’s website, it says: in Canada this is what we grow, therefore this is what we are. It’s not very sexy. The reality is we’re a commodity based country, but also so much more than that!”
The challenge. he says, is how to take those ingredients and do something that tells the story of what is Canadian food.
A Sense of Purpose
Since Day One, Edible Canada has been at the fore with a handful of truly focused Vancouver kitchens that take Canadian cuisine very seriously.
He says the bistro’s mantra is: ‘Local, seasonal, sustainable ingredients in the hands of many cultures.’”
Pateman says they asked themselves what they could do with seal. And tried making any number of dishes.
“We’re using the loin. Most seal meat comes from the back under a layer of fat. It’s only got about 2 percent fat. It’s incredibly lean, one of the richest meats in the world in iron, and really dense in flavour. The fat also has a very low flashpoint. It actually just melts away.
“From seal tourtière, poke to tacos, and even seal curry we tried everything. We used all the different cuts. We were just thrilled with the results of what the protein could do.”
Walking the Talk
Pateman says the reality is that this has started a conversation.
Even the Humane Society of Canada has expressed an interest in meeting for a ‘friendly’ conversation to share each others’ points of view.
Says the restaurateur, “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. It’s a fair position. But I run a restaurant that’s known for serving meat. And we’ll always serve meat. So just lets make sure we’re choosing the right meat. And having an understanding of why we’re serving it.”
This year’s hunt takes place in May. Patemen says he’s going to partake in it.
“I’m a fourth generation Vancouverite. I’ve never held a gun in my life. If I’m going to talk the talk, I should be able to walk the walk.”
But what does seal taste like?
Well, not like chicken, that’s for sure.
The main dish on Edible’s Dine Out menu is ‘Newfoundland Seal pappardelle.’ It’s a riff on the Italian classic that’s deliberately not an Inuit dish.
Says Pateman: “We wanted a dish for Dine Out that people would try. It has to be something approachable, so we’ve taken the seal loin and ground it into a Bolognese style sauce.
Due to the positive response, says Patemen, “We have a second seal dish. It’s just a taste of the loin itself, like an amuse bouche, so if you just want to see what it tastes like you can try it.”
I found the flavour intensely rich, more towards game with some definite ‘iron’ undertones, but surprisingly tasty. There’s a slight salty element, which is natural, as the meat is soaked in seawater when processed.
The menu portion is generous but not excessive. But the meat is definitely more filling than, say, beef or other red meats.
Flipper pie might not be such an easy sell, he jokes.
A Sustainable Species
Pateman says seal is one of the most sustainable and plentiful of seafoods. The estimated population has gone from two million to eight million in the last few decades. Even more noteworthy is that those eight million seals consume six times the amount of fish than the entire Canadian fishing fleet.
“I think if the population goes unchecked we’re going to run into bigger fish stock issues and sustainability issues. The environment is about checks and balances,” says Pateman.
Seal: Past and Present
“This is an animal that was always hunted, as a huge part of the Canadian heritage and population. If you all of a sudden say ‘it’s not allowed’ it has other, far reaching impacts on the food chain.”
“It’s really about understanding all those things and how they interplay, from the livelihood of fishermen to sustainability of the oceans to fish stock, to the ethics of hunting.”
As for the hunt, he notes that: “seals are generally shot with a high powered rifle, then bled out. This is versus hunting in an unregulated environment, such a moose or bear, or even animals that go from factory farms to slaughter houses.”
“People want to know where their food comes from—and this meat is no different. It’s the most highly regulated and scrutinized in all of North America, if not the world.”
Says Pateman: “The amount of eyeballs that are on this? It’s ridiculous.”
Read Edible Canada’s statement on why they’re serving seal and on the hunt.
A positive response
Pateman says his diners’ response has been “nothing but positive.”
He says on the first evening, “Seal pasta was the #1 entree—more than double the next closest. Those were the Quebec Rabbit and the Haida Gwaii Fish Stew. The seal loin amuse bouche was also incredibly popular. It worked out that more than 60% of our opening night guests had seal and raved about it!”
The numbers have continued to grow. So have the funds raised through a $2 per plate donation towards Ocean Conservation.”
“Our goal is to have it on the menu in the future. But at the end of the day,” says Pateman, “it’s about if the customer likes it. And that will determine its future at Edible Canada.”