This is a seriously massive move for the organisation, and great news for those who care about the sustainability of our oceans, seas, rivers, and lakes.
We sat down with MLSE’s Culinary Director Chris Zielinski to discover more about the organisation’s decision to partner with Ocean Wise.
Good Food Revolution : So congratulations on partnering with Ocean Wise… with an organisation as expansive as MLSE that’s no mean feat. How many mouths do you regularly feed and across how many different outlets?
Chef Chris Zielinski: Within the scope of all of our businesses we serve food at every level, popcorn to foie gras as we say. I think people are most familiar with our concession offerings. Nearly everyone has come to a hockey, basketball, soccer game or concert at one of our venues.
Each location has a different capacity: the Air Canada Centre holds over 19,000 people for a game, BMO Field holds roughly 30,000 for TFC and Ricoh Coliseum has a capacity around 9,000. On any given day, most of those people will have some form of beverage and more than half will have food in one form or another. It should also be noted that there are days in the year when we are operating all three buildings at exactly the same time, that’s a lot of food!
When it comes to our restaurants and clubs, between the 5 locations (Real Sports, e11even, Platinum Club, Hot Stove, and the Air Canada Club we can do up to about 2,000 a la carte meals in the two hours leading up to any game and into the game.
GFR : Wow… that is seriously impressive. And a major coup for Ocean Wise.
Why did you decide that partnering with Ocean Wise was an important move for MLSE?
CZ : To be honest, it all starts from wanting to do the right thing. We have a team of very passionate chefs who believe in the message that Ocean Wise has been preaching. The challenge has always been getting the Ocean Wise products in the volumes we require. Ten years ago this would have been a far more limiting exercise.
Because of all the hard work that Ocean Wise has put into awareness, there are far more ethical options available to large buyers like ourselves. We also have a very consistent and loyal customer base who rely on us to make good decisions. We have made it clear to our fans that we are making this choice not only for the obvious sustainable reasons, but that we truly believe we are serving better quality fish and seafood as a result.
GFR : When did you first hear about Ocean Wise, and what was it that first attracted you to the program?
CZ : I have been familiar with Ocean Wise since their inception and have tried to follow their recommendations for more than 10 years. Saying that, there are many fish purveyors who were fairly dismissive of it in the beginning which made it difficult to source things with any sort of regularity. It’s only in recent times that demand has created a more cognizant environment.
GFR : And with the sheer size and diversity of the culinary program you manage, what were your biggest obstacles when it came to implementing everything?
CZ : The biggest challenge over all has been sourcing great choices in the volumes we need with the consistency we require and expect. Unlike a smaller restaurant, changing our menus is a very rigorous and expensive process. We need to be sure that the item we have selected will be available in 3 months.
Prices need to be consistent and supply must be readily available. With the help of Dan Donovan at HOOKED and Steve Johansen at Organic Ocean, as well as Diana’s Seafood and All Seas we have been able to identify some great products like the Cap d’Or Salmon, Selva Shrimp and Humboldt Squid.
GFR : What kind of feedback have you been hearing from both your employees and clientele? The Chefs I spoke to seemed extremely happy with this move.
CZ : With the staff it’s always about knowledge. If you don’t explain the reasons why, they won’t promote it. At the beginning of the season we had some Ocean Wise trainers come in and speak to the staff to help them understand the program. We use the term Ocean Wise in nearly every pre-shift to keep the message front and center.
With clientele it’s a little trickier. It’s especially challenging as they are somewhat in a hurry because they are going to a hockey game, you don’t always get to that level of engagement. Our menus all contain the messaging to get the conversation going, the servers certainly speak to it.
We have had lots of great feedback about our partnership, however, the real test is on the plate. Is it a good product? Was it prepared in an interesting way, cooked properly? If we check those boxes, then it’s mission accomplished.
GFR : What kind of changes did you have to make to the more regular menu items? I was most impressed with your Humboldt squid at RealSports by the way!
CZ : Like any major decision with regards to menu, they are not taken lightly. The potential negative impact of doing it wrong can really damage the brand. Will they understand calamari that is not in ring format? Can we manage the prep and cooking consistently?
The great news is that Humboldt Squid is just a really great product. It’s tender, it has a great flavour and it works with many preparations and other ingredients. We are also serving this product in the Air Canada Club with a Goat Yogurt based sauce. It’s tangy and marries beautifully with the squid. Again, it goes back to training and pre-shifts.
Once they understand the reasons, once they have tasted it, it’s an easy sell because it’s a great product, it stands on its own. It should be noted that we chose not to identify it as Humboldt on the menu as we were concerned that people in a sports bar might not give it the chance it deserves. It’s been very well received!
GFR : Because of the sheer quantities involved, supply must be something that concerns you. Please give us some kind of insight into how you manage that aspect of the operation?
CZ : Those arrangements are made during the development stage. We are not unrealistic about our proximity to the nearest ocean. Sources need to be pre-arranged and quantities guaranteed. We change our menus every 3 months or so which gives us a chance to look for new options and test them as specials before committing to print.
GFR : What words of advice would you give to any Chefs or Owners thinking of partnering with Ocean Wise?
CZ: It’s very easy to dismiss it as inconvenient or impractical. Don’t let that apathy keep it from happening. To date, we still have a couple of hurdles to cross but we are getting fairly close to fully sustainable. It wouldn’t have happened without pushing our suppliers to bring us good options.
The pressure we place on suppliers does work its way back up the supply chain. It has created new opportunities for Canadian businesses and fisherman which in turn helps our country, which in turn preserves our oceans, which in turn offers a future.
I think many chefs get overwhelmed by the Ocean Wise website which is a wealth of information, but you have to keep in mind, this is a comprehensive (or as comprehensive as you can be) National, even International list. In Toronto we don’t and won’t see half or more of what’s on that list.
Also that list is always changing. So where do you start, start with the products you sell. Item by item, go through and ask yourself if you have actually looked at the options for replacement? Ask your suppliers to make recommendations, pressure them to seek better options. Take the time to educate yourself so you will have an easier time explaining to staff and customers.
And as much as it’s great to be a partner with Ocean Wise, there is no reason why you cannot make good choices just because it’s the right thing to do.
GFR : Thanks so much for your time, Chef. Best of luck with this admirable move!
Ocean Wise are and always have been a Good Food Fighter.
Please support the businesses and organizations that support Good Food Revolution.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he’s delighted to announce that he’ll be back on the Ocean Wise advisory board very soon.