Guest contribution by Sarah Ebel. Originally posted at Slow Fish.
Most chefs have a business owner, a direction, and a concept. But when Dennis Johnston and his wife Monica started Fid Resto Restaurant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he had none of those things. “I could do what I wanted. It’s a scary place to be,” he said. Scary, sure, but it is also a place that allows for creativity and the opportunity to do something different.
Dennis decided he wanted to serve local food to local consumers. Amazingly, this was a new and different direction for Halifax restaurants in the 1990s.
Originally from Nova Scotia, Dennis moved to London, England as a younger man to work as a chef apprentice. There, he learned the value and importance of buying directly from a market. He returned to Canada, but worked in Montreal. During this time, the Slow Food movement emerged. “The Slow Food movement made sense, so I started buying food from local foragers,” he explained. He moved back to Nova Scotia in the late 1990s, and started Fid Resto in 2000 with Monica Bauché.
With the oldest farmers’ market in North America, the local and organic movement has always been strong in Nova Scotia. When Dennis was tasked with making his first menu for Fid Resto in 2000, the farmers’ market was his first stop. For 13 years, Fid Resto served menus that consisted of 98% local foods, right down to making their own salt. Local producers provided everything, even freshly churned butter.
In Nova Scotia, buying from local producers also means buying from local fishermen. Dennis began buying byccatch, including monkfish, ocean perch, hake and other species caught with the more “sought after” fish. Although serving by-catch was controversial, Dennis felt it was an environmentally-friendly practice, since most bycatch ends up back in the sea, dead. “Trash fish” also makes for inexpensive, delicious menu options.
Despite an abundance of fish, seafood has never been a celebrated part of Nova Scotia’s food culture. Historically, the opportunities for export were too great, making it easier to ship locally caught fish to Boston than around the province. This means that Dennis often struggles to acquire the local seafood he wishes to serve. “We simply put product on trucks, ship it to Boston, and wait for the check.”
Unfortunately, local seafood markets can’t thrive if the price is driven by faraway buyers and processors. For example, one day Dennis called several local fishermen looking to buy sea urchins. However, because the price for sea urchins in Japan were low, it was not worth it for the Nova Scotia boats to go fishing. The boats were tied up.
Working alongside groups like Ecology Action Centre, Off the Hook Community Supported Fishery, and Slow Food Nova Scotia, Dennis has been working to help develop local seafood markets. Slow Fish Nova Scotia launched last spring with a dinner at Fid Resto. As Dennis describes, “We are trying to change the way people view fish and fishing.”
After 13 years running Fid Resto, Dennis and Monica have closed the restaurant to pursue other projects. However their passion for cooking and local food continues to influence their other work- including cooking and serving in clients’ homes. “It’s quite fun, actually. The menus are varied and they usually give me free reign on what I can do. I use a lot of local fish and seafood.” Dennis also continues to lead Nova Scotia in the local food movement, making waves through his work with Slow Fish and throughout local fisheries and restaurant scenes.
Sarah Ebel is a fisheries outreach specialist working on an internship with Slow Fish Canada.