Before the Food Network came along, chefs weren’t the celebrities so many are today. And although TV portrays top chefs as spending every spare moment in the kitchen, the reality for most who reach high-level positions is different. Executive chefs typically pass just as much time, if not more, in a back office doing paperwork as they do in front of a flaming grill.
That kind of administrative overload is what got Robert Clark thinking about a change. The chef best known for his tenure as executive chef for the Kambolis Restaurant Group (C restaurant and Raincity Grill) recently dived headfirst into his first business venture, one that brings him out of the backroom again. He’s teamed up with marine biologist and conservationist Mike McDermid, formerly the Ocean Wise manager at the Vancouver Aquarium, to open the Fish Counter, a sustainable-seafood shop and eatery on Main Street.
The partnership itself isn’t new: in 2005, Clark worked with the Vancouver Aquarium to found the Ocean Wise program, which promotes sustainable seafood. But the satisfaction Clark is experiencing as the chef at this lively little fish shop is something he hasn’t felt in a while.
“Where I feel most comfortable is cooking,” Clark says in a follow-up phone call after the Georgia Straight visited the Fish Counter. “As executive chef at C or as corporate chef of a group of restaurants, my job wasn’t to be cooking; my job was something else, and it wasn’t really as rewarding for me as cooking.
“I enjoy myself much more now,” he adds. “Now I look at the soup [for sale] on the shelf, and I know I made it. I’m doing what I love to do. I’m ecstatic.”
Seeing Clark in action at the store is a bit like watching a cooking show live, without the burning lights. On any given day, you might stand a foot away from him while he shucks oysters, or watch him up close in the stainless-steel enclosed kitchen area alongside line cook Ian Johansen as the two crank out Baja-style fish tacos or fish and chips. (Formerly of Go Fish, Johansen is the brother of Steve Johansen, who runs Organic Ocean and cofounded the B.C. Spot Prawn Festival with Clark.)
The shop has an upbeat energy, with McDermid and Clark bantering back and forth. With the walls and ceiling painted white, exposed pipes and wooden beams, and daily menus printed in Jiffy marker on big sheets of paper thumbtacked to one wall, the interior is industrial and comfortable.
Half of the room is retail, with display cases featuring fish and seafood to cook at home. (On one visit, Campagnolo chef Robert Belcham stopped in to purchase crab and caviar.) There are those aforementioned shelves full of soups, sauces, dressings, and broths. Tanks hold live crab and lobster. Then there are prepared dishes that would make Poseidon swoon: paella, seafood salad, sockeye-salmon lox, sockeye and Chinook salmon maple nuggets, crab cakes, tuna tataki, seine-caught herring, and more.
The other half of the room is an eatery: the kitchen, of course, and a couple of reclaimed wooden benches and a window counter for ultra-casual chowing down on dishes that change regularly. Ever-present menu items include lightly battered fish and chips, made with halibut, lingcod, Pacific cod, wild salmon, or oysters. They come with Kennebec fries and coleslaw made with big pieces of kale—truly Vancouver.
The bouillabaisse is reason enough to stop by. Again, the type of seafood varies with what’s available, but Clark ensures that there’s always lots of it: hefty chunks of lingcod (from Vancouver Island’s west coast), pink salmon (from Haida Gwaii), and halibut (from Haida Gwaii or Johnstone Strait), as well as local mussels, clams, humpback shrimp, and spot prawns. Imbued with saffron and topped with a generous scoop of garlic purée, it also has lots of corn and red peppers. Each serving is ample in size and abundant in flavour, and comes in a compostable bowl. (All of the takeout dishes are compostable, in fact, as is the cutlery.)
Crispy line-caught cod is nestled in a corn tortilla with sprightly tomatillo and mango salsa and spicy crema; add a squeeze of lime, and the fish tacos bring to mind palapas, white sand, and blazing sun.
There’s also a dairy-free clam chowder and daily vegan soups, such as roasted eggplant and chickpea or spicy corn and wild rice.
Prices are very reasonable: tacos go for $5.95 each or four for $20, bouillabaisse is $6.90, and two pieces of lingcod and chips costs $16.90. A trip here proves you don't have to spend big bucks to savour a sustainable-seafood feast.