Toronto chefs are wild for the sweet taste of B.C. spot prawns


Toronto chefs are wild for the sweet taste of B.C. spot prawns

Special to The Globe and Mail

My butcher can tell me the name of the steer that gave me its flank. My cheesemonger can gossip for hours about the provenance of his cheeses, and the people who made them. And earlier this week I got a taste of the season’s first asparagus at the Ancaster Old Mill – bought from the farmer himself in a parking lot near Simcoe County. But when it comes to trying to source seafood from a well-managed fishery (and caught in a responsible manner), I am tempted to throw up my hands; finding a cocktail shrimp I can eat with a clean conscience is a much more complicated proposition.

For years I just avoided the bags of frozen tiger shrimp at the grocery store. I’d heard too many tales of habitat destruction in Asia and Central America. According to the Mangrove Action Project, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that monitors mangrove forest degradation, the world has lost more than 1 million hectares of coastal wetland because of destructive shrimp farming practices.

“There’s no way of knowing where those tiger shrimp are coming from,” says Jason Inniss, co-chef at Amuse-Bouche on Tecumseth, who misses the pristine seafood he grew up eating in Barbados. There’s also a problem of quality; those “fresh” tiger shrimp sold at the fishmonger are usually thawed and insipid. So when Mr. Inniss and co-chef Bertrand Alépée decided to make their menu Ocean Wise (serving only seafood that had been given the green light by the Vancouver Aquarium), they were faced with a challenge: Where would they find a source for shrimp that didn’t have a pile of exoskeletons in the closet?

They found their answer in the B.C. spot prawn. Sweet, crunchy and with a briny taste that’s as old as the sea, these crustaceans have no equal when they’ve just been pulled out of the ocean. Starting next week, live B.C. spot prawns will be arriving in Toronto twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays throughout May and June.

This year’s spot-prawn season, which is expected to last about 60 days, marks the first time Toronto will get a steady supply of the sustainable seafood. Last year on a trip to Vancouver, Mr. Inniss shared his concerns with Robert Clark, chef-owner of C Restaurant and B.C.’s poster boy for sustainable seafood menus. Mr. Clark immediately marched Mr. Inniss down to a dock where dayboat fisherman Steve Johansen was selling spot prawns caught only hours earlier. “He handed me a live one and told me to eat it,” recalls Mr. Inniss, who quickly got over his squeamishness when he tasted the sweet, fresh prawn meat.

Caught off the coast of B.C., live spot prawns (a member of the shrimp family) are still something of a novelty in Vancouver. Until a few years ago, the best of the catch was exported to Asia; the spot prawns that did make it to Vancouver markets were usually mishandled and mushy.

“Only the drek was dumped in B.C.,” recalled Mr. Clark on a recent visit to Toronto to promote Ocean Wise. (He also paid a visit to Oyster Boy, where Michael Stadtlander announced that Mr. Clark and Vikram Vij will host the next Canadian Chefs’ Congress in B.C. Appropriately, the theme of the congress is the health of the oceans.) Mr. Clark, who has been a champion of sustainable seafood for more than a decade – you might call him the conscientious hedonist – decided it was high time Vancouver started getting its fair share of the shrimp catch. So he rallied his Vancouver peers at the Chefs’ Table Society and with Mr. Johansen launched a Spot Prawn Festival.

Soon, devoted seafood lovers were lining up at the wharf, money in hand, to buy the live shrimp directly off Mr. Johansen’s boat. “I couldn’t keep up with the demand,” recalls Mr. Johansen. Last year, Mr. Inniss was so impressed with the Vancouver prawns that he took a cooler of them home as carry-on luggage. When he arrived in Toronto at 11 p.m., he immediately called Mr. Alépée. “We grilled them, we ate them raw, we made ceviche. They were beautiful.”

But spot-prawn supplies in Toronto were desultory at best: Mr. Inniss and fellow chefs such as Ted Corrado of C5 had to take turns driving out to the airport to pick up the seafood delivery.

“I just say yes to anyone asking if I want B.C. prawns,” says Patrick McMurray at Starfish.

Like Mr. Clark, Mr. Inniss was able to put his own chef network to good use, drumming up interest for the prawns through Cross Town Kitchens, a high-minded chef association that collaborates on raising awareness (and funds) for organizations like The Stop Community Food Centre and shares resources. Nearly two dozen Toronto restaurants will be featuring the prawns over the next month. Fifty cents of every pound sold will be donated to The Stop.

On June 3, Amuse-Bouche will host a spot-prawn dinner with three or four guest chefs. “They’re one of the few shrimps you can eat raw, because they’re so fresh,” says Mr. Inniss, who plans to marinate the prawns, ceviche-style.

“They don’t need much dressing up,” says Dan DeMatteis, chef de cuisine at JK Wine Bar. “Cooked in a pan with butter and garlic is good enough for me.”

Insatiable appears every other Saturday


Where to find them

Because B.C. spot-prawn season is just starting, call your fishmonger to check if they have a supply before you make the trip to your local fish market.

Here are a few retailers who plan to carry them:

Diana’s Seafood, 2101 Lawrence Ave. E., 416-288-9286

Taro’s Fish, 800 Sheppard Ave. E., 416-730-8555

Bill’s Lobsters, 599 Gerrard St. E., 416-778-0943 (after Mother’s Day)