Fish Tails and Walleye Wings

Chef Jay Barnard of Freshwater Cuisine in Kenora, Ontario, leaves no fishbone unturned when it comes to whole-fish dining.

It’s hard to believe that Canada is one of the worst food wasters in the world. And yet, a 2017 report released by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation found that, when including all stages of the food supply chain—from the farm all the way through processing and distribution to food service and retail—396 kg (873 pounds) of food per capita is wasted in Canada every year.

Nose to tail—in which every part of an animal is used—could be seen as the restaurant industry’s answer to making a dent in this shocking statistic. It’s a culinary trend that’s grown in recent years, expanding in popularity alongside locally sourced ingredients and farm-to-table menus. Ontario’s chef Jay Barnard has his own nose-to-tail philosophy, this time involving freshwater fish.

“The cool thing about us is we’re using 100 percent of the fish,” says Barnard of his young freshwater fish processing business, Freshwater Cuisine (freshwatercuisine.com), located in Kenora, Ontario, which focuses on adding value to underused freshwater fish, as well as using a greater percentage of the fish than regular processors.

Whereas the industry standard is to fillet the fish and discard the remains, Freshwater Cuisine focuses on looking past the traditional fish fillet to create products using more meat from a single fish, such as with their popular Walleye Wings, as well as with their Pickerel Cheeks made from 100 percent wild-caught freshwater fish.

“The whole thing came about because I’m a chef and I saw an opportunity in this waste. After we took off the fillets, there would be over 60 percent waste, and I wondered how we could create value-added products out of this waste, for extra revenue. I created Walleye Wings as a result. People were keeping cheeks, but no one was taking the pectoral fin muscle. Nobody tried to bring that to market,” says Barnard.

“As a chef, I’m able to manipulate fish in so many ways and there are so many recipes we can do with so many species. There is more in our lakes than we know, and making value-added products from what most people call waste was a great opportunity to create something that was tasty that no one had thought of. There are so many opportunities with fish that people don’t think about,” he says.

Making fish cool

Not only does Barnard find a way to use as much of the fish as possible, but he’s also showcasing our home and native land’s freshwater fish, including the less popular species.

“We’re one of the first ones to find value in inland freshwater fish,” says Barnard. “There is so much stigma around underutilized species. My whole mission now is to go and show people what we can do with our inland fish, how you can cook it.”

Today, Freshwater Cuisine works in partnership with over 50 independent fishermen who supply them with 100 percent wild-caught fish. Freshwater Cuisine is now the largest operating fish processing facility in northwestern Ontario, supplying the region with freshwater fish fillets, Walleye Wings and Pickerel Cheeks.

“We buy fresh fish from our Indigenous fishers, injecting cash into the community and creating jobs and rebuilding fisheries. Through us, their fish is getting to all kinds of people now. People need a consistent supply of inland freshwater fish and we’re the only ones in the region doing it right now,” says Barnard.

Freshwater beginnings

“It all started when I moved back to Kenora from Fort McMurray, where I was previously working as chef, and opened the Boathouse, on Lake of the Woods. I thought, ’Why do I want to have tilapia on the menu when I’m on Lake of the Woods?’” Barnard recalls.

Shortly after, he learned about a fish plant in the area, and took it over in late 2016.

“It turned out there was a fish plant here and commercial fishing in Kenora. They raffled off seven species, including whitefish, yellow perch, black crappie and more, and I thought, ’Boy, I have a huge opportunity here.’ The locals thought pickerel was the only thing that sells, and I thought we just need to educate people so we can use these underutilized fish, and that was when Freshwater Cuisine was born,” he says. “We closed the purchase of the plant in 2018 and processed nearly 600,000 pounds of fish this year. We sell from British Columbia and Manitoba, all the way down to southern Ontario, and we’re looking into exporting.”

Lake to plate

To get the word out, Barnard developed his own TV show, Lake to Plate.

“It started a year and a half ago,” says Barnard. “Torin [Bergagnini], my VP, said we should do a TV show, where I cook fish and educate people about what we have in our lakes and how to cook it. We started shooting it on our iPhone, then we got a following, and then Shaw approached us. Now it airs every day on local stations, and on YouTube. We try to bank three to six episodes every few months so there’s always fresh stuff for people to see.”

But Barnard still has greater visions of where he can take his fish.

“[With all we’re doing,] we’re still left with the carcass of the fish. We did a three-year study, working with Lakehead University, to see about creating an organic fish fertilizer,” says Barnard. “There’s no leaching from the product. It creates healthier soil, and therefore a healthier product, with faster grow times. It’s not in production yet, but we have everything in place to start. To give back to the earth is an exciting thing because we’re in need of healthy soil for farmers.”

The journey so far has brought Freshwater Cuisine many accolades, making them one of the leaders in the agricultural food industry. “We won one of the first-ever Rural Ontario Leaders Awards for business in Ontario (from the provincial government). We also won a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for being a leader in creating value from waste, and the Innovative Project of the Year for our fertilizer from the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre,” Barnard proudly shares.

Sustainability reigns as one of his priorities. “Sustainability is one of the most important things to us in terms of what our fish stock looks like. Sustainability is at the forefront of having fish for the future,” he says. “For me, I always saw this large amount of raw material. If I’m able to process it all, that’s where the value comes in.”

Zero waste, introducing new species to our menus so we don’t over-harvest others, plus locally sourced fish that cut down on our carbon footprint—chef Barnard is on all points leading by example.

“We really have to take a look at the waste that’s in the world today and find creative and innovative ways to use that waste,” says Barnard. “It’s about not seeing waste as waste and using 100 percent of our natural resources.”

Catalina Margulis
Catalina Margulis

An editor with 15-plus years in the publishing business, Catalina Margulis’ byline spans travel, food, decor, parenting, fashion, beauty, health and business. When she’s not chasing after her three young children, she can be found painting her home, taming her garden and baking muffins.

Posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2020
Filed under Food | Recipes

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