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“Hey, didja remember the Kokanees?” bellows a barrel-chested, shirtless man at his sunburnt friends from atop a 50-foot powerboat, engine purring. It’s 4 p.m. on a sunny Friday at the False Creek marine club beneath the Granville Street bridge.
On a hammered-together raft moored to the same dock, Shannon Ronalds is recounting a recent trip to Saint-Tropez that inspired his humble vessel, his floating dining room. “There’s a large horseshoe-shaped marina, abuzz with restaurants and patios, then there’s a public walkway, then mega yachts parked right to the seawall with private dining tables. And so all night you have servers in their whites running back and forth through that public concourse, meandering through the crowds, trays of food held over their heads. It’s such a romantic scene. I thought about our own seawall and why you don’t see that in Vancouver.” His voice trails off as a floatplane drones overhead; the loud boater and his beer-swilling shipmates chug into the bay.
Ronalds, 34, is boyishly handsome, but a grainy quality to his speech suggests he’s no lamb. He wears a pinstripe blue shirt, top button undone, tucked into grey slacks—professional, but not conservative. Ronalds is the brain behind the recently established School of Fish Foundation, and he conceived, built, and operates his floating restaurant as its primary source of funds. For 60 days, from July to September, Ronalds and a team from C Restaurant (including chef Robert Clark, who oversees the sustainable seafood menu) served 12 people each night, welcoming Canucks and their wives, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and green-minded suburbanites from Port Moody and Tsawwassen.
“I’ve brought around 700 people aboard this floating room. There’s a message, but not a lot of scare tactics. We are giving people an elegant experience, a beautiful view, an amazing meal from C, and a little education on how to protect our oceans and sea life. There’s no shock and awe.”
That’s the sort of rhetoric one picks up after spending time south of the border—Ronalds lived in L.A. for 10 years before returning to Vancouver in 2008. But he grew up in, and was informed by, Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, at a time when his back yard became the epicentre of environmental protest. “At the time I didn’t know there was a problem in Clayoquot Sound. I’d drive to my favourite surf spots on the coast, but the clearcuts were miles away from the road, strategically hidden. So it was hard to understand; it wasn’t real. Like when you are told there’s a plastic garbage dump in the ocean twice the size of B.C.…how does that become real? How does it affect your life?”
Ronalds moved to Vancouver after high school and got a job at C in 1998 as assistant manager. There he came intimately to understand the sustainability goals of owner Harry Kambolis and chef Clark. “Port Alberni was once the salmon capital of the world, and I saw that collapse around me. C’s message hit home.” Ronalds relocated to California and worked as a sommelier at a Beverly Hills hotel, then dabbled in P.R. and event management. But it was his time as national sales manger for a startup—a wireless concierge service that provided wealthy clients with luxury amenities—that kick-started his entrepreneurial streak. “Unfortunately our tech partners weren’t able to keep up with the demand or service our needs, and the company failed. Concept-wise it was brilliant, but the execution was flawed.”
Back in Vancouver, he reconnected with Kambolis and Clark. “My time in the for-profit sector convinced me that I needed to do something good for the world. I was inspired by people who had a lot of wealth and actually wanted to effect change.” He had only a vague notion of what that change might be, but it would involve what he knew and had a passion for: dining, seafood, and sustainability. There were spirited discussions with like-minded friends, and then the fateful trip to Saint-Tropez. Last April he approached City Hall with the idea of a floating dining room. “After they stopped laughing, they told me in no uncertain terms what I had to do to be operational by summer. It was crazy.”
The biggest issue was liability—no one wants to be responsible for a sinking dining room and sodden patrons—so Ronalds had to throw out his original architectural plans and reinforce the simple structure. “Thankfully there’s no plumbing or gas onboard, so it was relatively simple to meet the needs of Vancouver Coastal Health and the fire inspector.” The liquor board was another story. Special-occasion licences are permitted for only three days out of 30, but the restaurant was to be open for two months straight—negotiations took many long hours.
At $215 a ticket for six courses (Humboldt squid or frozen-at-sea spot prawns might lead to salmon and other local delicacies) plus accompanying wines, the experimental dining room will gross about $90,000 for the School of Fish Foundation. Profits will be used to develop course modules for culinary schools, to integrate sustainable practices into their seafood-focused curriculum. “We want to make it a no-brainer for instructors to provide tools to the young chefs to learn how to make sustainable choices and support ethical producers. In Canada, 70 percent of seafood consumed is done in food service. So if we educate a handful of emerging chefs, they’ll be responsible for a huge portion of the seafood that the general population eats. We’ll see a fundamental shift, something replicable in any other city in the world.”
Traditionally, sustainable seafood is more expensive; the foundation recognizes the bottom line. “Our program suggests serving a four-ounce piece of sustainable fish and one ounce of another, cheaper, sustainable seafood item. Use sardines and anchovies in your sauce or as a garnish. Chefs can be more creative and consumers will benefit from a broader selection of flavours.”
As with any green initiative, it’s hard to get people onboard because compliance entails extra work. “I compare what we’re doing to getting people to turn the water off when they brush their teeth. You can tell three million people to do it, but will they? Here, we’re reaching a small number of chefs who could cook millions of sustainable dishes over the course of their careers. It’s like they’re in the bathroom turning the tap off for you.”
Five years from now, Ronalds wants to be presenting the School of Fish teachings to France’s ministry of education, which is responsible for the curriculum of thousands of culinary schools. “If we can convince them that fresh fish isn’t always the most sustainable option, that there are other means and other ways, think of the impact.” He’s well on his way: the floating dining room concept has garnered attention and interest from several other port cities.
For now, there’s a party of 12 on their way. There’s a table to set and silverware to polish and wine to decant. And there’s the day-to-day work of changing consumer habits. The little dining island bobs gently in the wake from seabound pleasure craft packed with weekend warriors; the chandelier overhead clinks. “I don’t know people with deep pockets,” says Ronalds. “I can’t just throw a party for my rich friends and then throw money at the problem. So I effect change by doing what I know.” VM
Perpetual Motion: A zoologist at UBC, Todd Jones, uses leatherback turtles to gather unprecedented intelligence on the health of the world’s oceans. By Bruce Grierson
Into The Wild: Alexandra Morton used to support salmon farming. Now she’s a fierce opponeny. By Taras Grescoe
Sturgeons And The Fraser River’s Conservation: Measuring The Fraser River’s Health. By Tyee Bridge