A Zen experience

Standing with suzuki: Councilwoman Trish Kenz, Jay Ritchlin of the David Suzuki Foundation, Chef Nobu Ochi, Mike McDermid of the Vancouver Aquarium, and myself. The guest of honor is a farmed striped bass.

The event yesterday at Zen restaurant in West Vancouver was, in my opinion, a good way to jumpstart sustainability awareness in the local sushi industry.  There’s a tremendous number of sushi restaurants here in the Vancouver area, and it’s good to see that Chef Nobu Ochi and his staff are committed to moving in this direction, as this kind of effort can prove a model for other restaurateurs in the area.  That being said, Zen is not a sustainable sushi restaurant.  Not yet.  The menu still offers tako, hokkigai, and hamachi, and who knows how the yellowfin tuna is being caught or where it’s from.

Chef Ochi, however, does not make any false claims about this.  He is not in any way attempting to fool the media or the consumer public into thinking that his restaurant has made more progress than it actually has.  “If we had to go fully sustainable at once, we could never do it,” he told me yesterday.  “We need to take these steps and see how our customers react.”

I'm safe!
Woot!  I’m outta here!

This is a fair point and I applaud him for doing what he has already done — Zen has eliminated all unsustainable whitefish (karei and others) from its menu.  Ochi will not serve bluefin, and I haven’t managed to find unagi on the menu either.  In my eyes, these are laudable qualities and certainly differentiate Zen from most run-of-the-mill sushi spots that I’ve encountered.

There is a difference between starting a sustainable sushi restaurant from scratch, and changing an existing restaurant into a sustainable one.  Chefs are concerned about alienating their current clientele through the removal of long-standing menu favorites.  Distribution and sourcing, too, becomes an issue, as a menu shake-up demands going back to the drawing board with one’s purveyors and drafting a new plan to acquire sustainable and traceable product.  This is not an easy thing to do.

So Chef Ochi has a point, and I don’t disagree with him.  It is important to allow restaurants to take the steps that they are able to take.  If we require an immediate and total jump to sustainability, we will indeed scare off a number of curious chefs that are not yet comfortable with such a leap.


This cannot be allowed to get in the way of the message that fully sustainable sushi is not only possible, but necessary.  It exists, and restaurants like Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco and Bamboo Sushi in Portland can prove it.  Bamboo is a great example, as it was not opened as a sustainable sushi restaurant but actually upgraded into one from a pre-existing unsustainable condition.  This is a great model for restaurants like Zen.

Sustainability is a journey, not a place.  This isn’t about about getting a restaurant to a particular point, labeling it “sustainable,” and setting the menu in stone.  A sustainable restaurant has to be dynamic — continually innovative, responsive to the seasons, and accepting of the changes that our planet is undergoing.  The desire for a static solution to this issue is unfortunately unrealistic.

So yes, it’s good that these steps were taken.  And I am happy to have been involved.  But we cannot allow this kind of progress to be considered to be “enough.”  Chef Ochi knows that, though, and seems open to continual improvement.  So cheers to him, and cheers to the Zen team — and I look forward to watching this restaurant evolve.

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Apr 24, 2009 at 2:39 pm

What a fair-minded review! Thanks for stating your perspective so clearly. The idea that sustainability is a dynamic process not a concrete end point is very important–it applies to all of our thinking about our changing world.

Apr 26, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Very good article. Let’s hope it all works out for the best.



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