We have heard many times how difficult it is for chefs to be activists and to raise awareness around certain issues. After all, the impact can be limited if you just practice what you preach in your restaurant. But then there are chefs who become activists, who create movements and who start to slowly change the system despite the odds that are heavily stacked against them.
Habits are extremely difficult to change but each one of us has the power to change these habits if we work enough on them. Belgian chef Filip Claeys of Brugge two Michelin star restaurant De Jonkman and founder of North Sea Chefs is someone who believes in taking action particularly when its a subject that is close at heart. You could easily say that his mantra is ‘where there is a will there is a way’.
He did this at a cost. He lost 30 per cent of his customers when he started to introduce humble fish in his menu. But it was a fight he was willing to take on.
Nearly 10 years ago, he founded North Sea Chefs with the intention of raising awareness about the need to use fish from the North Sea which were perfectly good to eat but which no one wanted to eat.
It was a vicious circle. The fishermen caught the fish (hundreds of tons of it each year). Most of it sold for less than 1 euro a kilo, in many cases even cheaper than 50 cents per kilo. But even at these prices, there was no demand for these types of fish. People wanted fish they were familiar with. Given there was no demand, shops did not supply them which meant that fishermen would end up either throwing their catch back into the sea or else throwing the fish away.
The chef, who worked at De Karmelit and Oud Sluis before opening his restaurant has fishermen’s blood in him and that is evident not only in his cooking but also in his activism. Today, when Filip is not cooking in his two Michelin star restaurant in the idyllic Flemish town Brugge a few kilometres away from the North Sea, he is busy advocating for North Sea Chefs, the organisation he founded in 2008.
The aim of the organisation is to raise awareness of fish that are not commonly known. With creative recipes and technical files they encourage chefs, amateur cooks and consumers to understand these tupes of fish and to use them.
He was the first speaker at the first congress of W Food Festival organised in Namur, Belgium by Generation W, the collection of chefs from Wallonia (Belgium’s French speaking region).
“When I opened my own restaurant I realised that fishermen were throwing away fish because there was no market for their catch. What we set out to do was create a demand thanks to chefs who learnt to work with fish that are not necessarily known. It was hard because I was losing customers who did not expect certain fish to be served in my restaurant. But I pursued.”
When he started, Filip had a group of 15 chefs. “I explained my idea and that is how we started. We agreed that they would receive a box with five different types of fish. There was information on the website about the type of fish and what to do with it.” Today there is a research team of 30 people and over 1,000 chefs following their idea.
Filip says that it was important to appreciate the work of fishermen. “They spend 4 days at sea working 24 hours a day. Every hour or two they will lift a net and see what their catch is. Most of what they catch will sell for less than 1 euro per kilo because people only want to buy sole or cod. But we need to help them because not only is this sustainable but also good for the environment.”
Starting slowly North Sea Chefs has started to bring about change. One feature in North Sea Chefs’ cap is convincing the supermarket chain Carrefour to stop selling pangasius which is a very cheap fish that comes from South Asia. They will instead start to promote and sell fish caught in Belgian waters, he says.
They are now ready to take the idea to the next level thanks to an agreement with a distributor who is able to start suppling all the major supermarkets in Belgium including those which supply restaurants. “We have found a solution that we are really proud of,” he said.
He gave the example of cuttlefish, octupus and calamari that are cooked and enjoyed in the Mediterranean like in the South of France or Greece and added that what people did not know was that most of it came from the North Sea. “When I was working with shellfish for my restaurant I would get them from France before realising that they were coming from the port of Zeebrugge.”
He urged chefs from Wallonia to use fish from the North Sea. “From Zeebrugge to your restaurants it will take a maximum of 3 hours which is nothing,” he said.
“Our job is to change the way we think as chefs, we have to lead by example and change the behaviour of customers also in the way they cook at home. We need to learn to eat what the fishermen catch. We should not ask the fishermen to catch only the fish we want to eat and throw away the rest,” he said.
Some of Belgium’s top chefs are part of North Sea Chefs and aiming to lead by example. On the website you can also find the fish of the season as well as many recipes of how to use the different types of fish.
Like Filip, each and everyone of us needs to get out of our comfort zone and try something new. He has made it easier for all. We owe it not only to ourselves but also to the environment.