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A passion for Northern delicacies

Jay Barnard brings the bounty of northwestern Ontario's lakes to his Kenora business

Jay Barnard says he is living the dream.

Not just as a successful chef, business owner, motivational speaker and turning his life around from rock bottom, but sharing his passion for local food and keeping local fishing traditions alive.

He's been hard at work the last few years promoting the joy of eating locally-caught fish in new and inventive ways.

Last fall, he purchased a fish plant in Kenora, allowing him to expand his ever-growing business, Freshwater Cuisine, and a growing line of “value-added fish products” that go beyond the usual fillets and whole fish, as well as utilizing species most people overlook, or probably never heard of.

Several restaurants in northwestern Ontario now carry his products, with more inquiring and there's great potential to expand internationally.

Although the profits, business expansion and fame look good, he said it's all about supporting the local economy and promoting the culture.

“I have around 56 people working on this, that includes all the fishers I buy from and full-time and part-time employees,” he said. “It's been great to get to know them. They work really hard for their money and take really good care of their fish and are very passionate about what they do.”

Most of those fishers are First Nation, he said, who have fished the waters of the region for generations.

His approach has been as unique as his products. From having a tattoo artist design the product labels, to the names of the dishes he serves up at his restaurant. His goal is to get people to enjoy the bounty that is teeming in the lakes that make the area famous.

Freshwater Cuisine's products include Popcorn Pickerel Cheeks, Fresh Water Whitefish Cakes and Wild Caught Northern Pike Cakes. All of them, he said, are to showcase not only parts of the fish usually not eaten, but under-appreciated fish as well.

“Pickerel cheeks are a local delicacy, but they are hard to get off the fish, so often they are left behind,” he said.

He explained that pickerel is a popular species because of its mild flavour and can easily take on introduced flavours.

“There are so many kinds of fish, each one with its own unique flavour and texture and is sold cheap or thrown away as bycatch in the commercial operations.”

His journey was a rocky one, he said, starting with a series of addiction problems that led him to seek help from the Salvation Army in Ottawa.

From there, he said he sobered up, enrolled in classes at Algonquin College, received his chef's papers and worked his way up as a chef with Delta and Westin Hotels, taking him to jobs in places like Fort McMurray.

He took a transfer to Keyano College in Wood Buffalo, where he created his celebrity chef image Chef.Recovery.This led to many opportunities to cook with and meet celebrities and entertainers.

He returned to Kenora out of homesickness where his fiance at the time had family there. He took the executive chef position at the Boathouse Restaurant. This new job is where he decided to focus on local food.

“I wanted to be completely local when it came to food because I didn't find a place to use salmon, or cod, or haddock on my menu when we are on Lake of the Woods,” he said. “I just happened to find this fish plant in northwestern Ontario that was up for sale.”

With a business partner, he purchased the plant and began experimenting with different kinds of cuts and fish species, developing new products that added value to the catch and utilized the whole fish.

The first was walleye wings, a part of the fish that is under the chin, to see if people would take to the value-added product, and it sold.

“No one had tried doing this before, and people went crazy,” he said. “We were worried about the presentation and crispness. We wanted something that would be a conversation starter and get people away from their phones.”

Doing more research, he found seven local species he could use in his products. Within four months he did $167,000 in freshwater fish sales, about half the restaurant's total food sales.

It was then he knew he was on to something big. He reached out to the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre for assistance and securing grants.

He left the Boathouse, started Chef Recovery Catering out of Cabin Jack's and experimented with off-season sales, which he said paid his rent.

Last year, he took his product across the region to gauge interest, doing $38,000 in business before moving into the fish plant. As of late August, the company is sitting at almost $500,000 in sales, with 16 accounts across the province. The growing interest has meant profit and rising interest in local fish, as well.

“We've been able to generate just over $300,000 in buying fish from local fishers, all of whom are licensed and have quotas through the MNR as of March 1 this year, that's who we deal with,” he said. “There's a rich history here. You go and talk to these people and their families have been fishing these lakes for generations. It's very unique and interesting.”

Plans for the plant go beyond food. Barnard said they are taking the fillets, the value-added products from those fish and taking other species once considered bycatch for new products and rendering the rest for a natural liquid fertilizer.

His ambition has won him several awards, including Most Innovative Small Business of the Year (2016) from the Kenora Chamber of Commerce, and may be nominated for an Agri-Food Excellence and Innovation Award from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. 

He is set to be in Sudbury Nov. 2 to speak at the Salvation Army. Which he says will be a bit of a homecoming for him.

"It'll be great to see where I used to live, a lot of important events happened there for me," he said.

His cooking videos, as well as motivational talks, are available online.