At 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, nine coolers full of fresh fish were scattered throughout Jon Klip’s basement apartment. The Toronto resident and his business partner, Matt Taylor, inspected their cargo under the dim light. There was an unspoken rule applied to each creature swathed in plastic: Grab the head with one hand and cradle its limp body with the other. Mr. Taylor held a whitefish with titanium-like scales under his nose, breathing in a scent he likened to cucumbers.
“It’s such a beautiful thing,” he said. “It’s so delicate and it will deteriorate really easily. I’m also so grateful to be handling it. It’s why we treat it with respect.”
The minutes, hours and days that followed would be a methodical scramble to ensure their harvest quickly reached new hands in prime condition. The pair would dab each carcass to soak up residual ice water, and wrap all the fish in layers of cloth and paper before delivering it to local restaurants. From trout, pickerel, whitefish and perch to less popular species such as burbot, sheepshead and pike, there was no shortage of freshwater variety.
Every fish, they believe, has value in its own way.
As a sort of quality assurance test, Mr. Klip pressed a heavy blade to the flesh of a steelhead trout. Fish that hadn’t sold before the end of the day would become an opportunity for the pair to flex their culinary muscles by salting, aging and smoking. This one would be part of that cohort.
“That first cut, when you feel the resistance of the flesh, you know that this is a good piece of fish that’s been taken care of,” he said. “Most fish you receive are not in good shape … it feels like paste. This happens as it gets older.”
This is Affinity Fish: a fishmongering brainchild of Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor, grounded in a desire to build alternative supply chains around local catch from the Great Lakes. Nearly two years in the making, the business, the pair say, is a response to mounting frustrations they shared as chefs working with seafood.
Mr. Klip, 27, formerly of New York’s Kajitsu, and Mr. Taylor, 29, formerly of Toronto’s Sakai Bar, say they rejected an industry-wide consensus that the best fish product only comes from Japan, New Zealand and Portugal. And with 61 per cent of the Canadian fish and seafood supply exported to the United States, they wondered why more couldn’t stay here.
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“Both of us started to question ‘why do we have to put fish on a plane, and why are we not able to source better quality stuff locally?’” Mr. Klip said. In his view, there is little to no effort made by large-scale industrial suppliers in North America to handle fish with enough care to ensure a quality product. Generally, the food philosophy throughout the continent is to produce as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
“We’re just trying to come up with a way to eat fish that’s a little more responsible,” he said.
Their objectives fit squarely with research that has suggested greater reliance on local freshwater fisheries would create stronger, more sustainable food systems. This includes social, economic and environmental benefits, such as food security, local job creation and lower reliance on fossil fuels.
The fish that are carefully tended to inside Mr. Klip’s apartment are first hauled out of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay on Allen Robichaud’s commercial vessel.
On his ship, the Benjamin Charles, two crew members recently slogged damp nets full of squirming fish up a side hatch. A motorized winch provided some assistance.
Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor stood over an adjacent table, where they plucked their catch from the twine. On this day, a thin layer of fog hung over a still horizon, but there are also times when unforgiving winds and billowing waves toss Mr. Robichaud’s boat around in the water like a tin can.
“Our job doesn’t appeal to many people. It’s hard, but it’s been good,” Mr. Robichaud said. “Once you’re on the lake, you see the scenery, the area – you just love it out there. It’s always exciting.”
Robichaud Commercial Fishing is one of two Indigenous-owned fishing operations on Saugeen Ojibway Nation traditional territory that Affinity Fish sources from. The community is rooted in a long history of fishing, which Mr. Robichaud said makes his job more meaningful.
When Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor met him through mutual connections, they proposed not only buying his fish, but also making weekly outings on his vessel over the course of several months so they could receive a crash course in commercial fishing. The Affinity co-owners say this was key to their effort to mould their company’s business model, build relationships with Indigenous suppliers and understand how to improve the quality of local fish.
Their partnership with Mr. Robichaud began in June, 2021. Almost every week, Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor drive three hours from Toronto to meet him at a boat launch on Lake Huron or Georgian Bay. Nine-hour days of fishing and processing are followed by calls – made from their car during the long drive back – to restaurants, during which they gauge clients’ interest in fresh, local fish that could be delivered the next morning.
To date, Affinity has sourced more than 60 per cent of its product from Robichaud Commercial Fishing. Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor pay Mr. Robichaud and his crew $5 a pound, whereas the pay rates at wholesalers typically range from $0.90 to $2 a pound.
Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor arrived at this price after asking Mr. Robichaud what would allow him to pay his crew a living wage and run a sustainable business.
“As a settler, I think it is important to really think about what is the proper way to go about this, to treat these businesses and communities with respect, to not step on their toes or take advantage of them,” Mr. Taylor said.
By the time the fish is sold to restaurants, according to Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor, it’s still 50 per cent cheaper than premium seafood sourced overseas. But, because of the relatively high prices they pay their suppliers and other steps they take to ensure quality, they estimate their fish is roughly 20 per cent more expensive than product that moves through domestic industrial systems.
According to Mr. Robichaud, the presence of Affinity Fish has resulted in local buyers and wholesalers increasing the prices they pay for his catch.
“I hope the best for those guys, because the better they do is better for us,” he said. “It would be nice to give all of our fish to them, but they have to get there first.”
Charles Levkoe, a Canada research chair in equitable and sustainable food systems at Lakehead University, studies what components are required to build better food systems. Indigenous food sovereignty – in other words, ensuring Indigenous communities have autonomy over the way their food is produced and harvested – is one way of achieving sustainability, he said.
To ensure this happens in business relationships, Mr. Levkoe said, there needs to be a level of equity between parties.
“The food system puts producers and harvesters at a disadvantage – specifically Indigenous folks who’ve been digging their way up to get to the point to participate in an equal playing field,” he said.
To focus on developing their business in Toronto, Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor have recently made fewer trips on the water. But they still make weekly drives out to the boat launch to receive fish that are caught, handled and slaughtered using a number of practices that are now embedded in their business model.
They don’t discard species such as burbot or sheepshead which are typically snubbed by buyers. Nothing goes to waste.
And they have trained fishing crews to use a modified version of a Japanese slaughtering technique called ikejime, in which a metal spike pierces a fish’s brain, killing it instantly. It’s a method Mr. Klip learned during his culinary training in Kyoto.
Ikejime has become increasingly prized among chefs for being the most humane way to kill a fish. And doing it correctly can also improve the final product’s taste and texture, because the fish have less opportunity to struggle. That type of stress produces lactic acid and cortisol in the meat, which can give it a metallic flavour.
Next, crew members make a small incision through each fish’s gills. This eliminates blood as quickly as possible. Fish that is tainted with blood can be a breeding ground for bacteria.
Each carcass is then placed in a plastic bin to prevent bruising before it can be gutted, washed and slid into a plastic sleeve on ice.
Most wild-caught fish species that aren’t killed this way perish as they are eviscerated or suffocate in the open air. There are even times, Mr. Klip said, where fish that are industrially processed are smothered by the crushing weight of other fish and ice as they sit in forklift containers that are trucked out to processing facilities. This, he added, contributes to bruising and tissue damage that could otherwise be eliminated. It can take several days, or sometimes weeks, before those fish make their way to processing facilities and then to retailers.
“There’s nothing inferior about Great Lakes fish. The only thing inferior is our human involvement from big companies, wholesalers and supply chain middlemen,” Mr. Klip said. “Fish is kind of treated like a commodity.”
The attention to detail that has gone into building Affinity Fish is compelling to academics like Steven Cooke, who has written about the importance of relying on freshwater fisheries.
The Canadian biologist and Carleton University professor said these fisheries are often overlooked in policy considerations related to human security and sustainability.
Part of this, he believes, is because ocean life, with its vivid colours and picturesque species, is “flashier” in comparison with that of inland lakes. This makes it easier to attract people to the ocean and build a narrative around it as a food source and a place worthy of environmental stewardship.
“Freshwater, if you look beyond the surface, it’s teeming with life,” he said. “Trying to expose this hidden ecosystem to the masses is key to people understanding ways to obtain nutrition that is healthy, safe, sustainable, benefits local communities, shortens supply chains and reduces transportation emissions.”
This exercise in local fish marketing has been under way inside more than a dozen restaurants that source from Affinity Fish. At Actinolite, on Toronto’s Ossington Avenue, chef Justin Cournoyer has devised dishes such as shallow fried pickerel in pastured pork fat, which he serves with salted cherry blossoms and smoked whitefish finished over a fire with juniper butter potatoes.
“It’s like a blank canvas,” he said of the fish. “It can just be presented so simply. It’s so unique on its own and it stands up so you don’t have to disguise it. Just the technique of handling … Nobody is doing this.”
As much as Mr. Cournoyer is enamoured with Affinity’s product and the possibilities for menu items, he knows the story of the fish and its journey is just as important to guests. “There are layers of relationships here,” he said. “I’m one of those layers and it’s my responsibility to share it.”
Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor are in the midst of expanding their reach beyond restaurants such as Mr. Cournoyer’s. A handful of pop-up and catering events held over the past few months have been building momentum for what’s to come.
Their larger plans will unfold behind a storefront on Dundas Street West. There, they envision a bustling shop where home cooks and restaurateurs will be able to purchase a variety of local catch – whole or filleted, fresh, aged, salted or smoked. Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor also hope to use the space as a venue for culinary tutorials and pop-up dinners.
The store is still under construction, but already about half a dozen fish dangle from hooks in two new fridges.
As Mr. Klip double checked the temperature settings on one of the appliances, Mr. Taylor peered through its sliding glass doors. The metallic flesh of speckled lake trout radiated under the fluorescent light.
“It’s just stunning … the first tangible thing to exist in this space,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Every step and every turn of this journey, we’ve never known if any of this is possible. When I look at these fish, it’s like this is actually happening … it’s all coming to fruition.”
The Affinity Fish co-founders hope to open their doors by June. Mr. Klip and Mr. Taylor say their new headquarters will allow them to pay tribute to the fish and the people who caught it, while also demonstrating what could be the future of food.