Dan Donovan can't understand why Torontonians bother eating tilapia. Sure, the fish is generally considered a sustainable seafood choice. But tilapia can taste slightly "muddy," is invariably farmed and thus doesn't have the same nutritional value as wild fish, he says.
"I don't know why everyone's going around looking for tilapia when you have pickerel here," says Mr. Donovan, executive chef and project developer for the food company Ontario's Own.
In fact, Torontonians have plenty of fresh, delicious lake fish at their fingertips. Yet, due to outdated fears of contamination, most of us tend to be more familiar with salmon, tuna, and other species that are farmed or caught off either coast, and often even farther afield.
But thanks to Mr. Donovan and other chefs putting local freshwater fish on their menus, that's starting to change.
This week, Mr. Donovan opened a new fish store, Hooked, on Queen Street East in Leslieville, which specializes in sustainable seafood. Through his shop, he's hoping to encourage more people to try local fish such as pickerel, whitefish and lake trout.
Originally from northern Ontario, Mr. Donovan recalls growing up fishing for lake fish and eating his catches. But over time, attitudes toward consuming locally caught species changed.
People started warning him, "If you're doing that, you're totally putting yourself in danger," he says.
The pollution of provincial waters, particularly the high mercury levels in the Great Lakes caused by industrial plants, gained widespread attention during the 1970s and made consumers wary of eating lake fish. In recent years, strict monitoring and government inspections have determined the toxicity levels of certain Ontario fish has improved to the point where their mercury levels are only at a fraction of the maximum amounts people can safely consume, Mr. Donovan says.
"Certainly it's lower than any mercury levels in tuna," he adds.
Yet consumers and retailers have been slow to rediscover local fish. In fact, he says, almost all of the freshwater fish caught in Ontario is exported, mainly to New York's Fulton Fish Market.
"It stuns me that it's very, very hard to find local fish in Toronto," Mr. Donovan says.
That - and the challenge of finding fish with clearly traceable origins - is the reason why he and his wife, Kristin, opened Hooked. (The store doesn't carry only local freshwater fish. It also stocks a variety of seafood from various areas of North America. However, Mr. Donovan emphasizes he can tell his customers exactly where anything he carries has come from, who caught it, and how it was caught.)
Although consumers might be hard-pressed to find local fish at their regular supermarkets and grocery stores, restaurant menus increasingly feature the fare. Chefs such as Jamie Kennedy, Mark Cutrara of Cowbell, and Tim Palmer of Epic at the Fairmont Royal York are just a few who are giving Torontonians reason to give pickerel and whitefish another chance.
At Parts and Labour restaurant in Parkdale, sous chef Matt DeMille serves up lake trout from Manitoulin Island and whitefish from Lake Erie, which he describes as having an aroma that hints at honeydew melon.
"It's the freshness, you know what I mean? It's killed right that morning or right the day before and brought to you," he says of the appeal of using local fish. "Your customers can really tell the difference, you know? And also, it's not generic. It's not mainstream."
At a time when salmon, tuna and sardines have become ubiquitous, Ontario lake fish is a refreshing change, Mr. DeMille says. "It's nice to go outside the box."