From Farm To Table
by James Mullinger
Photographed by Tyler Warren Ellis
James Mullinger meets internationally recognized chef Chris Aerni and one of Atlantic Canada's aquaculture pioneers, dr. Steven Backman to learn why they are passionate about Atlantic Canada and its locally farmed salmon.
Atlantic Canada is known for its friendly people, beautiful views and world-class seafood. If there is one person in the region who is an undisputed expert on delicious seafood, it is Chris Aerni, the proprietor and owner of the Rossmount Inn in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick. The inn boasts a restaurant that is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, thanks in no small part to Aerni’s unique and famous dishes using fresh premium Atlantic farmed salmon.
His passion for local ingredients is apparent when you look at his menu or — in my case today — see him cooing over fresh vegetable arrivals from his garden or local market, and farmed fish as he prepares his ever-evolving evening menu.
“I think that now, more than ever, people recognize how important fresh food is. Quality, fresh, honest, local food. Food today is part of health care. We didn’t think like that one hundred years ago, but today food is mentioned in the same sentences as health care. And just as importantly, having a meal, going out for dinner — it’s entertainment. Food is used to do negotiations, celebrations, everything. And I really love that.”
After studying both culinary arts and the hospitality business in Switzerland, Aerni travelled and worked in restaurants and hotels from Australia to Toronto. In 2001, he and wife Graziella purchased the Rossmount Inn, a stunning 87-acre estate that sits in a prime location between the forest and the ocean — the perfect place for a chef who likes to use whatever land and sea can offer him on a given day.
“After living in Toronto for fourteen years, my wife and I decided that our next project would be a country inn somewhere beautiful in Canada, where we could access local food. So, we mapped out Canada from the west coast to the east coast. We homed in on all of the little areas where it would be conducive to do that, to fulfill that sort of dream. We searched for about three years, and then we found that the Rossmount Inn was for sale. It was one of those areas that offered some of the most beautiful views in the world, the very best seafood and was not overpopulated. It also had incredible culture, sports and wonderful communities around it. So, we pulled the trigger, and nineteen years later, we’re still here. It was the beauty of the land and the wonderful local product we have here — from wild fisheries to farming to aquaculture, all these things —that really brought us here. We needed to have products that would inspire and invigorate us every day when we write the menu in the kitchen and when we cook. That is what brought us here, but at the end of the day, it’s the people who kept us here.”
For Aerni and his team, the locally farmed salmon is crucial to the ever-changing and appears because it’s good for you, easy to cook and good for the planet. His inn is situated in a stunningly beautiful area that also happens to be the birthplace of Canada’s East Coast commercial salmon farming industry. It’s here, along the world-famous Bay of Fundy, where farmers, researchers, scientists, veterinarians, conservationists, government and chefs like Aerni have come together to create an extraordinary hub of traditional fishing, innovative and sustainable aquaculture, cutting-edge marine research and celebrated culinary expertise.
Aerni is a great spokesperson for farmed salmon. The incredible innovation of the breeding programs, the community of people behind it all and their love for nature collectively instill a desire for everyone to embrace the aquaculture industry in Atlantic Canada for all that it does for people and for the region.
A little-known fact is that this region’s salmonfarming community contributes more than $2 billion in output and $800 million in GDP, to the economy in Atlantic Canada. There are so many spin-off businesses that benefit directly or indirectly from the industry, including tourism, restaurants, hotels, charities and non-profits.
Having enjoyed many birthdays and wedding anniversaries at the Rossmount, it was a dream come true to be allowed into the inner sanctum of Aerni’s kitchen to meet his incredible, joy-filled team as they showed me the ways you can use locally farmed salmon to create everything from Asian cuisine to Canadian to Swiss. Aerni’s sushi-inspired fare is pictured on page 22 and his Swiss-inspired salmon and rösti feast on page 27.
“We celebrate the product because what we have here is a spontaneous kitchen, that’s what I call it. We change the menu every day based on what is fresh or what we receive. And if you can react to the seasonalities, then you can have a wonderful menu and wonderful food because, essentially, it’s the product that dictates the dish. The reason I like to celebrate the salmon farmers and the fishermen is because without them, we are nothing.”
The salmon-farming industry in Atlantic Canada is renowned globally for its commitment to sustainable innovation. A place where salmon farmers have been working alongside traditional fishermen in the pristine waters of the Atlantic Ocean for four decades. The abundant natural ocean environment makes it one of the best places in the world to farm fish, especially Atlantic salmon, in an environmentally sustainable way. Farmed salmon is one of the most sustainable proteins you can eat and a top food choice for those who want to reduce their environmental impact. To learn more about this, I invited Dr. Steven Backman to join us in the kitchen.
A great friend of Aerni’s, Backman is Atlantic Canada’s first private fish-health veterinarian and a pioneer of the industry in Atlantic Canada. Born in Halifax in 1961, his father’s family were commercial fishers from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and his mother’s family were dairy farmers and forest workers from Sussex, New Brunswick. He proudly tells me that he “turned out to be a blend of both.”
Backman is also an avid foodie who farms scallops and seaweeds. His kelp is legendary, and I implore you to try it. He really loves this industry: “It is great for the environment and is as healthy for you as wild salmon,” he enthuses.
Backman left the Maritimes to go to veterinary school at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He was working in Guelph as an aquaculture veterinarian for the Moore-Clark Company in 1988 when he was offered a job in the salmon industry in New Brunswick. “The minute I got the offer I had my coat on ready to go,” he laughs. “I love this industry for so many reasons, but the fact that it brought me home to the Maritimes is the main one! I love this job, and it gives me incredible pride to do something for this region that generates a large amount of revenue for so many businesses on so many different levels. The industry is also a huge employer in this region. So, we get to create something incredible that is loved by many, while also propelling the region to success, which could not be more important after the recent COVID-19 lockdown that has affected so many of us.”
From hatchery to harvest, the health of the fish is paramount for everyone involved, says Backman. Salmon farmers rely on in-house veterinarians, biologists and oceanographic specialists to develop best practices for fish health. An Atlantic farmed salmon can be traced back to the hatchery where the fish was raised, where records of what they ate and how they were cared for and maintained.
All of that is impressive, but for the average consumer it is all about the finished product. And no one knows this better than Aerni. For him, the process from the salmon farm to his tables is everything. “The salmon arrives to me in the freshest way possible. We are blessed to live here because when my salmon arrives from the farm, I know the exact time it left the water. They are not genetically modified in any way. They are healthy and, most crucially for my guests, they are delicious. And that is the key to the success of the Atlantic salmon-farming community here.”
The world-class cuisine at the Rossmount Inn attracts visitors from around the world, but most crucial is the love that locals have for the Rossmount. “We are really, really lucky that our focus was always to appeal to local customers. Local for us means a two-and-a-half-hour drive, which means from all around the province. So we have people on getaways: couples come with friends; they sit down to have a drink. They want to have the food and a good night’s sleep and breakfast. We pride ourselves on offering a genuinely nice getaway. Our local approach I think is what makes this place successful and why it’s sustainable. The idea is that, if local people think that you have a great product then for sure you’re going to be able to satisfy your visitors from New York, Boston, Toronto and Europe. And because we are humble in this part of Canada, we really do have a chance to actually overdeliver maybe a little bit. People don’t necessarily expect what we are doing here. So they are pleasantly surprised, and that’s always a nice thing.”
Aerni knows he couldn’t deliver all of this without farmed salmon. “It is more and more known globally what we have here. Seafood is under big pressure, right? So if we would go out and just catch wild food, wild fish, our stocks would be depleted now. And there’s no question about it. I think about sixty per cent of the world’s seafood consumption comes from aquaculture. As a protein, seafood is tremendously important around the world. So we have to farm our fish; otherwise, we’ll just deplete ocean populations. And of course, you know, when salmon was first farmed, it was believed not to work. And it had an evolution over thirty or forty years to where I think it’s become a state-of-the-art system in a really good and sustainable way. You know how it is processed and when actually it was harvested. And so it’s a very controlled product today.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Backman: “I feel a lot of pride for this industry, not just because of the fact that it produces world-class food but also because I know industry supports all of our communities and people within those communities. And that’s all encompassing. There are more than four thousand people who work directly in aquaculture in Atlantic Canada, and that’s not even counting the spin-off effect of all the other industries that are connected to them, not to mention charitable work and community outreach and so forth. It’s an incredible, far-reaching thing that ultimately and most importantly just tastes delicious!”
Sure enough, walk around Saint Andrews and chat with locals, and the incredible pride they have in this industry is immediately apparent. Residents appreciate the many ways that the industry has contributed to the economy of the region and supported local causes through philanthropy.
“I am immensely proud to be a part of this,” says Aerni, “and I will continue to serve the best farmed salmon and celebrate this incredible industry in every way I can. And I will always be proud to do so.”
To learn more and for recipes visit: atlanticfishfarmers.com
And go to maritimeedit.com to see Chef Chris Aerni's exclusive salmon recipes and films featuring James Mullinger with Aerni and Dr. Steven Backman
Here are the links:
James Mullinger meets The Rossmount's Chef Chris Aerni
Mullinger meets Dr. Steven Backman & Chris Aerni: Rossmount Inn Part 2