Interview with a Forager

If you think the word ‘forage’ is more likely to inspire the image of a far-flung clan of hunter-gatherers than that of a fine dining establishment, you’re not alone. However, with his so-named new restaurant, executive chef Chris Whittaker aims to blend the two concepts together. His is a strictly British Columbian taste. He and I met for a chat in the Listel Hotel at 1300 Robson Street, where Forage will have a grand opening in mid-November.

Vancouver Weekly: Why Forage? What can you tell me about the name?

Chris Whittaker: Well, basically what we thought about when we pictured the restaurant was that we really wanted to tie it in with sustainability. We thought about local foods and what that means to this province and this region— the Pacific Northwest. So we were brainstorming ideas and Forage came about because we were talking about our temperate rainforest and, importantly, what bounty there is not only in the farmed fields but also in the wild. It doesn’t mean everything we’re serving is wild, though we will have foraged goods on the menu. It’s more about trying to go back to a time where things weren’t produced in such excess. We only took what we needed from the land. We respected the land. We didn’t mass-produce things. It’s more of a simple way of thinking.

VW: When you say foraged goods what does that mean?

CW: It’s the food that plays heavily into my menu: wild mushrooms like chanterelles and morels, salal berry, seaweeds, sea asparagus, fiddleheads, stinging nettles and watercress. They just naturally occur in our environment. We try to use as much of that as we can in our cooking.

VW: From local forests?

CW: From local pickers, yeah.

VW: And what about fish and fowl?

CW: Fish, we are one hundred percent Oceanwise. Actually the whole hotel is. So we’re making sure things are sustainably caught, with minimal by-catch and that the fisheries themselves are well stocked and can sustain fishing. All my other proteins, like chicken, pork and lamb, are all sourced locally as much as we can. And those producers have to believe in what we believe in. That is, none of the animals are on hormones or antibiotics and the chickens are free range. We’re always looking to ensure our beliefs are in tune. As for beef, I’m actually not going to have any on the menu. This is because of the environmental impact the beef has through transport, through methane gas it produces, the amount of heat it takes. It’s just not a very environmentally conscious protein source.

VW: Do you think it will be difficult striking a balance between sustainable practices and economic pressures?

CW: I don’t think so. I think that as chefs we have to be creative with the way we introduce meats into a dish or the way we source goods. Like if we bulk purchase and preserve goods then we can get cheaper prices on things usually. As far as the cuts of meat, I’m not using a twelve-ounce beef tenderloin anymore; I’m using some bison tongue. I’m not using a big pork rack chop; I’m using pork skin and making a braciole. We’re making sure that all of the animals are getting used. We’re working with our suppliers on the vegetable end too, trying to get like a CSA program where I just get boxes from Glorious Organics with things she can’t use in the market. A head of cabbage that split, I can use to make sauerkraut or something like that. I want to help them keep those vegetables from rotting in a field when they’re perfectly fine for making into something else.

VW: Great. You mentioned the Pacific Northwest and your intention of utilizing the forests and the region’s natural bounty. So do you think Vancouver, specifically, is a place where this kind of attitude and approach will be received well and will succeed?

CW: I think so. I’m with the Chefs’ Table Society of British Columbia and I’m the committee chair for the Spot Prawn Festival locally. Our belief system is just that— centering on sustainability and knowing where your food comes from. Those chefs, in that society, Robert Clark, Rob Belcham, Scott Jaeger, Julian Bond and myself included, we’ve all done an amazing job at educating the consumer. People demand and ask where their food is coming from. They want to know now. And this type of restaurant can help celebrate that. It’s not a new concept locally but I think we’re going to put a fresh spin on it.

VW: And is there anything like it here in this neighbourhood?

CW: Actually I don’t believe there is. We’re pretty laden with chain restaurants down here so I think it’s going to be a breath of fresh air for people down here.

VW: I think you had Hooters a block up a few years ago.

CW: (Laughs) That’s right.

VW: To change directions here a bit, how long have you personally been working in restaurants?

CW: I’ve been at this property for five and a half years. Previous to that I was the executive chef at the Pacific Palisades Restaurant, where I worked for seven years. And before that I worked in a couple other restaurants and hotels. I’m originally from Ontario. I came out here in 1999.

VW: This was O’Doul’s before.

CW: Yes.

VW: O’Doul’s was something of an institution on Robson Street here.

CW: It was.

VW: Hopefully Forage will reach that same level of local respect and notoriety that its predecessor enjoyed?

CW: I think it will. Early indications are, just from the events that we’ve been doing, Chef Meets Grape, Feast of Fields, that there’s huge excitement about it. We’ve got a great kitchen crew in there that’s used to producing really high quality food. We’re not going to waiver in that respect. I think, when you talk about an institution, O’Doul’s was amazing for sure. And I respect that. But the name O’Doul’s doesn’t really represent or allow us to do what Forage is going to do. So, I think we’ll be that much greater.

The hunting and gathering commences in November, when Forage opens its doors not just to the public, but also to yours truly, restaurant critic extraordinaire. So to the hoard of curious and hungry who hope to hear how the food smells, how the wine tastes and how the room sparkles, pay attention for Vancouver Weekly’s forthcoming restaurant review.