Chef Chris Whittaker is the groundbreaking force behind Vancouver’s Forage restaurant. (All photos: Nikki Bayley)
“At 14 years old, I knew after my first night of dishwashing [at a restaurant], just from watching the mechanics of the kitchen, that this was what I wanted to do — the intensity, the organization, the way everything moved, how the plates hit the pass as though it were orchestrated — it was amazing, and I knew right away it was for me.”
This memory stands out to one of Vancouver’s culinary heroes, chef Chris Whittaker of Forage, a fierce champion of no-waste, nose-to-tail and farm-to-table eating.
Chef Whittaker began his culinary career in Thunder Bay, Ontario, working in a convention hotel with a traditional Swiss brigade who made everything in-house, from puff pastries to sauces, giving the young Whittaker an excellent apprenticeship.
After graduating from business school (“I remember listening to them telling us how to get a job in sales and marketing, and I just didn’t see it in my future.”) Whittaker moved to Alberta to work at Chateau Lake Louise, where he met people from Vancouver and heard about the city’s fast-moving culinary scene.
Seduced by the extended growing season of the West Coast (“I went from three months of ‘not winter’ to three months of ‘barely winter at all,'”) Whittaker made the move to Vancouver.
It was a chance trip to a grocery convention that set Chef Whittaker on his current path of sustainable cooking.
“I saw what they were doing to our food: I saw vacuum tumblers, injectors, all these things they were doing to pump water or brine into our meats to volumize them to make consumers pay for water,” he says. “Seeing that and becoming aware of how broken that end of our food culture was made me say, ‘We’re in the middle of the best growing areas, and the best fishing, so why not embrace everything from here?'”
Based in Vancouver’s buzzing West End neighborhood, sandwiched between the ocean and Stanley Park on one side and the busy downtown core on the other, Forage restaurant showcases the bounty of regional, seasonal and sustainable Pacific Northwest cuisine.
Bristling with awards for its pioneering eco-policies — which include zero waste, eco energy programs, and the support of an all-local cast of fishers, foragers, farmers and British Columbia brewers, distillers and wineries — Forage is both a beloved neighborhood spot and a destination restaurant for locavore-loving foodies.
Marriott TRAVELER asked Chris to share his thoughts on sustainable urban foraging and his top tips for Vancouver dining.
Describe Vancouver’s food scene.
What do you want? Everything is here, and it’s the best of everything. We’ve got the best Chinese, the best sushi, the best farm-to-table, the best curry … it’s so multicultural and so innovative; when you look at guys like Bao Bei, Savio Volpe and Kissa Tanto doing amazing things, it makes you proud to be a chef here. You should be excited as a customer coming to Vancouver.
What restaurant trends are we likely to see over the next year?
Going back to basics: so cooking over fire, knowing where your products come from and cutting out the middleman suppliers, instead dealing direct with the farmers.
What ingredient do you most look forward to seeing each year?
I love when nettles pop; that’s the first sign that spring is here, and that brings a whole host of things for Vancouver. It’s an awesome time of year. You’re done cooking the last of your turnips, parsnips and cabbage and then this green prickly thing comes in the door, and you’re like, “Yes!”
What are your go-to Vancouver restaurants?
Ramen, for sure: I go to Marutama around the corner from Forage. I can nip out for a quick bite there, and it always hits the spot. If I’m splurging I love to go to L’Abattoir — and Campagnolo because the chef there, Robert Belcham, spoils us and brings out all the obscure things like his one-year cultured butters, all that kind of thing, and it’s great to feel special and eat awesome food!
What do newbies need to know about foraging?
Urban foraging is catching on, but I recommend you get a region-specific book to help you identify things. If you’re not sure, definitely don’t guess, especially when it comes to mushrooms.
The most important thing is to be respectful of what you find and where it is: If you see something in a marsh, don’t cross the marsh. Go ’round instead; you don’t want to disturb fragile ecosystems, and never over-pick.
My rule is to take just 10 percent of what you see and then move on; just because you find a massive patch of berries doesn’t mean you have to take it all. You have to be thoughtful about the creatures that need those foods to survive in the wild.
What foraged flavors excite you the most?
I love pine mushrooms; they are one of the most aromatic, flavorful mushrooms. Lamb’s tongue (the plant) is great. It’s a leafy green with a saltiness to it. It’s briny, which is neat as it’s not even grown near the ocean. I love seaweeds and sea asparagus, too; they’re salty and crunchy and great for pickling.
And of course, wild berries: saskatoons and huckleberries when they’re ripe. There is nothing more intense than those flavors when they’re freshly picked.
What’s the one thing visitors to Vancouver need to do?
Everyone’s gotta walk the seawall. The views are stunning; you see the North Shore mountains, the Lion’s Gate Bridge, Stanley Park and the Downtown core.
The great thing about Vancouver is that you can feel really remote quick, get out into the trees, and that’s such a calming, relaxing thing. Generally, hikes around here that take you on any elevation will take you somewhere with spectacular scenery.