Forage chef Chris Whittaker.

Forage chef Chris Whittaker.

Plotting a course

Loving local and connecting communities, Chef Chris Whittaker shares his food for thought

Seasonal and smart, Forage is a restaurant for our age.

For its Executive Chef Chris Whittaker, the connection between food, body and soul is as natural as floating at the lake – in his case often fishing, more recently pad in hand.

“I love to sit on the lake, clear my head and fish. The last few years I picked up fly fishing which makes you slow down,” shares  Whittaker. “That’s my yoga. That was where the initial philosophy of Forage really came together.”

Formerly O’Doul’s Restaurant and Bar at Listel Hotel in Vancouver, they might have just changed the name and relaunched. After all, in the heart of the kitchen, Whittaker had been been growing his network of local suppliers and working wonders with local product for five years.

Instead, Forage is the rarest of things – a restaurant rethought and redesigned to match the ethos of a menu.

Naturally, that called upon more than a few good hands and some very smart local thinking. Teaming up for the project with the Green Table Network, BC Hydro and LiveSmart BC, Forage came together pretty much as imagined during those quiet moments on the lake – with Evoke Design providing their elemental touch to the room.

The modern lines and warm, reclaimed woods work no small wonders – and the squatting red monks in the interior garden provide ample food for thought. Anchored around a local wine and beer-tapped bar, in Forage, Whittaker has found his fit and a forum.

He explains, “Forage represents everything I care about – respect for our food sources, using what we need without excess waste and bringing a community together around good food. This is the restaurant I have dreamed of since starting my career as a chef.”

Fronting onto Robson Street, it is a room that encourages plenty of conversation. Understandably, that conversation is often centered on some of Forage’s most playful components: crispy kale and apple chips, pickled preserves and charcuterie, pork rinds and popcorn. All local. All delicious. Ethos intact, the conversation deepens as the menu progresses.

“When I talk to customers and trigger a memory with something on the plate, that inspires me. I know I’m doing my job when I do that,” says Whittaker.

The connection between food and fond memory has been a strong one all his life. From his earliest years in Thunder Bay, stripping his grandmother’s garden of the freshest peas and eating the sweet tops off the green onions, to his more recent forays in the farms and fields of British Columbia, eating local has served him well. It has led him to good places, a great network of local suppliers and serving others well in return.

Now married and living in Maple Ridge, with a 600 sq. ft. garden spread to tend, he plots his own inspiration. Rest assured, he treats his four beds as well as any table at the restaurant.

“Tomatoes, zucchinis, love ’em. We’ve got apple trees planted and put in an asparagus patch this year. We grow the squash along the drive where the concrete retains the heat. We’d been playing with garlic too, but after testing the soil saw it really strips the nitrogen phosphorus.”

Quite simply, good food makes Whittaker happy. There is a science to the art and the learning is perpetual. He could not be happier about whatever comes next. And always, his truest inspirations lie in the moment – however prickly said moment might first appear.

At present, he is beaming at a bowl of chilled nettles and quite obviously thrilled to do so. “We are the first to have them in fresh from the Sunshine Coast. As the first sign of spring, these are making me very happy.”

As the precursor to fiddleheads, morels, rhubarb and asparagus to come, they make him quietly ecstatic. It’s the story of food – and Whittaker knows it can make us all feel this good year round.

“Get to Farmers Markets. It’s never been easier to buy local as it is now. Meet people who are passionate enough to come out and share their products. When they can tell you which hill that grew on, you know you can trust that connection.”

Food, body, soul: here is your four course menu from Forage for spring.

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