Josh Houston’s passion for finding food in the forest
Josh Houston, forager and chef, Toque Catering (Photo courtesy Toque Catering)
Josh Houston no longer buys lettuce from the store. Why would he, when he can gather all the greens he needs, for free, from the plants that grow around his neighbourhood?
Miner's lettuce, stinging nettle, wild mint, chickweed, sorrel and many more leafy greens grow in abundance around Vancouver Island. All it takes is some education about edible plants, a keen eye and a willingness to pick — rather than purchase — your produce.
“There's so much food growing in urban areas — not even just in the wild — that nobody knows about,” says Josh as he feeds his one-year-old son hand-crafted spaghetti bolognaise (made with grass-fed beef). “I have a pound-and-a-half of foraged greens in my fridge right now that we picked two days ago," he adds.
Miner's lettuce (Photo by NatureShutterbug)
As a chef and forager, Josh dedicates much of his time to edibles. He traces the origin of his passion for foraging to his days as a Scout, where he had his first taste of “bushcraft,” and to picking the prolific blackberries that grow in this region. But what truly sent him down the foraging path was the inspiration of his friend and collaborator, Nicholas Waters, and a course he took at Royal Roads led by ethnobotanist Abe Lloyd.
“There is so much wild food on Vancouver Island that you won’t go hungry as long as you know what you can eat.”
Stinging nettle (Photo by Martin Fisch)
Through courses and lots of practice, Josh learned the practical aspects of foraging: what plants and fungi are edible (and what will make you sick), where to look for wild foods, how to choose the best parts of the plants and how to harvest sustainably. He finds wild delicacies everywhere, from the Sitka forests of Port Renfrew to the seashores of Sooke and Jordan River, to the urban landscape of Victoria. His favourite wild crop remains the first thing he ever foraged: chanterelle mushrooms.
Chanterelle (Photo by iwona_kellie)
“I recognized it right away,” he says, referring to the distinct fluted form and golden colour of chanterelles. “They are so tasty and you can do so much with them. They dry really well too, so you can keep them for a long time. I still have some dried chanterelles from last year in my kitchen.”
Working with foraged foods also gives an edge to his culinary offerings, adding a unique twist to his menus. Rather than cooking with traditional rhubarb for example, Josh might instead opt to use Japanese knotweed. He harvests this fast-growing, invasive plant from sites around Saanich where it can damage the native ecology.
Unlike when foraging native plants, Josh will harvest all of an invasive plant in an area to help control its spread. He is keenly aware of the need to protect natural ecosystems and wild spaces for the food that they provide.
“If we don't have nature conservation, we won't have these foods,” he says. “We need to be sustainable in our approach to foraging, never picking more than 50 percent of a patch.”
As part of his commitment to sustainability, Josh participated in a special Earth Day dinner at Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse in Saanichton on April 22. Farmed & Foraged: an Earth Day Feast was a fundraiser for the Nature Conservancy of Canada and featured Josh's unique menu, prepared in collaboration with Nicholas Waters of Toque Catering, and paired with Sea Ciders craft-made ciders.
Josh Houston has worked at many restaurants around Victoria, notably at The Westin Bear Mountain Hotel as Executive Sous Chef. He is now passing on his passion for cooking to students at the Esquimalt High School culinary arts program.