Eric and Michelle Whitehead are the founders of Untamed Feast. I’ve been buying their products for years but only recently learned their headquarters are in Alberta.
I love writing about the Food Artisans of Alberta. They enhance the food culture of this place, make our lives more interesting and, they make our food more TASTY. Let me tell you why I love this company.
Untamed Harvest harvests, dries and sells wild foods. They also create a variety of ready to cook meals featuring their wild ingredients. They define wild food as food that is not farmed or planted. It grows, ripens, and is harvested in its natural environment. Food like this is beyond organic. It’s filled with vitamins and minerals derived from the rich, un-depleted soil.
Mushrooms are an obvious example of wild foods but seaweed, berries, spruce tips, dried edible flowers, herbs and barks are others. About 50 percent of Untamed Feast’s wild foods come from Alberta’s boreal forests. The mantra of my company Alberta Food Tours is Eat Alberta First and it doesn’t get any more Albertan than the wild foods that grow here. So, this food is a great fit for the way I want to live. Eric and Michelle Whitehead have built an extraordinary company but let’s look at how it all began.
Eric and Michelle Whitehead came by their love of wild food naturally. Eric grew up in Kleena Kleene, B.C. – a 10 hour drive to the north interior from Vancouver via Williams Lake. Michelle grew up in St. Paul, Alberta. Both had families with knowledge of wild foods and foraging and that knowledge was passed down to them.
Eric says, “When I was a teen, my Ukrainian grandmother would drag me out with her to look for pine mushrooms. That was long before they were a thing. She also loved Shaggy Manes. My parents taught me a few other mushrooms but we stayed clear of everything else.”
Now, he knows about 100 edible mushrooms of the 4500 – 5000 that grow in North America. But, he says, “Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s incredible!” According to Eric, “There’s really only about 10 or 12 mushrooms that are worth harvesting for the flavour they deliver – especially if you are harvesting them commercially.”
From harvesting to feasting
In a classic small world story, Eric and Michelle Whitehead did not meet in Canada. By chance, they met half a world away while at a yoga retreat in Thailand. Initially, they lived on Vancouver Island. Eric was working in silviculture and says, “I could spot chanterelles from the tree tops.” So he returned to the logging roads on weekends to forage for mushrooms. Michelle, who was working for Parks Canada would often join him. They sold the mushrooms to companies who then sold them internationally in Asia and Europe.
One season, they were harvesting Matsutaki mushrooms (those Pine mushrooms his grandma loved) near Bella Coola, B.C. and the bottom fell out of the market. The prices were really low. So, the couple decided not to sell. Instead, they dried their harvest and began selling the dried products to Canadian restaurants. They had an epiphany that very few Canadians had eaten these foods that grow in our own backyard. They saw an opportunity and the idea for Untamed Feast was born.
Landing in Alberta
“We used to tour around Western Canada loaded down with a generator and huge dryer. We’d pick, clean, slice and dry everything ourselves as we travelled through the season – every spring through fall. One year, we came through Alberta and saw our daughter having a great time with her 10 cousins. We decided this is what we wanted for her. I grew up in such an isolated place. I didn’t want that for her. So, we moved to St. Albert to be near Michelle’s family.”
The move worked out well for many reasons. They discovered how much easier it was to travel to many of their boreal foraging places from Alberta versus the south end of Vancouver Island, saving them days of travel each year. It also facilitated collaboration with Michelle’s brother Matthew Cabaj, an Edmonton based multidisciplinary designer, who’s helps with branding and packaging. And, best of all, Alberta has a large Eastern European immigrant population who love and know what to do with mushrooms.
Scaling up – organically – of course!
As Untamed Feast got bigger, Eric put in years of training crews across the west. He taught field leaders to manage their own crews, where to pick and how to harvest to Untamed Feast’s specifications. After about a decade, he was able to step back from being in the field every year.
“2016 was the last time I led a crew. Now, I have about five trusted suppliers and I’m more of a consultant.” He admits it’s much more relaxing. “We have one local employee who comes in a few days a week to help with processing year round here in St. Albert. Other than that we are still a small family run business.” It could have gone a completely different way for the Whiteheads.
In 2013, they appeared on Canada’s Dragon’s Den show where entrepreneurs pitch live to potential investors. Successful in their pitch, they got a deal with famed “foodie Dragon” Arlene Dickensen. However, after about a year of due diligence, they chose not to complete the partnership deal. Eric says, “We’re happy with our decision. We’ve grown organically at our own pace and without the intense pressure that comes from escalating at that level.” They’ve also maintained control of the direction of their company by going it on their own.
One of the biggest questions in the ability to scale up for a foraging-based company is supply. Is there a limit to how much can be foraged? “There’s so much out there but it can be hard to access and it is so labour intensive,” says Michelle. Morel mushrooms are a great example.
Morels are usually plentiful a year after a forest fire hits a region. In years where there aren’t many forest fires, there won’t be many morels the following year. Those years, Eric must hold the supply he has for his online business instead of wholesaling to grocers. Otherwise, mushrooms are unique because most of the time, they are completely sustainable and renewable when they are picked with care. And, a few of Untamed Feast’s products are very scalable.
Recipes for success
Several of Untamed Feast’s products are scalable because of their imperfections. “We use the ‘ugly’ ones to make our mushroom meat and mushroom sauce products. It doesn’t matter if they’re imperfect looking because they’re ground up anyway.”
From Porcini Risotto and Morel Coconut Rice to Smoked Chanterelle Rice with Sun-dried Tomatoes, Mushroom Soups and Dry Rubs, Eric and Michelle Whitehead have tested and developed all their own recipes. “We had to get there on our own. And, we’ve managed to do YouTube videos, photography, styling and branding and have it all look good.”
Since the pandemic, they’ve lost the ability to sell direct at farmers’ markets, trade shows and Christmas markets. But, they’ve seen their online business increase.
It’s not surprising. The Whitehead’s “why” is making it possible for Canadians to eat the wild foods of this land. Their market is here. So, perhaps they’re reaping the rewards for their focus on staying domestic.
As our conversation winds down, I hear a crow cawing in the background. Eric says, “I’m enjoying some time in the outdoors today.” I ask about plans for the summer and if his daughter likes foraging?
“She’s 12 now and loves her friends and her cell phone. I don’t know if she’ll appreciate having spent her childhood foraging with her parents. It’s funny, I didn’t enjoy all that time in the wilderness when I was growing up but now I crave time where there’s no cell phone.”
Maybe that full circle admission is a good place to end this story. You can take the human out of the wilderness but you can’t take the wilderness out of the human. I know, the more I eat wild foods, the more they help me savour it all.
NOTE: This is NOT a sponsored post. This is editorial content, not advertorial. I love to write about Food Artisans of Alberta. With them we are stronger so I do my bit to support them. All photos for this piece are supplied by Untamed Feast.