Eric Whitehead’s wild mushroom company, Untamed Feast, was inspired by his dad, and both his brother and wife are on staff. But it’s the solitude of a mountaintop, and time alone in a favourite porcini patch, where he truly finds bliss.
At Untamed Feast, Whitehead’s job extends beyond just picking and drying mushrooms to all aspects of the business: quality control, marketing, distribution, and packaging.
One of Eric Whitehead’s earliest memories came at three years old when his father arrived home on horseback to wake him and his sister up. The Whiteheads lived in British Columbia’s interior, in a one-room log cabin by the river that wasn’t accessible by car. “Dad said to us, ‘Guys, come outside, there’s something really special I want to show you,’” Whitehead recalls. “What he’d done was he’d brought back a really big red-top bolete mushroom and planted it in the garden. He told us, ‘This magic mushroom grew in the yard just overnight.’”
Three decades later, Whitehead cites this memory as an inspiration for Untamed Feast, the wild mushroom company that he owns and operates with his wife, Michelle. Whitehead grew up foraging mushrooms and his respect and admiration for fungi, which produce mushrooms as fruit, is palpable.
“Mushrooms protect trees and the trees give sugar to mushrooms,” the forager says from B.C.’s coastal mountains. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. Trees can feed their young through the mycelial organism [the branching, thread-like part of fungus]. It’s the glue that binds the forest together.”
The road that led Whitehead to Untamed Feast has been filled with detours. In his twenties he worked in the lumber industry and with his father as a commercial fisherman; he even trained to be a yoga instructor in Thailand, where he met his wife. He realized the potential for a wild-mushroom business only after seeing how pricey they were at high-end restaurants. “Wild mushrooms either seem to be a really upper-crust product or peasant food that people pick on their own,” says the 35-year-old forager, who is now based on Vancouver Island. “We wanted to bridge that gap.”
Resourcefulness: Growing up in a remote location, Whitehead saw his parents earn their living from the land. His father built log cabins, taught himself masonry, and became a commercial fisherman. His mother operates a B&B that offers warm stone massage and has a weaving business inside her house.
Flexibility: Before launching Untamed Feast, Whitehead worked as a timber cruiser, a fisherman, and had also trained to be a yoga instructor.
Empowerment: Whitehead’s deep personal knowledge of British Columbia’s remote mushroom patches helped him emancipate himself from the 9-to-5 grind. He also enables other self-reliant individuals to sell, harvest and buy wild products on www.wildtrader.ca
Untamed Feast now offers four types of mushrooms: morels, porcini, chanterelles, and a “forest blend.” Their products are used in high-end establishments like the Empress Hotel and Sooke Harbour House and have been included in the Deerholme Farm and Sea Salt cookbooks. To meet growing demand, Whitehead and his team of 14 foragers travel throughout B.C. and as far away as the Northwest Territories and Flin Flon, Manitoba to collect 10,000 pounds of them a year for projected revenues of $260,000. (When dried, those mushrooms are reduced to a tenth of that weight.)
“It’s like being six years old and going on an Easter Egg hunt,” he says about his job. “You’ve got to be a bit of a gambler.”
A forager typically protects his mushroom patches from others but Whitehead is transparent about his work. He uploads instructional videos on YouTube and posts the coordinates of his campsites on Twitter. “We want to empower people to gather their own food,” he says. “We don’t keep a lot of secrets.” Whitehead has also launched a separate website, Wild Trader, to connect the buyer to the harvester without a middleman. “It’s like a Kijiji for wild products.”
At Untamed Feast, Whitehead’s job extends beyond just picking and drying mushrooms to all aspects of the business: quality control, marketing, distribution, and packaging. For help, he’s made Untamed Feast a family enterprise. His wife, Michelle, helps with picking and with writing and editing their website (designed by her brother), while Whitehead’s father assists with harvesting. Even Eric and Michelle’s four-year-old daughter, Mila, has visited the camp and can name types of mushrooms.
“I need three more hours a day and one day off,” Whitehead says. “When you’re an entrepreneur, it never stops.” Relaxation, Whitehead’s “me time,” comes in the four months of the year when he’s in the forest harvesting. “Tonight I’ll be on the top of the mountain laying out the tent and I’ve got four days in my favourite porcini patch,” adds the entrepreneur. “I get to sleep under the stars and turn my phone off—well, mostly.”