Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
MORESBY ISLAND, HAIDA GWAII, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Mushrooms have been known to create episodes that lead to hilarious laughter. So it was for Joseph Kennard and Brodie Swanson on a trip earlier this year to the forests of Haida Gwaii. They weren’t hallucinating, however; they just thought they were.
“We found this field full of wild oyster mushrooms. Brodie whacked at a tree and they just rained down on me,” says Kennard, who is Swanson’s sous chef at Ocean House, a new luxury resort lodge that opened in June in a secluded inlet on an island west of Alaska. “I was just laughing out loud. These sell for $25 a pound in the city. Here, we could have as many as we wanted.”
Of all the exceptional aspects of Haida Gwaii, it is the archipelago’s bounty of food that may be the most compelling reason to visit now. On a planet where food prices are soaring — especially for seafood — Haida Gwaii is not only a food lover’s paradise, it is a reminder of what human life used to be like in a time before sustainability was top of mind. In many restaurants, chefs and their suppliers must comb deep for menu items, and then locate the nerve to present tilapia and farm-raised salmon as fine-dining choices.
In contrast, Haida Gwaii, the group of islands swimming in the Pacific on the northwest coast of British Columbia, teems with delicious, decadent foods that are prepared and served amid colossal trees, in territory sacred to the Indigenous community.
“It’s a cook’s dream,” Swanson says of his home. He also calls it “xuux” — a Haida word for awesome that the chef has adopted as a colloquial term for his own way of looking at life’s best moments.
Haida Gwaii’s food experiences are a wonder for any traveller, too. During a boat tour, members of Ocean House’s crew pulled up a trap they had placed into the waters a day earlier. It was loaded with Dungeness crabs clawing to come out. A similar sight was witnessed when the container that lured spot prawns was raised. The prawn trap was laden with the delicacy and several of them were the the size of small lobsters. You’ll find sea urchins that can be popped open and eaten on a dock, their creamy texture easily scooped out by a pair of fingers. Gooseneck barnacles, which are so coveted around the world harvesters risk their lives trying to snatch them, are often passed over in Haida Gwaii, because Pacific geoduck is tastier, larger, and easier to seize.
Haida Gwaii is also rich in medicinal products and Swanson incorporates those ingredients in his cooking. A salmon is covered with spruce tips, a healthy plant the flavour of lemon, and sea asparagus coats a serving of lingcod.
Such cuisine gives another reason to visit Haida Gwaii — for flavours you may not have ever tasted, or certainly haven’t savoured in this way.
At Ocean House, these dishes are enjoyed while gazing out at Peel Inlet, watching calm waters and rising trees fill your eyes with sensations that are a fitting match for the food on your plate. The tastes immerse you in nature as much as any culinary experience of this calibre can. As Swanson explains, the food is also a window into the Haida culture, which is best known for its artwork and totem poles.
“For me the abundance of food is why we have such a rich and thriving culture. It’s what allowed us to have these long houses and architecture, and the ability to make our art. Without food, you can’t have any of these things. You need to eat in order to first survive and then to achieve the things you want to,” says Swanson, who was raised in Haida Gwaii when it used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands, and spent eight years cooking in Vancouver restaurants before being hired at Ocean House.
To his credit, he doesn’t overdo the food with culinary fire. Instead, he lets the ingredients shine on their own, with some light seasoning and carefully crafted accompaniments. Restraint is a difficult trait for any young chef to acquire but especially so for one working with new recipes. Swanson explains that he didn’t know the food of his people until recently because the culture of the Haida was suppressed during the residential school period in Canada.
“I didn’t know what Haida traditional food was because we lost a lot of our population. It was taken away. The food I grew up eating was like instant Bisquick that you throw onto a pan. That kind of thing, no flavour or nutrition at all,” Swanson says. “Now, with this place, the idea is to be able to show what we have here. And if it turns out that we become a destination for the food we have in Haida Gwaii — that would be amazing.”
MORE ABOUT VISITING OCEAN HOUSE
Getting There: Ocean House Lodge is accessed via a charter flight from Vancouver International Airport’s South Terminal that takes guests to Sandspit Airport on Moresby Island. From there, passengers connect to Ocean House via float plane or helicopter.
Rates: Ocean House includes three-night ($4,410 per guest), four-night ($5,880), and seven-night ($8,810) packages.