Words by Lindsay Vermeulen

Hiro Takeda once fed his sister live ants. It wasn’t a prank; they were a garnish on a dessert he made: a cheesecake with baked meringue, Douglas fir kombucha, and seasonal berries, to be precise. “They have a very citrusy flavour to them,” Takeda explains. “A very soft lemon flavour. A lot of people use ingredients like that just for wow factor…but ants is one of those ingredients where it has a very distinct and really delicious flavour.”

Takeda foraged the ants near Hope, BC, where he is chef and owner at 293 Wallace Street restaurant. The collection process is simple: “You put a piece of parchment paper on top of the hill, and you take the ants off of the parchment paper…When it’s really nice and sunny out they’re a lot more active, so that’s when you want to get them.”

His ant dessert was inspired by dishes served at Noma, a prestigious restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. “They were using the ants whole to put on raw langoustines. Citrus and seafood go very well together, so that was a play on that.” Last year, Takeda was one of 120–130 chefs selected for an internship at the award-winning restaurant. Close to 5,000 people applied.

Rene Redzepi, the head chef of Noma, is known for his commitment to showcasing northern ingredients. “He did a lot of foraging,” Takeda explains. “His menu represents everything Nordic. Coming from a landscape and a region where the growing season is very short, and there’s not a lot there, he’s transformed some of the humble ingredients into stars of the plate.”

The approach seems to be working: “They do a maximum of 45 guests in their restaurant for lunch and dinner, five days a week, and they charge I think just a little bit less than $300 a person. They’re booked three months in advance, full every day, and they have people who come from all over the world to eat there. Some make special trips just to eat there, and they’ll leave the next day.”

Before leaving for the internship, Takeda needed to fundraise for the trip. He held a fundraising dinner, and in the spirit of Noma, he decided to use foraged ingredients in his menu. He connected with local forager Justin Brown, one of the owners of Wild Forest Food Co. Since returning from the internship, Takeda has become more focused on foraging and incorporating wild ingredients in his work.

Paying His Dues

Takeda has been cooking professionally for about twelve years. After high school he did an apprenticeship at Newlands Golf & Country Club in Langley, and then he worked at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. He did show dinners in their lounge for Rocky Mountaineer tours, and spent a few months at Diva at the Met. He left the city in 2010 to work as an assistant cook at Squeah Camp and Retreat Centre just outside of Hope. His contract was for six months, but he ended up staying an additional three years as Head Chef.

“That was a very pivotal experience in my life, where I was able to learn how to manage people. I was working mainly with a group of volunteers. Most of them had very little to no cooking experience, and most of them didn’t really want to become chefs or anything like that…we really made everything from scratch there, and we worked very hard. So I had to find some kind of reason behind why they were doing the work they were doing. I tried to incorporate teaching life skills into the kitchen environment.”

During his time at Camp Squeah Takeda met Jason Harper, the chef of a restaurant in Hope called Joe’s Restaurant and Lounge. He and Harper decided to buy the restaurant from the previous owners, and they began operating on May 1, 2013. A year later they changed the name to 293 Wallace Street Restaurant, and around the same time Takeda bought Harper’s share of the restaurant.

A Strict Japanese Upbringing

Good food has always had a prominent place in Takeda’s life. “My dad was a chef for a long time. One of his main jobs was at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver… My mom did the daily cooking, and she was a fantastic cook as well. So I grew up eating really, really good food.

“My parents met in Canada, but they’re originally from Japan, so I grew up in a pretty strict Japanese household. We ate a lot of food that would be quite foreign to most peers that I had growing up. I definitely remember going to school with bento boxes, rice and seaweed and fish and that kind of thing, and people would be eating cheese sandwiches and looking over and seeing what I was eating.”

Takeda’s Japanese heritage has influenced his cooking to some degree: “I’m very comfortable with [Japanese] ingredients in terms of flavour profile. The Japanese use quite a lot of different fermented ingredients and pickled goods.” At the moment he is focusing on cooking more Western food: “Part of the reason is the market in Hope—we have three sushi restaurants here.”

He attributes much of his professional success to his upbringing. “I grew up, like I said, in a very strict household where we were expected to have very good grades, expected to work very hard…the discipline of perfecting every little thing that you do, and working hard to become the best at what you’re doing, really influenced cooking in general for me. To push forward and actually learn to cook really well, and open a restaurant, and have that dream come to reality—the origins of that were based on the culture that I grew up in.”

“My dad just retired in June of 2014, the same day that I took over the restaurant. So that was a really cool phone call.”

The Challenges of Going Wild

Many restaurants are deterred from serving wild foods because of their seasonality. An ingredient may only be available for a short period of time each year, which makes it necessary to change the menu frequently. This can be labour-intensive and costly. “In North America, I don’t think we’re really in tune with or appreciate the idea of seasonality,” says Takeda. “All year round, if you want a tomato on your burger, you’re expecting to get a tomato on your burger. But really good tomatoes aren’t available year round.”

Takeda has found a few ways to get around this challenge. One is the restaurant’s fresh sheet, which changes every three weeks to two months. “It doesn’t make sense for us to put stinging nettle on our regular menu because it’s not available all year, and so we use a fresh sheet as an opportunity to feature some of those seasonal ingredients.” Another is his Monday Night Tastings series, where the regular menu is replaced by a set menu that changes every week. The entire team comes together to brainstorm and create new dishes.

“Small farms and small suppliers…can’t handle supplying us with proteins and vegetables for our busy season or for our regular menu; we are able to now showcase them using this formula.”

Takeda also manages to source some locally grown foods out of season thanks to his friends at You Grow Food, an aquaponics farm. “They’re growing some interesting stuff, like shiso and lemongrass, three different types of basil, mizuna, arugula, that kind of stuff, so we get a lot of cool products from them.”

A Sustainable Future

Going forward, Takeda is committed to incorporating more wild and foraged ingredients in his cooking, and doing so in a sustainable way. “We’re always thinking about sustainability and making sure we’re harvesting properly so the crops grow back. We never take more than a small percentage of what we find in a spot. Part of the philosophy is, we want to enjoy these things, but we want to make sure they come back every year. We don’t want to be part of changing the ecosystem in a negative way by taking too much of something in one spot.”

He’s also focusing on simplifying his dishes a bit. “Since coming back from Noma…we’ve tried to make our dishes a little bit more simple. My style was always to put a lot of components onto a plate and now I’m doing that less, and letting the few ingredients that are on the plate shine.”

He hopes that his restaurant will continue to be an important part of the local dining community. “[Hope is] a very slow market, but we’re trying to be a restaurant that’s progressive and forward-thinking. We have a pretty cool following of young up-and-coming young families and young people in town, people who are really following what we’re doing with a lot of interest…We want to be a restaurant that changes their menu all the time, and we want to keep in mind seasonality and creativity.”

Takeda focuses on the future not just of the environment, but also of his staff and the restaurant industry. “Our team is a very young team with very little experience, but we’d like to think that we’re cooking pretty high-quality food that’s done well, using a lot of different techniques…We want to essentially create a kitchen culture in Hope. We want to be the employer where, if a young person in Hope wants to become a chef, then they have a local restaurant they can go to to learn some skills, to move forward and be successful."