Tyler Gray learned how to forage for food from his mother.
"She grew up in a locavore family, except they didn't call it that," he says. "They called it being poor."
Thanks to her, Gray, born and raised in the small village of Sechelt, B.C., population 8,455, grew up hungry in a different sense, developing a voracious appetite for all things wild and edible. "I feel it's my calling," he says.
What was an early mother-and-son bonding experience has blossomed into a full-time career as a professional forager. If in his mother's day foraging was an act of desperation, it's now a status symbol. Since co-founding nine-year-old Mikuni Wild Harvest, a Vancouver-based boutique food company selling rare foraged foods to celebrity chefs, five-star kitchens and specialty food shops across North America, Gray has been profiled in mass-market glossies such as Time, Men's Vogue, Details, New York Magazine and Wine & Spirits.
He's also been a guest judge on Iron Chef America and was named taste maker of the year by Food & Wine Magazine for helping kick-start a new culinary movement that today is growing faster than fungi on a forest floor.
Mushrooms, in fact, are what initially fed the dapper 36-year-old forager's reputation as a natural food connoisseur.
He started out selling wild foraged black trumpet chanterelles and matsutake, along with fiddleheads, wild lettuces and caviar licorice root, to leading restaurants in Vancouver early in the decade. He quickly attracted the attention of foodies and small food producers who, encouraged by the inroads he was making in the boutique food industry, were eager to follow his lead.
Mikuni – the word is Japanese for beautiful forest – has expanded its offerings to include herbal martinis, tonics and condiments, including bourbon oak vinegar and Tahitian vanilla bean maple syrup, which it sells through its online gourmet shop.
"I think it's safe to say that we're definitely one of the pioneers in the boutique food industry," says Gray, who's also working on a TV show about foraging for National Geographic. "We've done a lot to connect the consumer to wild foraged foods. Ten years ago you couldn't find a wild mushroom in a grocery store, but now you can."