Crush Chats with Forager & La Residence Executive Chef, Gregory Henderson

Words: Robyn Samuels

South Africa is a biodiversity trove filled with wild and indigenous ingredients waiting to be explored – an undertaking that forager and chef, Gregory Henderson, is committed to. We had the honour of catching up with him at The Plant Powered Show, where he shared stories about foraging as a child and his life’s adventures. Join the conversation.

chef Gregory Henderson

Interview with Gregory Henderson

With an illustrious career as a chef, Gregory Henderson has a deep knowledge of seasonal produce and indigenous ingredients, but his expertise extends far beyond, thanks to his love for people and collaboration. Through groundbreaking movements such as The Wild Food Revolution and Chefs for Conservation, Henderson has committed himself to educating audiences about local produce with the help of indigenous peoples.

His books, An Edible Overberg Tapestry (Part I), and Wild and Indigenous Foods of South Africa, Strandveld, beautifully detail his life’s quests. Recently appointed as the Executive Chef at La Residence (part of The Royal Portfolio) in Franschhoek, Gregory combines his curiosity with creativity, purveying stories through food.

What sparked your interest in foraging?

I grew up in a small town called King Williamstown, where I was exposed to a lot of indigenous fruits through the community and friends. It was a transitional time in the country, where we became more multicultural and started embracing that by learning about different cultures and their food. When I became a chef, I wasn’t very happy with the ingredients I got from suppliers; tomatoes didn’t taste like the tomatoes I came to know.

After tasting indigenous foods that were highly favourable and nutritious, it really inspired me to start curating my menus; both from a flora and fauna point of view, but also embracing something that’s more regenerative within our ecosystem. Part of the dining experience at restaurants is telling stories about where our food comes from.

chef Gregory Henderson

Have you ever mistaken a psychedelic mushroom for an edible mushroom in your earlier days of foraging?

Absolutely! We were naughty when we were kids, so we used to look for those ones. But when we foraged mushrooms, we got lessons from a very old traveller named Ben Decker; he told us what was edible and what was poisonous. There are many mushrooms in South Africa that won’t kill you – something I have learned the hard way (a good reset within my brain) but it also helped me educate others. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t know what you’re doing; knowledge is always key. The best way to get that local knowledge is from individuals that know more about it, and have a deeper understanding.

What inspired you to start The Wild Food Revolution?

The Wild Food Revolution came about during Covid, which especially impacted food-insecure communities. I believe that nobody should experience hunger. The platform was self-funded, which allowed me to give back to the communities and people within Southern Africa. It was also part of an NGO project where we wanted to start recapitalising and regaining touch with the heritage and cultures of South Africa. Through using these indigenous ingredients, we can establish sustainable food supply chains and create a more nutritional and circular food system, from restaurants to communities and supermarkets.

You’re always working on exciting projects, like Chefs for Conservation. How is it different from other projects?

Chefs within Southern Africa and globally, have the opportunity to change the entire agricultural food system, provided we work together to restore crops, as opposed to pulling everything out from the soil. Chefs for Conservation brings everybody together, fostering opportunities and potential collaborations – there’s no room for ego here. It also gives people the chance to work towards a common goal instead of being individual organisations.

You’re involved in various outreach programmes. What’s the importance of engaging with indigenous communities?

So, everything I do is pro bono basically, and everything goes back to those communities as well, even the books that I’ve published. All of this helps me to do my research to continue writing other books. But it’s also about telling the indigenous communities and the First Nation people’s story. It’s one of the reasons I stopped doing my foraging tours because they weren’t my stories to tell. I need to be the custodian and the platform for people to engage with these communities to tell their stories.

For a long time, researchers have profited from and haven’t given proper recognition to these communities. So, we need to give them platforms to create dialogue with these people through the various organisations that we work with.

Congrats on your new post as Exec Chef at La Residence. What do you hope to bring to the team given your unique food approach?

Thank you. I’m always inspired by what’s around me – nature, history, ingredients, and there’s an abundance of the ingredients in Franschhoek, like botanicals that are also becoming endangered. I hope that we can inspire people to start investing in the right programs to respect ingredients such as honeybush that used to grow in the mountains, but have been through farming applications. It also gives a chance to educate and mentor the team to embrace the culture and heritage of the Franschhoek region.

What’s your favourite ingredient at the moment?

Right now, I’m loving all the tree nuts. Lowveld chestnuts have a very short lifespan, but they are exceptional – better than pine, marula and monkey orange nuts, in my opinion.

I’m always looking at salt amendments because salt in excess is not very good for our diet, so I’m also into Samphire. It grows only within certain regions within the Cape; it’s a highly salty vegetable, so you don’t have to add salt to your food. Through different foods and ingredients like Samphire, we can create different flavour profiles and textures by exploring indigenous ingredients and establishing authentic South African cuisine.

As someone passionate about community and sustainable eating, what excites you about The Plant Powered Show?

South Africa has become very divided in various industries, and the show allows people from all walks of life to network. The relationships built have created ongoing conversations; it’s not just a meet, greet and goodbye. Everybody’s trying to do the same thing, but through collaboration, we can create something bigger.

You can purchase Gregory Henderson’s books An Edible Overberg Tapestry (Part I), and Wild and Indigenous Foods of South Africa, Strandveld, at his website below. | Facebook | Instagram

Feeling inspired? Check out our Guide to Edible Mushrooms & How to Cook Them.

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