Vancouver Outdoor Community Spotlight: Chef Robin Kort of Swallow Tail Tours

Chef Robin Kort of Swallow Tail Tours foraging on the beach

Chef Robin Kort of Swallow Tail Tours. Photo: Angela Fama Photography

Many of us are familiar with the sights, smells, and sounds of nature. But how many of us know what it tastes like? That’s where Chef Robin Kort of Swallow Tail Tours comes in. She offers foraging classes and tours both online and in-person to help us connect with wild foods.

Chef Robin started Swallow Tail Tours over a decade ago. The idea for the business grew out of her experience growing up in an outdoors family in Vancouver and her chef’s training. She explains, “I grew up in Vancouver… so a lot of hiking and tree identification and stuff like that with my dad. As I moved into cooking, it really defined my cuisine: Pacific Northwest cuisine, focusing on local ingredients. And the more I could forage for local ingredients, the cooler my menus got and the more interest that it generated. Bringing that connection [to wild foods] back to people that live here is a bit of my life’s goal.”

The idea of foraging can sound intimidating, but Chef Robin explains that it’s something that many of us already do: “Everyone picks blackberries – that’s foraging…. Foraging is the collecting of wild ingredients.” That can be anything from dandelions to mushrooms to seafood and plants.

While Swallow Tail tours can teach you to identify and prepare dozens of species, Chef Robin has a few personal favourites. “Harvesting uni, sea urchin, has been a real focus for me. They’re a native species, but they are over-productive so they can create urchin barrens… So I love collecting those because that brings back kelp forests, so it’s a sustainable thing as well as it is delicious. I make uni butter. It’s the parmesan of the sea. It’s delicious on pasta and steak.”

Harvested sea urchins on a rock next to the ocean

Harvesting sea urchins. Photo: Chef Robin Kort

“Mushrooms are my other favourite thing to forage, [especially] shrimp russula. They’re really cool because they can be the size of my head. They’re purple on the top, [with a] pink stem, and they smell like seafood. They’re a really firm-textured mushroom that’s really unique… [I love to] give them to other people to blow their minds that mushrooms can taste different than the button mushrooms you find in the grocery store.”

Swallow Tail Tours structures its classes and tours around the seasons. In fall, they “offer mushroom foraging classes. In winter we do sea foraging because that’s when you should eat seafood because that’s when it’s going to taste the best because the water is the cleanest and clearest… In spring, we move into plants, shoots, leaves, and edible weeds. In summer, [we forage for] berries.”

Chef Robin’s classes and tours teach participants which foods are edible and how to identify them. Her students “don’t know the ecosystem and they want to make sure that [the foods they are harvesting] are safe. So with mushrooms, we start with mushrooms that don’t have poisonous lookalikes and [ones that are] large enough to discern what they are and [are] distinctive enough looking that you won’t confuse them with anything else. It’s very easy to stay safe with these things, you just need a little start. And that’s what these courses are meant for – to give you the base to have that confidence.”

Chef Robin Kort of Swallow Tail Tours foraging for mushrooms

Chef Robin foraging for mushrooms. Photo: Angela Fama Photography

“When in doubt, throw it out,” is Chef Robin’s number one piece of advice for beginner foragers. “Make sure you can identify whatever you’re choosing to consume to the species level before you choose to consume it. Make sure you know all the poisonous lookalikes. I say with mushroom foraging, get to know a mushroom for a year before you choose to consume it. Because then you’re going back and hiking in the same area over and over again, and you’re seeing throughout the season different mushrooms pop up that might confuse you. So you’re really getting familiar with every single aspect of whatever you’re choosing to put in your body. A lot of us don’t have grandmothers that are passing down this information, so you really need to be aware. Or go with someone that knows.”

Sustainable foraging is also important to Chef Robin. She says she tries “not to harvest more than 20% of what I can see. If I find one mushroom hanging out in the forest, I don’t harvest it.” She likes to focus on foraging for invasive weeds like dandelions and watercress, or species that are over-productive, such as sea urchins. She also advises beginners to learn about the legalities of foraging. “You’re not allowed to harvest from BC parks, so make sure that you’re on Crown Land… [And make sure] you have your saltwater fishing license for harvesting seafood.”

In addition to classes and tours, Chef Robin also offers catering and pop-up dinners featuring foraged food. Look for a unique seafood foraging experience at 2022’s Dine Out Vancouver Festival. She also offers private crabbing trips that are great for families. You can learn how to fish for crab, and then how to prepare it.

Crabs in a crab trap on a Swallow Tail Tours trip in Vancouver

Harvesting crabs. Photo: Angela Fama Photography


Learn More about Chef Robin Kort and Swallow Tail Tours

Visit Swallow Tail’s website to register for tours and online courses. Be sure to sign-up for her member’s list to get updates on restaurant pop-ups and secret suppers.

Follow @swallowtailtours on Instagram and Swallow Tail Culinary Adventures on Youtube for a behind-the-scenes look at cooking with foraged foods.

You can also purchase Chef Robin’s cookbook, Coastal Foraging, through her website.


Chef Robin’s Vancouver Favourites

We also asked Chef Robin to give us her recommendations for outdoor adventures around Vancouver.

Chef Robin’s Favourite Vancouver Area Outdoor Destinations: “Lighthouse Park is one of the parks that I went to as a kid. We’d go there for swimming in the summer to jump off the rocks. [I would also recommend] Tower Beach [at UBC] for a polar bear swim in winter. I love going down there and taking a quick dip.”

Chef Robin’s Favourite Spot for Apres: “On the way home, I love going to Oddfish. It’s one of my favourite seafood restaurants. The people there are super sweet, and they have delicious food.”

Chef Robin’s Outdoor Advice for Beginners: “Curiosity is your best friend for foraging. When you go for a hike in the forest, you want to… get to the lookout. And when I started foraging, [I found that] it slows you down and it makes you look at all the little things that you’re just passing by. It becomes like a meditation. Slow down and take a look at all the little things that you’re missing as you hike.”

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