Interview: Sooke Harbour House Head Gardener Byron Cook Discusses Collaborating with Chefs, Cooking, Seaweed and Surprises

  • Home
  • People
  • Interview: Sooke Harbour House Head Gardener Byron Cook Discusses Collaborating with Chefs, Cooking, Seaweed and Surprises
Gardener Vancouver Island


How’s your relationship been with chef Robin [Jackson]?

Terrific. He’s a great guy. He’s always been easy to get along with. He wanted something today. I’ll show you. He wanted arugula flowers. This is the other type of arugula, which is an annual arugula. The other one’s a perennial. So he wanted half a liter of these, which is about 200, maybe 250. And I just said, “Robin, I’m trying to save arugula flowers for seed. If I pick all the arugula flowers off, I’m not going to get any seed off the pods.” He said, “Okay, whatever, bring me something else.” So it’s up to me to find him something else. I got him pea flowers, which I knew he’d love. We work well together. If we don’t have what they want, I can tell them and sometimes I’ll offer suggestions about something. But usually just let them make up their own minds.

Garden Vancouver Island
Do you enjoy cooking?

Yeah. I’m not very good at it, even though my name’s Cook. My father was a cook. He wasn’t a chef, he was a cook, worked in cafeterias and things like that. And he was a butcher. And I have a background in food from the South. I still have a tendency, if I want some comfort food, I cook Southern. But Robin seems to know everything about everybody’s cooking. For such a young guy, he’s got amazing knowledge.

He seems really committed. He was talking about traveling to South America.

Oh yeah. I still haven’t talked to him a whole lot about that trip, but he brought a bunch of seeds back. The tuberous nasturtium, he went exactly to the area where that grows. I was hoping he would find more tubers to bring back…It was the wrong time of year, because none of them were growing. All of them had been harvested. Because when he went there it was mid winter, and it was mid summer there. So he was able to find seeds, a lot of weird pepper seeds. A lot of different seeds.

How do you think those will work out?

We’ll have to grow them in a greenhouse. We just don’t have the heat for peppers. Any kind of pepper. I find small hot peppers can ripen outside. Big bell peppers, there’s no point. We do salad greens all winter long without any problem at all. You can do herbs, parsley, cilantro and chervil all winter long. Just count your blessings and hope you can find a greenhouse to put your tomatoes in.

Sculpture Vancouver Island
How much land are you maintaining around the property?

Well there’s about two and a half acres around the property, but not all of it’s under cultivation. A lot of it’s perennials, things like that. This is tamed. 30 years, this has been tamed. It has raised beds. It’s just straight lines, but as soon as you don’t keep it up, it’s gone, right back to pasture.

Have you become familiar with some of the ocean plants too?

Some of them. Sea asparagus, and some of the seaweeds. We have something called land seaweed, which seems like an oxymoron. We just transferred it to pots.

It has nothing to do with the water?

I don’t think so. Somebody just gave me the seed, which is the way it usually works.

You’re still getting surprised by some of the plants?

Oh yeah, all the time.

Do people bring you plants?

They bring me plants. I give plants away. Three years ago we got this tuberous saxatilis, which is another South American plant. Robin actually prefers that one. It’s a bright pink tuber about that long [measures with fingers]. It tastes like that begonia flower you ate, it’s very acidic, like chewing on rhubarb. It’s got great texture, and seems to keep better than any of the other roots. I’m trying to devote more time and more space to that than to the nasturtium, which not everybody likes. It’s a very interesting plant.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Leave a Comment