News | 4 April 2024
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A passion for plants, kai, and kōrero

Imagine heading out into the wilderness and surviving on nothing but the food you can find along your path. Food foraging – and then finding creative ways to prepare the kai – is Bart Cox’s passion.

Man smiling infront of the water.

Wellington foodies may recognise Bart as one of the founding owners of Sweet Mother’s Kitchen.

But after 20 years in hospitality as a business owner and chef, he’s branched out – these days working as a threatened plant species specialist.

After studying ecology and biodiversity and working for the Department of Conservation and Greater Wellington Regional Council, he joined Wellington City Council’s Urban Ecology team, building the partnership with mana whenua to support the city’s wonderful and sometimes rare, threatened plant species.

Bart works closely with mana whenua, ensuring meaningful engagement takes place when liaising on projects. Often these discussions, or wānanga, take place away from the corporate world on a marae. Beyond his work at the Council, and to complement this mahi, Bart has built an initiative that brings his love of food to these events around Pōneke.

“We take an extra step, where we respond or cook to the kaupapa. So we write recipes that reflect the nature of the kaupapa, and of course indigenous ingredients are often the stars. In preparation we forage for a whole range of mostly native ingredients to use.”

Bart began foraging in his younger days, taking “epic walks around the coast”.

“I just wanted to access that spirit of nature and get out of the built-up environment. After a while it just occurred to me that I'd just try and get all of my food on my travels. On these trips I would only ever bring a few kūmara, just to make sure that I had something in case.

Close up of a track going through the bush.
Ōtari-Wilton's Bush, one of Bart's favourite places, featuring remnants of the forest once common across Wellington.

“And I'd start learning by just talking to locals I bumped into, finding out what's edible and what's not. My dad was a hunter and gatherer too, so I’d learnt from him. I'd bring a few hooks, I even had a bow and arrow at one point for rabbits and possums. And then sometimes a mask, so I could dive for a kai as well.”

Bart, who also has an arts degree in te reo Māori and linguistics, says he’s always been a natural cook.

“Cooking for people – that's one of my great pleasures in life. And you can bring just a few ingredients together that you've managed to find in the environment, and it's like, wow, that was so delicious. One thing I love is when people try my cooking and then say ‘seriously, can you really eat that!?’”

But Bart says foragers must be mindful when heading out into the bush to gather kai. Some foods may be unhealthy to harvest due to pollution levels, disease or toxicity, and overcollection could harm the ecosystem.

“Do a bit of homework before taking things, as there can be significant damage to populations through over harvesting or not realising they are threatened already.

“There can be pressures on our reserves and our special places like our forest ecosystems, and that can be the case for foraged kai as well. We don't necessarily have an official guide around that sort of stuff, so it's on us all to research and find out whether the species that you want to forage is on the threatened species list.

“And maybe rather than eating it, if you really want to get involved and you want to eat it at some point, if you've got the time and resource then you could join a group who wants to try and bring it back. Or see if it's available at the garden centre and then start growing it in your backyard.”

Check out the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network website to find different species and their conservation status.

Working for Wellington  

We're always looking for people who share our passion for Wellington, and want to help us make our city an even better place to live, work and play. Find out about job vacancies, employee benefits, and what it’s like working for Wellington on our careers webpage.