The Emergence of the Foraging Chef
Let’s start with a timeline: Man is born. Man is hungry. Man begins foraging for his food before inventing basic tools that allow him to hunt and farm. A few thousand years later, man industrializes the system of food production. In the new millennium, man realizes that the old system wasn’t half bad and embraces the locavore movement. Finally in 2010, man takes local sourcing one step further: man returns to foraging.
What was once old is new again, as indicated by the increasing number of chefs who have embraced the ancestral practice of foraging in the past few years. Luckily, returning to square one doesn’t mean serving nuts and berries on a plate; modern developments in cooking have not been lost. Instead, our reconnection to the land and reversion to primitive traditions has, ironically, led to the next stage of contemporary cuisine. By combining this Old World approach with progressive techniques that enhance the remarkable qualities of wild ingredients, to the benefit of both diners and chefs, modern cuisine is being elevated to new heights.
The benefits of going wild
Whereas only a few decades ago, ingredients were valued for characteristics like how early they could be picked or how long they could stay on the shelf, it is clear that most chefs are moving away from this outdated attitude. With the profusion of “ingredient-driven” menus, value is now being placed on using the freshest, highest quality ingredients possible; ingredients often found close to home, in the wild. What makes wild ingredients superior to even their responsibly-farmed, biodynamic counterparts?
Executive Chef Josiah Slone of Sent Sovi explains it simply, “When you farm something, you have to set all the proper conditions to grow. But when something is wild, the right conditions must naturally exist. You don’t really set anything, it just happens.” Therefore, a foraged ingredient is the purest expression of that particular food; a quality which sets them apart. “Foraged ingredients are unique and interesting, and using them helps differentiate Sent Sovi from other restaurants. Because mulberries are usually too painstaking for most to pick, being one
of the only places getting them is a really special thing.” Including a simple mulberry granita on the menu, made solely with mulberries, simple syrup and vanilla bean, helps Sent Sovi’s menu stand out among restaurants with a locavore mission.
Similarly, for years Executive Chef David Kinch of Manresa has used foraging to help create his unique brand of cuisine, which pulls from a variety of cultural influences and uses local ingredients to create what he describes as, “Contemporary California.” While Chef Kinch values foraged ingredients for the fundamentally Californian nature they bring to his food, he points out an even greater advantage: it’s exciting for the diner. “The biggest benefit is the customer experience. When someone eats at my restaurant, I want to bring something to the table that they may not have ever tasted. I want to give them something new.” While ingredients such as flowering cacti or pine needles may provide this, he notes that many diners are particularly taken by wild spring onions, which he gathers just before their white blossoms emerge. “They’re more difficult to find because you can’t yet see the flower, but at that time, they have a very delicate, unique flavor that customers notice.”
As Chef Kinch hints, discovering that one wild ingredient capable of stunning the customer isn’t always a walk in the park, as some may believe. Despite recent attention, the practice of foraging is still shrouded in secrecy, leaving many eager chefs unsure of how to navigate this new culinary terrain.
A guide to getting started
So now the most important question: Where to start? Although it may sound easy, foraging isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In the wild, picking out the edible weeds from the real weeds can be challenging. For Matthew Accarrino, Executive Chef of SPQR in San Francisco, it was only after seeing his Italian family forage all of the ingredients for his 26th birthday feast, that he realized how much wild vegetation could be used in his cooking. “We’re relatively unaware of all of the stuff around us that’s edible, but food comes from all around.” Now an expert forager, he regularly uses wild ingredients to add a “sense of place” to his Italian-inspired menu.
The first step to getting started is building your knowledge of what is edible, something that takes both kitchen experience and a bit of research. Books on edible plants, associations of seasoned foragers like ForageSF, and foraging Web sites like Daniel Patterson’s soon-to-be-launched IngredientLab.com, are excellent resources for information. But even with this knowledge, the rough appearance of wild plants can make it hard to identify even familiar items. Chef Accarrino explains, “A lot of it is trial and error. I recently found a New Zealand variety of wild spinach. Even though I’ve used spinach for years, it was new to me and I was a bit suspect.” Only by trying it himself was he sure of its identity. While this may seem dangerous, he notes that “most things that are bad for us taste bitter, sour, or will burn your tongue, so you’ll know if they’re dangerous before eating them.”
The next step is knowing where to look and because there are very few chefs or professional foragers who are willing to divulge their favorite locations, using best practices to explore your area is the most effective way to find a spot. Chef Accarrino follows a couple of simple rules. “First, I always follow the water source. It makes sense, plants need water to grow so you’ll often find them at the source” Secondly, he always picks high; picking in areas that are difficult for humans or animals to reach helps weed out the potentially contaminated plants. By following these rules, Chef Accarrino now has access to a multitude of wild ingredients, including watercress, spinach, lambsquarters, fennel, prickly pears, sea beans, wild berries, dandelions, chickweed, purslane, stinging nettles, ramps, wild asparagus, flowering mustard, and various kinds of wild sorrel.
Finally, how are these raw materials transformed into innovative cuisine in the kitchen? By steering away from simplistic “fig-on-a-plate” preparations and approaching these ingredients from different angles, chefs are unearthing progressive applications for foraged items. One method is to find new uses for the overlooked components of plants. As Chef Accarrino explains, “Every part of an edible plant has a purpose. For example, I’ve recently started picking the pods of wild radish, not just the flowers, because they can be pickled and added to salads.” Another new approach seeks to highlight the array of flavors a single ingredient can express through the application of different cooking techniques.
At SPQR a simple carrot becomes a show-stopping appetizer by combining slow-roasted carrots, concentrated in flavor, with carrot puree made from the juice of the carrots themselves, tender, herbaceous carrot tops, and thinly-sliced, cold-pickled carrots to emphasize their fresh texture. However, an expedition into the wilderness is not the only way to find what you’re looking for; many chefs opt for less explorative measures by building relationships with local land owners who can point them to a plant’s exact location. Whatever the method, each can potentially lead to a treasure chest of ingredients.
Second-hand foraging: Picking a purveyor
While getting out into nature to discover incredible ingredients sounds great, there’s one major hitch: with a 70 plus-hour work week, most chefs simply don’t have the time to start exploring. As Executive Chef Peter McNee of Poggio Trattoria in Sausalito explains, “Although it’s a lot of fun to play the role of the forager, in your heart, you’re a full-time chef. You can’t be a full-time forager.” Enter the local purveyor.
Local suppliers are drawing more attention than ever by bringing superior quality ingredients to chefs who wouldn’t have the time to find them on their own. For example, with 140 seats in the dining room and many mushroom-centric menu options, like pizza topped with foraged puffball mushrooms, Fontina cheese, and mustard greens, Chef McNee would have to forage 80 pounds of wild mushrooms every week. Instead, he turns to a trusted supplier who, along with his team, scours the Oregon and Northern Californian wilderness for all of his fungal needs.
Chefs who lack foraging experience and are often uncomfortable with the “trial and error” method of learning are also turning to local purveyors for wild goods. This is especially prevalent when it comes to wild mushrooms, where trying the wrong variety could be potentially deadly. Because of this risk, chefs like Matt Bolton at Pacific’s Edge Restaurant in Carmel work only with trained professionals who are licensed in their field. By working with the same mushroom supplier for over 14 years, he can trust the quality of the confit Porcinis he adds to his preparation of white sea bass, served with butternut squash purée, Brussels sprout leaves, celery root batons and a truffle jus.
No matter how these ingredients find their way into the kitchen, it’s easy to see why this trend continues to gather support. Chefs are using better quality ingredients that add seasonality and originality to their menus, local food communities are being strengthened through the support of local purveyors, and let’s not forget the biggest reward of all: customers are eating better quality food. While foraging may not be the future of food production, there’s no doubt that incorporating this practice into cooking is a step in the right direction.