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To forage is to hunt for your own food. To forage in the restaurant business, is to create a show-stopping culinary creation unique to only you and your kitchen.

Many foraging groups exist in urban and suburban America not only for survival, but to support our own ecosystem. In Atlanta, foragers like Kelly Callahan find vacant foreclosed homes with bountiful backyard gardens and fruit trees just waiting to be picked.

“I don’t think of it as stealing,” she told TheNew York Times. “These things were planted by a person who was going to harvest them. That person no longer has the ability to. It’s not like the bank people who sit in their offices are going to come out here and pick figs.”

While it’s not entirely legal, even a bank employee told The New York Times, “if there’s fruit on that tree, it ought to be eaten.”

How foraging relates to local businesses and restaurants

ForageSF is a community of foragers in San Francisco, led by Iso Rabins. The community acts as their own farmers, gathering unique yet edible ingredients like acorn powder, miners lettuce, onion grass and milk thistle seed.

From this community, farmers are grown. The folks at ForageSF buy the ingredients from the community and distribute them in monthly packages to their buyers. The farmers themselves make a majority of the cash. They’ve been known to put together underground markets, educational wild food walks and even host a gigantic dinner, or three, once in a while.

Places like Forage in LA have taken to foraging as an entire theme for their restaurants. Chef Jason enthusiastically invites local growers into the restaurant to sell their home-grown vegetables, herbs and fruits. Alternatively, they find the rest of what they need at local farmers markets.

So while there is still an opportunity to support local commercial farmers and small foraging farmers like these, some chefs have taken the leap into foraging for themselves.

The benefits are obvious – you’ll save money, gain a new hobby, and you’ll be able to add unique and intriguing new ingredients to your menu.

The downsides are that you’ll have a lot of taste testing to do (which isn’t that bad of a problem to have) and you absolutely need to be an expert in foraging before using any ingredients in the food that you serve customers.

Why chefs are turning to foraging and sourcing seasonal ingredients from the woods

Josiah Slone, Executive Chef at Saratoga’s  Sent Sovi says, “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.” [source]

David Kinch, Executive Chef at Manresa in Los Gatos, CA says, “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.” [source]

And if you think that foraging is only for those on the west coast, you’d be wrong. While Iso Rabins from ForageSF was in Vermont, he was amazed at the abundance of wild leeks, or ramps, which are harder to find and less tasty on the west coast, saying, “It would have taken me days to pick even half of what I saw.”

He also found out that violet flowers are edible (and tasty) along with discovering the horseradish-y plant, toothwort. “If I do a dinner in Vermont, this is definitely going to be included on the menu. Maybe a toothwort wasabi with local freshwater trout sashimi,” he writes. You’ll actually find a lot of things to forage on the east coast if you read Foraging New England, too.

In fact, the wild (and abundant) autumn olive, or Elaeagnus umbellata is available from Maine all the way down to Alabama. It can be used for salads, paired with cheeses and even infused with vodka. Chefs who publicly fawn over the berry include Beacon Hill Bistro’s Jason Bond, Via Matta‘s Mike Pagliarini and even La Laiterie’s Matt Jennings, who according to a 2008 issue of Edible Boston, even planted them in his backyard.

Jennings tells Find.Eat.Drink., “We are seasonally driven. New England is such an amazing place to be a chef. When spring starts to pop and the morels, fiddleheads, nettles, peas, and green garlic start to trickle in, it is ‘go time.’” And he’s not just into hiring foragers, either, he also does a bit of foraging himself.

“Why would you want to spend a couple of hours in the woods looking for plants and fungi, that may or may not be there or that may or may not be safe, when there’s a Stop & Shop or a Whole Foods down the street?” Jennings contemplates on his blog.

“Well, partly, satisfaction,” he answers. Jennings reminds readers that there’s a pride to the ancient practice of hunting and gathering. “Just as when you grow your own vegetables or, pretty much, do anything yourself, you get a pretty nice charge from the experience. Not only that but you’re connecting yourself to the land and witnessing, and tasting, the natural genesis going on around you. Also, in the stores these first bits of green goodness come with a hefty price tag to them, comparatively,” he writes.

If you’re a passionate chef with a deep appreciation for food and the environment that it thrives in, you might consider learning more about foraging before the best seasons are over.

The new age of foodies are deeply appreciative of locally-sourced ingredients and your new hobby may even lead to a new marketing angle. If you’re in the San Francisco area, don’t miss an opportunity to take a Wild Food Walk with ForageSf. You can also look for other groups in your area, or check out these widely recommended books to learn more:

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