Perusing some menus these days feels like reading a plant guide for North America.
Dishes star wild ingredients like lichen, Angelica root, Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms, wood sorrel and blue spruce tips.
Who even knew that some of these uncultivated native plants were edible? Foragers, that’s who.
These intrepid epicurean explorers know when these uncultivated plants are in season, where to find them, which ones are tasty and, perhaps most importantly, which ones are dangerous.
To get these delicacies from the backwoods to diners at the front of the house, restaurants take three approaches: they forage themselves, they hire someone locally to forage for them, or they rely on a larger national company.
At San Francisco’s critically celebrated COI, executive chef-owner Daniel Patterson does his own foraging work. He was first captivated by the possibilities of hyper-natural ingredients from the great outdoors a decade and a half ago when a farmer brought him some wild Miner’s lettuce, a leafy green that tastes similar to spinach. “The flavor just blew me away,” Patterson says.
Intrigued by what else might be available, he started studying edible plants with a botanist and an herbalist. Now he and his staff routinely go on expeditions searching for ultra-fresh ingredients like sheep sorrel, chickweed, and wild mustard flowers.
Most of these hard-to-find edibles are used the same day they’re harvested to ensure the boldest, brightest flavors.
“Wild foods allow for a heightened level of self expression,” Patterson says. “It’s like you were originally painting with only one blue, but now you have four more shades, so you can create so much more complexity.”
On the opposite coast in Washington, D.C., Logan Cox, executive chef at Ripple, enjoys working a colorful variety of wild foods into his dishes, though he doesn’t personally source anything that he puts on the plate.
“You need to use a certified forager to be safe,” he explains. “Unless you really know what you’re doing and what it is you’re picking, you shouldn’t put it in anyone’s mouth.”
To find a forager, Cox recommends asking your mushroom purveyor for some recommendations, since many wild mushroom hunters are also foragers. If you don’t have one in your Rolodex, get in touch with the North American Mycological Association, which has 75 affiliated chapters across the country.
The third option is to go with a large-scale foraging company, such as Mikuni Wild Harvest. Co-founder and pro forager Tyler Gray has been seeking out rare treats since he was a youngster. “Some kids were into video games,” he says. “I liked hunting for brambleberries and matsutake mushrooms.”
Since 2004, his company has been providing thousands of chefs—including top toques like Charlie Trotter, Sean Brock, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud—with the wildest foodstuffs its international network of foragers can dig up, cut down, and seek out, including Queen Anne’s Lace, cattail shoots, stinging nettles and fiddleheads.
No matter where restaurants get these unconventional ingredients, Gray believes that this beautiful bounty helps create unforgettable dining experiences.
“Diners get to try an amazing diversity of ingredients,” he says. “And they will be some of the most honest, unique, and flavorful tastes they’ll ever experience in their whole lives.”