Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, Chef Shane Graybeal spent plenty of time exploring the woods. Depending on the season, he’d come across wild strawberries, blackberries, or apples. Throughout the years, he’s kept that connection to nature, and now it is guiding his culinary vision at Sable Kitchen & Bar, located within Chicago’s Hotel Palomar.
“The idea of going out and grabbing things that you were going to prepare that evening or preserve for use later on is really exciting,” Graybeal says. Once a fringe faction, the locavore movement has become mainstream, with most establishments touting at least some part of their operation as local. Graybeal thinks that wild and foraged foods could be the next iteration of farm-to-table. But rather than staying in the immediate vicinity of Chicago (with its unforgiving winters), Graybeal instead focuses on the seasonality and works with an on-staff forager to gather such items. He also sources preserved goods made from wild ingredients.
In fact, the chef sources homemade vinegars from a friend in Virginia, who forages ingredients like persimmon, magnolia, and hickory on his property and then uses them to craft those signature vinegars. Graybeal has only been at Sable Kitchen for a few months, but he has already envisioned different applications for these products. For example, a ramp vinegar would balance out the sweetness of a beet dish with smoked Blue cheese, fava leaves, and shaved shallots. Similarly, the versatile paw paw vinegar could pair with something savory like braised pork cheek or sweet like a bourbon-based cocktail. For Graybeal, wild ingredients not only offer fresh quality but also a whole new world of flavors.
“The flavor of these things, you just don’t have a context for,” he says. “After 20 years in the industry, I’ve tried most every variety of apple, fish, beets, and all that stuff—it all just kind of tastes the same. Now we’re exposed to something that’s new and exciting and right underneath our nose.”
In January, Sable Kitchen’s forager traveled to Florida to gather winter citruses like cara cara oranges, Meyer lemons, and ugli fruit—a cross between an orange and grapefruit that Graybeal finds to have a smoky aroma. It might not be a “wild” item (ugli fruit is a hybrid) but it reinforces the commitment to seasonality. As for diners who want their berries in the dead of winter, Graybeal makes sure to present them with an appealing substitute.
“It’s all in the way you approach it,” he says. “People may expect a strawberry dessert on the menu, but as long as you’re giving them something compelling and delicious, they forget that they were looking for something else."