From the earliest recorded history, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers who foraged for their foodstuffs.
Centuries later, we’ve come full circle and chefs are getting back in touch with their ancestral roots through the practice of foraging to create flavorful culinary dishes served to patrons who prize freshness, local ingredients, and seasonal dishes.
“I love having that element of surprise in my dishes, and wild edibles offer this as there’s so many flavors that come out of them,” says Whitney Flood, chef of Muddy Leek in Culver City, California. “Sour grass has a lemony quality that can replace zest in a dish, while nasturtium leaves are peppery and fresh.”
And, most notably, he says there is a delicate quality to foraged food that is unique to geographic location and environmental setting.
At Muddy Leek—where sustainable, local, organic products are the order of the day—the focus is on bringing the freshest ingredients to the table. And for creating flavorful seasonal dishes, Flood is a strong believer in allowing ingredients to speak for themselves.
As part of his repertoire, Flood forages based on what’s in season. “Right now [late February], I’m looking for little tender greens and starts that are coming up.” Wild fennel including fronds, seeds, pollen, and stalks are excellent with many uses throughout the season.
But his golden prize is the hunt for chanterelles. “I love chanterelles! The earthy, oaky flavor, meaty mouthfeel, and sheer enjoyment of finding them keep me constantly searching.”
But not all foraging is done by chefs. There is a unique group of individuals who make their living foraging for chefs and restaurant owners.
Valerie Broussard, food and beverage buyer and forager, works for Trace restaurant in the W Hotel, a silver LEED-certified hotel, in Austin, Texas.
Broussard’s foraging consists of seeking out local and sustainable foods, developing relationships with food purveyors, and gathering forecasts from area farmers in order to inform chefs on availability of products.
She explains, “I am an extension of the chef and can be out in the community, inquiring about who has what, and when and how we can get it into the restaurant.”
Her regular stops include in-town farmers’ markets, as well as Boggy Creek and Springdale Farms farm stands.
Some of the edible foraged foods Broussard gathers include prickly pear fruit, loquats, Mustang grapes, and hibiscus flowers.
Broussard, who attended the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy and earned her Master’s degree in Food Culture, says she uses a dry-erase board in the Trace kitchen to update the culinary staff on which ingredient came from which farm.
“Our order is harvested the day before—or the morning of—the delivery. These ingredients are just so fresh and alive, you know they’re superior, will taste better, and will have a longer shelf life, hence there’s less waste and that ties into our efforts to run a sustainable kitchen,” she explains.
Although Broussard doesn’t physically forage for foodstuffs, she says she loves knowing the chefs are being given great products to work with due to her knowledge and expertise in the field.
“Sometimes a visit to a farm yields more than just an education about their farming philosophy. I’ll discover they’re testing a rare heirloom seed, and it’s something I know the chef would want to incorporate into the menu.”
Or perhaps she’ll visit a farm that grows edible flowers. Next thing you know, Trace’s executive pastry chef Janina O’Leary will use the flowers as garnish on her distinctive desserts.
Edible flowers translate into many different dishes in the food industry. As Flood says, “At brunch, we serve eggs benedict with chicken apple sausage and nasturtium leaves as a garnish that adds a bit of natural spice to the dish.”
Flood explains that his menu is constantly changing, as are the wild edibles. In late February, he had four dishes that included wild fennel; however, when the weather warms he says there will be six or more dishes that shine with the fennel addition.
“You don’t wake up one morning and say ‘I am going to forage for my food.’ It’s not like that at all,” says Flood. “I started foraging back in 2000, when I lived in Big Sur, and have not stopped since. Chanterelle mushrooms, miner’s lettuce, and fennel are mostly what I continue to forage for the restaurant.”
And, fortunately for Flood, where he lives is conducive to foraging—in fact, Topanga, located between the Pacific Ocean and the San Fernando Valley, is a hotbed for foraging.
“I have a bunch of spots that offer different climates and products around where I live,” says Flood. As a safety precaution he only forages for food that he is familiar with, and he is well aware of the cautionary laundry list.
Not every chef forages for food, as it is time consuming. But being outdoors is a huge incentive for Flood, who says, “It’s time away from the craziness of the restaurant that helps me reconnect to the base of soil, sun, fresh rainwater, and the smell of the earth.”
And then there’s the bonus: Monetarily speaking, you can’t beat free. “It’s cathartic cleaning something you have hand-harvested,” says Flood. “I think it brings the love I have for food out onto the dish.”