Foraging Takes Root

Foraging Takes Root -- Appetite for Life -- © Microsoft
Chicago chef and restaurateur Graham Elliot is renowned for his ability to peer into the future and spot dining trends. So why is the convivial chef-owner of Graham Elliot, Grahamwich and g.e.b. so excited about foraging, a practice that is thousands of years old?

Because he and his fellow chefs want only the best local ingredients for their customers.

"Chefs want to be as close as possible to the product and ingredients they serve, and this is the next logical step," he says. "Eliminating the middle man and finding beautiful foodstuffs on their own — there's nothing more local than that."

In a nutshell, foraging is searching for and gathering food from your surroundings, from the wild dandelions in your backyard to the wild mushrooms in a nearby national forest. Animals and humans have been doing it for centuries, but it really caught on with chefs in the last decade.

"There's nothing more DIY than going out and finding your own things to cook for guests," says Elliot. "There's a 'circle of life' aspect as well. Foraging, preparing, serving: It adds to the romantic side of cooking."

Across the country in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, chef-owner Jason Kim adopted a similar DIY philosophy for his restaurant, Forage. While he doesn't venture into the forests and fields himself, he created a local network of neighbors to grow some of his food.

Members of his local "home growers circle" cultivate apricots, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, mulberries, mixed greens and many more ingredients in their backyards, then sell them to Kim. It allows the award-winning chef to serve the freshest local ingredients year-round.

Clearly, fresh local food is there for the picking, and not just for chefs — anyone with an interest can learn to forage. But how do you know where to begin and what is safe to pick? Nance Klehm (pronounced Nancy), a lifelong Chicago-area forager and educator, offers this advice:

"Find someone who has a strong local knowledge of plants, and go on a series of walks with them," she says. "I also recommend getting familiar with your [local] plant communities by taking walks with a good basic edible and medicinal plant guide, such as Peterson's.

"Start slowly and realize if you want to get good at this, it will take time and lots of observation and study. The plant kingdom is huge and complex and absolutely fascinating."

It is also often delicious.

"When I cooked in Vermont, I was able to forage for wild ginger root, which had an amazingly complex flavor and aroma," says Elliot. "I also came upon some matsutake mushrooms, my all-time fave ingredient. I actually packaged them up and sent them to some of the chefs I greatly admired."

According to Klehm, foraged ingredients are not just better tasting, but also often better for you. "Wild plants are for the most part more nutritious, and often more medicinal, than their cultivated descendants," she says.

But while she sings the praises of foraged foods, Klehm also recommends caution. "Know your plants. Know your environment. Use common sense," she says. "If any of these three things are lacking, you can do harm to yourself or others."

Klehm also urges collectors to treat the earth kindly.

"I encourage people to be gentle when they collect, so as not to harm the plant, as it is there doing something — cleaning the air, building soil or serving as food for some other creatures in the area," she says. "I also emphasize to take only what you need."

In other words, fledgling foragers, don't bite the hand that feeds you.