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Chefs Gone Wild: Foraging in the San Francisco Bay Area

by Francoise Villeneuve
Antoinette Bruno
April 2010

Five Tips for Forager-Chefs

  1. Safety First
    "Make sure you’re 100 percent sure of what it is that you are picking and using."
    Chef David Kinch of Manresa – Los Gatos, CA

    “I don’t fan out from what I know. If something is pretty I’ll try to identify and do a lot of research on it."
    Chef Louis Maldonado of Aziza – San Francisco, CA

  2. Little and Often
    "When I do find a nice patch I’ll take what I need for a couple of days and come back. We hold them in water, refrigerate them and the blossoms get stronger; in two days they’re beautiful."
    Chef Louis Maldonado of Aziza – San Francisco, CA

    "I go out every day for fresh items, like miner’s lettuce and wood sorrel, but we also salt, dry, and otherwise preserve certain ingredients for use throughout the year."
    Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi – San Francisco, CA

    "Once you pick something it immediately starts to loose it peak flavor and texture. So we do not store for that reason. We forage everyday."
    Chef Joshua Skenes of Saison – San Francisco, CA

  3. Start Small
    "Start with simple things, weeds that are prolific and easy to find, such as wood sorrel."
    Chef David Kinch of Manresa – Los Gatos, CA

  4. Think Wild
    “State parks are great, away from well-traveled areas—so nowhere near dog paths."
    Chef Matthew Accarrino of SPQR – San Francisco, CA

    “People are going to city parks and roadways and neighborhoods; they use a lot of fertilizers, so you suffer run-off from that, and dog pee is a concern in urban environments."
    Chef David Kinch of Manresa – Los Gatos, CA

  5. Don’t Take Risks if You’re Not Sure
    “I have been foraging for fifteen years, since my first restaurant. I have learned from many people and resources along the way. I know the areas and products extremely well."
    Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi – San Francisco, CA

    “You have to be knowledgeable and experienced about plant varieties so you don’t pick the wrong thing."
    Chef Joshua Skenes of Saison – San Francisco, CA

Foraging Rediscovered



The Bay Area markets are teeming with organic, local produce, but some chefs look beyond the farmers’ market to wooded areas and parks lush with wild edibles in search of something new and different. Prominent figures in California’s culinary world that are outspoken on matters of environmental conscience and connection to terroir, like Manresa’s Chef David Kinch and Coi’s Chef Daniel Patterson, have extended this philosophy to their menu with foraged coastal items like seaweed and tidal pool salt, or woodland flora like miner’s lettuce and wild fennel. Instead of sourcing such produce from purveyors, they prefer to forage these delicacies themselves. A whole slew of other chefs have cottoned on to the possibilities of San Francisco’s natural offerings and followed suit, exploring the forgotten art of foraging.

Cost and Storage


Provided you are furnished with a permit from the state parks department, the only real cost of foraging is time, a valuable resource for chefs. Most foraged produce is perishable and requires picking for service daily or every other day. “Once you pick something it immediately starts to loose its peak flavor and texture. So we do not store for that reason; we forage everyday,” says Chef Joshua Skenes of Saison.

Few items are suitable for storage, although Chef Louis Maldonado of San Francisco’s Aziza gathers enough blossoms such as nasturtium and mustard blossoms to garnish his dishes for two days, clipping the stem to approximately 12 inches below the blossom and refrigerating them in a container of water. He emphasizes that flowers are the exception. Microgreens, for their part, can be a pricey garnish when purchased from a purveyor, and compare poorly in quality with freshly gathered, carefully hand-selected wild herbs and greens.

Inspiration


Maldonado’s foray into foraging began when he started collecting blossoms from remote areas of the public park, The Presidio, to garnish his dishes, and today he estimates that 80 percent of his garnish is foraged. He later incorporated wild lettuces like miner’s lettuce in his salads to introduce more unusual flavors. Skenes and one of his cooks forage for watercress, fraises des bois, borage, and nasturtium flowers, as he says “they increase the variety that is available daily” on the menu. Chef Scott Nishiyama of Chez TJ is a foraging enthusiast who finds the searching and gathering personally fulfilling (he plans to incorporate his pickings into his dishes later this year).

For Kinch, it is a matter of both local culinary identity and exciting new experiences for the customer: “We’re always looking for new flavor profiles, new ingredients that are really exciting. But the important thing is that it exhibits a sense of place—of where we are and who we are. So I think it’s important that these flavors are represented on our menus.”

Safety and Regulation


A base of knowledge is vital when foraging. A local expert should be consulted, if you are unsure. But novice forager-chefs need not venture into deadly mushroom territory to explore the possibility of foraged produce. Chickweed, for example, is a spinach-like hardy weed that is easy to spot and is well-suited to a variety of microclimates—San Francisco and the Bay area are lush with miner’s lettuce, wood sorrel, and chickweed. Safety concerns for chickweed in particular are limited, as reports of side affects have been rare. Although technically a permit from your state’s parks department is required in order to forage in public parks, regulation is not very rigid and few of the chefs we spoke to had found stringency an issue. Experienced chef-foragers often begin by tapping into the knowledge of their friends, colleagues and even purveyors. Chef Matthew Accarrino of SPQR first learned about foraging chanterelles from his friend Carrie but also credits Patterson as one of the sources of his growing awareness of foraging. But when an experienced forager is not available for consultation, hit the books. There are a handful of books to help guide the curious chef to the right fungus or leaf.

Reference and Guide Books



National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Western Region
by National Audubon Society

Recommended by Chef Joshua Skenes

A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America
(Peterson Field Guide)

Recommended by Chef Joshua Skenes

Wild Edible Plants of Western North America
by Donald R. Kirk

Recommended by Chef David Kinch

Mushrooms Demystified
by David Arora

Recommended by Chef David Kinch