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.
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.
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.”
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.