NEW YORK – On a recent Thursday, Adam Kopels walked into Torrisi Italian Specialties in a Manhattan neighbourhood, opened his messenger bag and pulled out ZipLoc bags filled with wild greens he had gathered on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives. Mario Carbone, one of the restaurant’s chefs and owners, sat with Kopels and sorted through clumps of baby peppercress and sheep sorrel, red bay and shepherd’s purse. The two picked up some sea rocket, a plant that grows only on exposed dunes, and crunched through the peppery leaves.
“I served this, what, four months ago?” Carbone said. “We did an insalata di mare, only without seafood, just plants from the shore,” he added, describing a playful riff on the Little Italy standard.
This late in the year sea rocket is too sharp for the insalata. Carbone would sit down with his staff later that day and brainstorm what to do with it. A Peconic Bay scallop garnish? A take on Oysters Rockefeller without the oysters?
“I want to get it on my menu,” he said. The weekly delivery of wild plants plays an important role in setting the restaurant apart. “It’s invaluable,” he said. “I can get it, and no one else can.”
Increasingly, in an era when truffles are farmed and fresh porcini are sold at Whole Foods, the ingredients that chefs seek are not the ones everyone can order; they’re the ones that few have ever heard of. They aren’t the most expensive; they’re the most unusual. And even if they’re plentiful, they’re exclusive: You need either to know where to go and what to gather, or the person to call.
While foraging isn’t new – ramps and purslane are becoming as much a part of seasonal eating as tomatoes and corn – this generation of ambitious chefs is finding a new level of inspiration outside the garden. Feral plants with names like toothwort, cornelian cherries, brown jug, creasy greens, sweet cicely, pineapple weed and liquorice fern are travelling from the forest floor to the thin porcelain plates of restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, in New York City, and Alinea, in Chicago.
At Blackberry Farm, a luxurious estate in the Smoky Mountains, Jeff Ross, the garden manager, forages nearly 2,023 hectares of woodlands for lambs quarter that is pureed into gazpacho, toothwort that is grated like horseradish and lemony hulls of sumac berries that flavour trout. And at Castagna in Portland, Oregan, white acorns are shaved over elk loin and root vegetables with a sauce made from vinegar infused with local juniper.
Many chefs talk of a moment of unguarded wonder when a diner recognizes that some ingredient might be the same as that found in a park or the untended corner of a backyard. Daniel Patterson, the chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco, remembers an “a-ha! moment” when a friend first introduced him to Douglas fir.
“You really don’t expect to love eating trees,” said Patterson, who uses the shoots at his restaurant. “It was a green and citrusy flavour that I totally recognized. It was unbelievable, and even though I knew this flavour because I smelled it before, it never occurred to me to eat it. It was powerfully evocative, but more than that, it was just delicious.”
Using wild food is like pressing a reset button, explained Ryan Miller, the chef at Momofuku Ssam Bar, who serves a fruit leather made of tart, floral Russian olive berries with a roasted porcini and duck liver mousse. “It gives you a creative boost,” Miller said. “For me it was like rediscovering the first time I cooked a piece of fish.”
But even home cooks can have access to wild ingredients.
Wild Gourmet Foods, a Vermont company, sets up a stall every month or so at the New Amsterdam Market in Lower Manhattan. In October, it offered pepperwort, white acorns, ginger, wild Jerusalem artichokes, black walnuts, watercress and an array of tinctures and mushrooms. Over the course of the year, Nova Kim and Les Hook, the partners behind Wild Gourmet Foods, will gather more than 150 kinds of roots, greens, nuts, barks and berries.
Kim and Hook carry liability insurance and certify the scientific and common names of their plants. According to the New York City Department of Health, it is legal for restaurants to serve wild plants provided that they are obtained from an approved source that follows regulatory guidelines.