Inside the Intensely Secretive, Ultracompetitive World of Restaurant Foragers

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You will never find out where this wild ramp came from.
You will never find out where this wild ramp came from. Photo: Tim Hawley

When food lovers talk about foraged ingredients, they often discuss a chef like René Redzepi, gleefully plucking wild plants in the fields of Denmark that he’ll use to accent the dishes on his $250 tasting menu at Noma. What they probably don’t think about are the desperate meth addicts and poverty-stricken Laotian immigrants in the Pacific Northwest, documented in the book The Mushroom Hunters, who haul pounds of freshly foraged exotic mushrooms to buy-stations in the woods, some people packing guns for protection and never — never — revealing the source of their finds for fear that a competitor will do whatever it takes to gain access. It might not be that intense everywhere, but the very essence of foraging ingredients, relying only on what nature can grow, has nevertheless created an economy where secrecy and covert gathering methods are the norm.

The recent foraging phenomenon is most closely associated with restaurants like Noma and chefs’ desire to create dishes that are both figuratively and, sometimes literally, rooted in the idea of a return to the land, a simpler, more primitive approach to eating. This style of nourishment, of course, predates both Michelin and agriculture in general, but it’s taken hold in the last decade or so at the highest level of restaurant, where chefs often garnish their delicate compositions with perfectly tweezer’d, uniquely beautiful plants that someone found growing in some forest somewhere. It’s become so popular that FreshDirect, the online grocery-delivery service, offers packs of foraged lambsquarters for $4.99 each. Chef David Waltuck, who’s bought ingredients from foragers at his New York restaurants since the ‘70s, says the picking operations have gotten more sophisticated to keep up with the market. “Foragers sell to purveyors now,” he says. “It became more of a business. Back in the early days, there was nothing like that.”

With the explosion in popularity, though, the foragers themselves have had to become even more protective of their wares. “You’re looking at limited resources,” says Matt Parker, a West Coast–based purveyor of foraged ingredients who works with a small network of gatherers and sells to restaurants such as Spago and Gjelina. “Foragers live and die by the seasons and what’s available, so of course they are protective of their spots — that’s how they make a living.” Parker sustains a roster of “seven to nine guys, depending on how reliable they want to be,” but none will reveal their “honey grounds” to him. Waltuck adds, “They might take you out with them, but they’ll blindfold you.” Indeed, when another prominent New York chef offered to send me out with his preferred forager in Jersey’s Delaware Water Gap, he agreed to do so only if I’d wear a pillowcase over my head for the entire car ride. Eventually, the forager got cold feet and reneged on the deal altogether.

So chefs who typically analyze every part of their ingredients’ provenance must accept that secrecy is just part of the deal with foraged goods. Jacob Daugherty, the manager of David Bouley’s Brushstroke, where things like milkwood and katakuri come from who-knows-where, says he’d never question his foragers’ finds. “They are crazy and tend to be reclusive,” he says. “They work alone and refuse to ever share secrets. You never ask where they found what they foraged or they might never come back.” Besides, he points out, “if they’re finding cool stuff, it doesn’t really matter.”

The main problem for foragers, of course, arises when they can’t find that cool stuff. The chef Fredrik Berselius, of the temporarily closed Aska, says it takes great skill and time to track down worthwhile pick sites, and he relates to foragers who want to protect their turf against intruders: “If you come to a spot where you expect something to be and it’s chopped down — someone’s been there. You have to start all over again.”

But the temporary disappearance of one cool ingredient isn’t the biggest concern — sustainability is. Berselius points out that foragers who think of wild edibles as inventory aren’t incentivized to pick sustainably. The mentality, he says, “is ‘take the whole patch — kill it,’ because you’ll make money now, and who knows what will happen next year?” John Parke, a senior member of the New Jersey Audubon’s conservation team, says it’s a very real problem. “They are over-picking things you should leave in the landscape because there’s not that many,” he explains. “They rip the roots out and it screws up the ecosystem. The plants are lost, and everything else is depending on them.”

Take, for example, ramps, the leafy wild onions that hit menus everywhere and blow up your Instagram feed every single spring. Like truffles, they’re impossible to farm, so foragers have to rely only on the stock that nature supplies each year, which is rapidly dwindling. It’s gotten so bad that some chefs treat them like endangered seafood and essentially ban them from their menus. “You can see the spots where people have been,” says Acme chef Mads Refslund, who is also a co-founder of Noma, of now-empty patches where ramps used to be bountiful. “In ten years we won’t have any — they won’t come back anymore.” (Prices already reflect ramps’ supply-and-demand issues: One Greemarket stand was selling tiny bunches of five to six early-season ramps for $20 apiece this year.)

Even with scarcity issues, however, chefs and customers have come to expect increasingly exotic foraged ingredients, causing some foragers to get desperate, turning to land where it might not be safe to pick. “Some forager put up Japanese knotweed on Instagram,” Parke recalls, “and I remember going, ‘Oh man, that thing’s been sprayed.’” He clarifies, “If you’re foraging off the side of the road, you don’t know what the land management is for that site — chemicals, pesticides, maybe it’s contaminated soil.”

That’s one reason why Parke, and others, have tried to create an environment that downplays secrecy and promotes only safe, sustainable foraging. Ian Purkayastha, the foraging savant behind Regalis Foods, says he vets and trains his 30 East Coast foragers, urging them to pick smartly. Texas Bartush, one of the foragers for Dan Barber’s Blue Hill restaurants, pulls plants exclusively on their own acreage or that of their neighboring organic farms, thus sidestepping questions of legality. Up in Greene County, chef Damon Baehrel is equally transparent because he only cooks what he finds on his own 12-acre plot.

Tama Matsuoka, a forager who supplies mugwort and wild-pine shoots to chefs like Refslund, has gone so far as to partner with conservation groups like Audubon, working closely with staff members. “If you’re a steward of the land, if you’re managing that land, then you don’t have to be secretive about what you’re doing,” she says. It also ensures that the staff members won’t spray invasive species, like knotweed, until they know Matsuoka has finished her own foraging run. Even still, that doesn’t entirely explain how she manages to deliver distinctly pristine ingredients that make her finds coveted among many of New York’s best chefs. “We have our methods,” is all she’ll say on that topic. “I’m not going to reveal.”

The Secretive World of Restaurant Foragers