There are so many food crazes these days it’s really hard to keep up. Food trucks, pop-up restaurants, kombucha, Sriracha, low-carb meal plans, gluten-free diets. I get dizzy just thinking about it.
Add food foraging to the list. It’s a popular culinary trend, taking us back to our hunter-gatherer roots. What does it mean? Simple. You go out into the wild, find edibles in Mother Nature’s pantry and whip up a meal. It’s the closest a consumer can get to their ancestors and the abundance of local, sustainable dishes surrounding them.
Foraging for your next meal isn’t anything new. Cave people did it. Animals in the nature still do it. And now, droves of hungry foodies can partake in it too.
This trend is coming to a table and television near you. On a recent episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain held a competition where chefs from around the world were tasked with getting back to their roots, literally, and cooking a whole meal. There was foraging, fishing, hunting ducks with big nets and tromping through the Japanese woods.
You don’t need to fly to Japan to experience this type of primitive dining. Locally, Americano’s Executive Chef Kory Stewart did the same Thursday night, June 6 during the third annual Wild Foods Dinner at the Hotel Vitale located on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. He and food foraging expert Connie Green, author of The Wild Table, took a food-gathering excursion out to the Sierra Nevada for this experiment.
“Wild foods are special because they grow and proliferate with little human intervention,” Stewart said. “The range of flavors and textures found in many of these foods cannot be found elsewhere.”
Indeed, over 50 guests dined on a unique six-course meal that was shaped largely by the bounty they located in nature.
“We found porcinis, a variety of miner’s lettuce,” Stewart said. “We also found sheep sorrel, elderflower and a nice amount of fir tips for a cocktail we are serving.”
Putting blind faith in their chef, patrons knew little of the menu ahead of time, but didn’t seem to mind.
The night started off with a refreshing cucumber gin sour, flavored with Douglas fir from the forest. Yes, the same Douglas fir that invades your home every December, harboring Christmas presents for the kiddies.
Guests slurped fresh oysters on the half shell and indulged in grilled wild boar meatballs served by white-gloved waiters. Stewart himself poured the libations and helped serve the hungry guests.
“It’s a rarity to see a chef serving the food himself, but Kory is that type of person. He’s very down to earth,” said Green, his foraging companion.
That was a just a taste of what these adventurous food enthusiasts were in for.
Patrons sat at tables in the main dining room and were treated to an amuse of fresh halibut crudo...Delectable.
“I’ve always wanted to try something like this,” Robert Graves, a first time Wild Foods guest said. "I haven’t been disappointed."
Each dish was carefully paired with organic wines courtesy of Medlock Ames, a local winery in nearby Bell Mountain.
The dishes leading up to the main course included everything from smoked mackerel escabeche with grilled octopus, seared sea scallops and watercress to house-made ricotta tortellini.
The two main courses were certainly worth the price of admission: local king salmon with nettle and huitlacoche dumplings, fried seabeans and fresh corn polenta, followed by roasted venison with fiddlehead fern, elderberry mustard, morels and Douglas fir jus.
Dinner wouldn’t be complete without Stewart’s famous candy cap mushroom S’mores with roasted white chocolate.
All in all, the dinner was a huge success and Stewart looks forward to many more wild food events.
This certainly wasn't Stewart's first time gathering food in the wilderness.
His love of wild foods began when he was only 9 years old growing up on Whidbey Island, 30 miles north of Seattle. He, his father and grandfather would find clams, mussel and wild oysters everywhere.
“I remember at super low tides we would pick Dungeness crab out of knee-deep water” he recalled.
It wasn’t just seafood. Stewart would pick wild blackberries, filling up 5 gallon buckets to bring to his grandmother who made pies from the bounty.
Despite San Francisco’s rich culinary tradition, it isn’t quite as abundant in edible vegetation as Washington. Nowdays, he has to work a little harder to pursue food in the wild, although as Stewart says, “It’s all worth it.”