Foraging isn’t just for hoofed animals and Bear Grylls anymore; in fact, it’s become increasingly popular at a number of high-end New York restaurants.
Strangely, foraging has received a warm welcome from New Yorkers who seem to dread weekly grocery runs and encounters with dirt. This newfound acceptance is thanks to a handful of the city’s most progressive chefs, who are working to make foraged cuisine a mainstay in the restaurant world.
Among these is Mads Refslund, executive chef of the year-old ACME restaurant in NoHo. Like a growing number of young visionaries in the culinary world, Refslund calls himself a forager. He is a pioneer of “new Nordic cuisine,” a movement that began in Denmark at the world-famous Noma restaurant and aims to limit kitchen ingredients to foods that can be foraged: grown, caught, or gathered locally.
Looking at ACME’s menu, it’s clear that Refslund is something of a genius when it comes to adapting unusual foraged ingredients for the modern palate. Guests fawn over dishes like the roasted bass with wild onions, thyme, and nasturtium (wild watercress). Refslund explains that his method for imagining a new dish involves considering the connection between smell, taste, and memory. “The food’s not so weird that no one’s ever heard about it,” he said. "Everyone’s heard of pine, it’s just that they haven’t tasted it before.” Now they can, in ACME’s celery root soup with apples and pine oil. “They know the smell of pine, of fresh pine needles, and of Christmas trees ... So people have a certain taste in their head before they come here.” The final product is a sentimental taste of Christmas.
As Refslund puts it, “We’re working with good memories and memories of childhood.” Refslund’s style of cooking raises a number of questions. How does he forage and farm in New York City? How does he manage to gather ingredients in winter, when many small farms shut down? Finally, how does Refslund focus on finding ingredients while simultaneously working as executive chef?
Refslund, however, says finding ingredients is easy, insisting that “all you have to do is look in your backyard.” During the cold season, he skips over the farm and heads straight for the woods, making at least twice-monthly visits to New Jersey or Pennsylvania in search of this season’s hidden plenty: juniper, pine oil, herbs, tubers, and seaweed. The rest of the time, a hired forager goes out and does the work for him. No matter what, the ingredients are always freshly gathered when they are brought in to the restaurant.
I can imagine the joy Refslund finds in those woods. Every summer, my fellow Montanans and I run through gulches and up shady slopes in search of an elusive, noncommercial treat: fresh huckleberries. As the sun sits high in the big Montana sky and turns the dry hills to gold, we sweat and bushwhack in hopes of finding a patch that has not already been picked over. Needless to say, no one returns home until well after dark—hopefully with a bucket or two of berries for pie, jam, or immediate enjoyment. Foraging creates a new relationship with food—an appreciation for and connection to its origin. For many, this is the appeal of locally gathered food. But New Yorkers may be attracted to foraged cuisine by something else altogether: the image.
Josh Slotnick, professor of agriculture at the University of Montana, is a firm believer in the importance of an intimate relationship with food. He explains, “If we understand where our food comes from, we have a better chance at having a food system that’s just, moral, and acceptable on every level.” Foraging certainly points the consumer in the right direction, but Slotnick says that those buying into foraged cuisine don’t necessarily care all that deeply about the history of their food. He’s worried that foraging could just be the “trendy thing of the day.”
Foraged food in New York City has become a luxury, a delicacy reserved for those with the financial and cultural means to patronize a restaurant like ACME. Slotnick cautions that food should be more than just a fashion statement, “although if the intent is to eat closer to home and have more contact with the history of your food, that’s fantastic.” However, Slotnick also explains that “there isn’t enough forageable landscape near a major population center to feed people in any sustainable or substantial way.” Large-scale foraging can have devastating consequences on fragile ecosystems. From a sustainability perspective, urban agriculture is perhaps more practical.
Still, Refslund is resolute in his dedication to foraging, if only for the quality of food it produces. “I’m not thinking about price,” he says, “and I won’t buy a lower quality carrot to save money. I will always pick the best carrot I can find.” Some might balk at how pricey these veggies can get (salt-baked carrots with sliced lardo and blood orange set customers back $14), but they may just be persuaded when Refslund explains how they’re prepared. The carrots are slow-cooked on low heat for three hours with juniper, and are turned over every five minutes, like a cut of meat. “I have a lot of respect for the carrot,” he says, “since I think the flavor is better than that of meat!”
Carnivores, take note: The woods have come to town.