François Couplan must have wondered if he’d fallen through the rabbit hole. For decades, the French ethno-botanist has been quietly supplying a handful of exceptional chefs—Marc Veyrat and Jean-Georges Vongerichten among them—with the nettles, purslane, and other wild plants they served in their restaurants. But as he stepped onto the stage of MAD Food Camp and adjusted the leaf-adorned felt hat that makes him look like nothing so much as a forest sprite, the 250 chefs, farmers, foragers, and food writers that had gathered in Copenhagen last August erupted in raucous applause. After laboring for most of his career in near-anonymity, Couplan is now a culinary hero.
Nothing has overcome the gastronomic world these days more than foraging. From fine dining restaurants like San Sebastián’s Mugaritz or New York City’s Gramercy Tavern, to more casual spots like Franny’s in Brooklyn, chefs are so interested in incorporating wild plants into their menus that many are hiring professional foragers like Couplan to supply them. Part of the interest springs from a simple desire for new ingredients, and to that end, the number of foraged products popping up on menus range far beyond the normal springtime ramps or autumn black trumpet mushrooms. But for a handful of chefs, many of them positioned at the cutting edge of the culinary world, foraging is much more than a way of keeping their walk-ins stocked with surprises. For them, integrating wild plants into their dishes is part of a larger philosophy, one that says that the primary goal of a chef, after delivering pleasure, should be to convey a sense of place. And at a select series of international events, they’re now spreading the gospel.
Perhaps no one has done more to transform an ancient practice into a gastronomic movement than René Redzepi, chef of Copenhagen’s Noma. His interest in foraging stems from an initial encounter with Roland Rittman, who showed up at the back door of the restaurant one day in 2004, when Noma had only been open a few months. Redzepi and his partner, Claus Meyer, envisioned Noma as a showcase for the new Nordic cuisine they hoped to develop, though in those early months, that development rested primarily on trying to find local substitutes—vinegar for citrus, musk ox for beef—for the classic pillars on which European fine dining restaurants tended to rest. But thanks to Rittman, Redzepi realized there was a whole world of ingredients right outside his door. Armed with an army survival handbook, he began foraging himself. One early discovery caused him to reexamine his preconceptions of what was possible. “We were at the beach, and I tried this plant—it tasted just like coriander,” he recalls. “Coriander in Denmark! Everyone thinks Danish food is so bland. But no! We are a spicy nation!”
That revelation would change the way Redzepi cooked, leading him to seek out products that could form the structure upon which a truly Danish cuisine could rest. “When people dine in my restaurant, I want them to think, ‘I could only be eating this in this place and at this time,’” he says.
Thanks to a gathering organized by Alessandro Porcelli, a gastronomy consultant based in Copenhagen, and the France-based food writer Andrea Petrini, Redzepi soon found himself at the center of a small cohort of friends and colleagues interested in pursuing the same idea. The first Cook It Raw, held in Copenhagen in May 2009, brought together a handful of young chefs doing exciting terroir-based work, including Massimo Bottura of Modena’s Osteria Francescana, Iñaki Aizpitarte of Paris’ Le Chateaubriand, and Daniel Patterson from San Francisco’s Coi. Redzepi himself led them on a foraging trip, first to a forest outside of town, and then to the shore, where the chefs collected an astonishing array of wild plants, including a tart sea buckthorn and a spicy wild mustard. Redzepi’s enthusiasm was contagious as he waded into a boggy bit of woods to pull out the reedy plants he found there. “Look guys!” he said excitedly, “It’s bullrushes!” At the remarkable dinner served the next night, in which each chef prepared a different course punctuated with the wild things discovered on the trip, those bullrushes had been (lightly) transformed into a memorable starter: each diner was handed an entire broom-length plant and invited to bite off the sweetly grassy end.
Three subsequent editions of Cook It Raw have furthered the bonds between the chefs and strengthened their dedication to conveying place through their dishes. In Collio, on the Italian border with Slovenia, David Chang of New York City’s Momofuku restaurants, turned a prized radicchio into kimchi. In Lapland, Magnus Nilsson of Sweden’s Fäviken, taught the other chefs the wonders of reindeer lichen. And this past November saw Charleston, South Carolina, chef Sean Brock joining Redzepi as they bounded down a hill in Ishikawa, Japan, in hot pursuit of wild ginger.
Why all this enthusiasm? Patterson, who has participated in all four Cook It Raw events, sees the current vogue for wild plants as a possible response to the dominant trend in avant-garde cuisine that preceded it. “I’m not sure why foraging has become more popular,” he says. “But maybe it’s tied to a naturalist approach to cooking that is very appealing right now, perhaps as a reaction against what was perceived as an overly manipulated style.”
Patterson began foraging some 18 years ago, right after opening his first restaurant, called Babette’s, in Sonoma County. One winter’s day, a farmer brought him a bag of miner’s lettuce to sample and told him the story of how the native California plant got its name: during the Gold Rush, miners would eat it to ward off scurvy. “Driving home one day, I noticed it growing on a hillside next to the road,” Patterson recalls. “So I stopped, picked it, and made a salad that I then put on the menu. It felt very fresh and alive.” It also fit nicely within Patterson’s ambition to forge a cuisine with far deeper roots to the area than the Mediterranean food that constitutes the base of California cuisine.
But he notes that truly integrating wild plants takes a kind of dedication that not every restaurant with a bit of wood sorrel on its menu is willing to make. “It’s one thing to gather a few radish flowers to garnish a dish,” he says. “It’s another to make wild ingredients so integral that without them the menu falls apart. Because once you go down that road, it’s merciless. You can’t just call a purveyor for a delivery because it’s cold and raining. You do it, every day, under every condition. That’s the commitment—it’s total or it’s nothing. And, if it’s total, I feel that something about that commitment shines through in the food.”
There are few chefs more committed than Nilsson, who farms, hunts, fishes, and collects all but three of the ingredients (salt, sugar, and wine vinegar) from the area that surrounds his remote restaurant Fäviken. Even away from home, his cooking relies heavily on the wild foods he discovers wherever he finds himself; at Cook It Raw Ishikawa, his dish—mushrooms, herbs, even the leaves they were served on—came entirely from the Satayama forest. For him, foraging is a necessary part of his job, because, without it, his menu would be decidedly more limited. But it’s also part of his personal history: he learned it when he was a boy growing up in Jämtland. Like Patterson, he worries about the environmental impact of those casual foragers, the people who are doing it, as he says, “just because it’s cool.” But in general, he sees the enthusiasm for wild plants as salutory. “Foraging requires chefs to be more aware of nature,” he says. “That’s a good thing.”
Such a good thing, in fact, that Redzepi launched MAD Food Camp in an effort to bring that message to a larger body of chefs (the second edition will be held in July). Held beneath a blue-and-red circus tent in a field on the edge of Copenhagen, Food Camp included talks and demonstrations by many of the same chefs who participate in Cook It Raw. But unlike other gastronomic conferences, it also featured speakers who don’t spend their days behind a stove. Søren Wiuff, a farmer who works closely with Noma, talked about his trajectory from carrot monoculture to vegetable permaculture. Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency, spoke about the advantages of urban beekeeping. And biologist Stefano Mancuso illustrated the remarkable intelligence of plants. There, too, to talk about the future of food, was British forager and author Miles Irving, who marveled that wild plants “have gone from being weeds to being luxury items.”
And then there was Couplan, who recounted his own trajectory—of the few years he spent living alone in the wilderness. He recalled, “I had a much easier time relating to plants than to people,” and urged the 300 or so chefs in the audience to deepen their consciousness of nature through foraging. “This younger generation has a much broader context for food,” he said. “You can see it’s about more than just what’s on the plate—it’s about social relations, it’s about the environment. This is a world-level change, and chefs can make a difference in it.”
World-level change, but also one that takes place on the most modest and accessible level. The night before Foodcamp began, Redzepi held an outdoor do-it-yourself dinner for the presenters, who divided into groups, each to prepare a different course. Choosing dessert, Ben Shewry, chef of Melbourne, Australia’s Attica, was delighted to find himself paired with Irving. The two immediately set out down the road, and quickly returned with fistfuls of sweet woodruff and verbena that Shewry would add to his dish of candied kale leaves and blackberries.
Thanks in part to the foraged herbs, which added notes of bitterness and a floral citrus to the dish, Shewry’s unlikely-sounding dessert proved delicious. Couplan was captivated by it. “You see?” he asked, flipping his scarf nonchalantly over his shoulder. “When chefs use plants that others despise, they become stars.”
In the cool Copenhagen night, it wasn’t clear if the pronoun referred to the plants or the people cooking with them.