The most basic form of survival, foraging, has become a new super-hobby, bringing together food-lovers, naturalists and eco-crusaders. Besides creating points of difference in restaurants, sourcing wild foods and local edibles helps small producers stay afloat and fosters a community among outdoor enthusiasts who crave a deeper connection to nature's bounty. And with everyone from backyard hobbyists and educators to big city chefs and extreme gatherers getting in on the action, foraging is the logical next step in the sustainable-food revolution.

The concept of eating what’s available has been ingrained in Alabama chef Chris Hastings since his childhood days spent pulling oysters and clams from South Carolina’s salt marshes. Now the force behind Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club embraces a similar contemporary version of foraging, relying heavily on the tight-knit network of purveyors he’s spent 20 years cultivating. The relationships are symbiotic: He gets a sustainable, quality product, and his business supports small family farmers and fishermen meeting competition from today’s giant manufacturers. “Just as fashion starts on the runways in Paris and ends up in little village boutiques, food from organic farmers shows up in restaurants, and then people start demanding it at their green grocer,” Hastings says. “The chef community has been the missing link between the consumer and the farmer.”

An avid outdoorsman, Hastings started leading four-day foraging excursions in 2007 to highlight the food resources along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Groups go from purveyor to passionate purveyor, tonging for oysters and casting nets for shrimp along the way. “Our country is flooded with subpar, cheap, imported seafood,” Hastings says. “I want people to taste and appreciate what these people do and go home saying, ‘I don’t ever want to buy imported shrimp as long as I live.’”

René Redzepi, the visionary chef behind the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, understands Hastings’ emotional investment. To spotlight the often-overlooked bounty of his native Scandinavia, Redzepi sources three to four days a week from April to November and at least once a week in winter; employs three foragers to supply esoteric ingredients like chickweed and lingonberries; and experiments with new ingredients. “When we first opened, people asked, ‘Why throw your money away on Scandinavian products?’” he recalls. Today Noma has two Michelin stars and is helping to globally define Scandinavian cuisine by catapulting once unknown ingredients like Danish sea urchin into ubiquity. “When you serve a meal, there’s tradition, history, and a sense of place in it,” Redzepi says.

For New York City chef Peter Hoffman, it’s the meticulous gathering of ingredients, like the absolute ripest tomato, that matters most; as a result, he embraces a broader approach to foraging in which quality trumps sentiment. The menus at his restaurants, Savoy and Back Forty, skew local—Hoffman was one of the earliest supporters of Union Square’s Green Market—but at times, he finds it necessary to look beyond New York. The beef for the lauded Back Forty burger, for instance, comes from a Montana ranch that the discerning chef believes is producing some of the best grass-fed meat in the country by intensely managing its cows.

“Food has been marketed as a very passive experience in the US,” says Hoffman, who will taste, smell, and scrutinize products from five different farmers before deciding which crop is worthy of the night’s menus. For him, ascertaining the story of food—where it comes from, how it’s grown, who makes it—is essential to the selection process.

While Hastings’ foraging tours may be the next wave of culinary tourism with mass appeal, extreme gatherers like “Wildman” Steve Brill are taking enthusiasts into nature to source with Survivor-style gusto. He has led foraging tours around the New York tri-state area for more than 20 years, and last year he hosted his largest group to date—75 people—in Central Park. To Brill, sourcing from the farmer’s market or other purveyors isn’t foraging. “That’s shopping,” he scoffs. Brill is less concerned with taste than with connecting people to the environment by teaching them how to identify edible trees and weeds, like sassafras and dandelions.

In England, Fergus Drennan preaches a similar get-back-to-nature gospel. “Foraging is an appreciation for the everyday magical dramas of the natural world,” he says. Drennan, nicknamed “Fergus the Forager,” sees potential even in roadkill and has been known to turn badger intestines into tasty sausages. For a short time he was supplying London’s top restaurants with foraged ingredients but says the experience was a dead end for him environmentally, emotionally, and spiritually. “To transform a wild plant into a commercial product debases both oneself and the magical essence of wild food,” he says. 

Today Drennan runs courses that take people into different habitats to learn how to identify and sustainably harvest wild plants for food. Forty percent of his class involves cooking—usually lunch and dinner, which might consist of salmon stuffed with fennel and elderflower fritters drizzled with birch-sap syrup. After a trip with Drennan, Barbara Skew of Bristol, England, says she was inspired to enhance her diet with more food from the countryside. Skew and her family had previously foraged to a small degree (mostly nuts, berries, and fungi for meals), but after meeting Drennan while producing a BBC radio program, Skew’s daughter signed them up for a thirteen-hour foraging tour. Skew says he showed them new foraging techniques and introduced them to a number of plants that she now incorporates in her diet. She recently made a meal from a dead pheasant her daughter found in a hedge. “It was completely fresh, and post mortem suggested it may have been attacked by a hawk, escaped, and died,” she says. Skew braised it with vegetables, wine, and wild juniper berries collected from a limestone ridge above her house. “Personally, I would prefer if no one took up foraging,” says Skew. “It would leave more for us.”

Story by Jen Murphy. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Foraging: The next food frontier
'The chef community has been the missing link between the consumer and the farmer,' says Alabama chef Chris Hastings.