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Opinion: Inside the ethics of foraging

Why restaurants should care about the distinction between foraged ingredients and purchased forage

Rob Connoley is a chef and restaurant owner with a focus on foraged foods. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Restaurant Hospitality.

If you want to work a chef into a tizzy, just mention customers who exaggerate food allergies. The irony, of course, is the commonplace lies and deceptions that chefs make each day. 

In her “Farm to Fable” exposé, Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times documented that, except for a shockingly small number of restaurants, most chefs were deceiving customers with false claims of altruistic food sourcing.

As an experienced chef and avid forager, my particular beef is with foraged food fables. Every trendy menu has its “wild mushroom” risotto made with fungus that has never smelled the scent of fresh pine. Why should I care about this deception when almost every menu is littered with lies, embellishments and alternative facts? It’s about honesty, authenticity and the integrity of what each chef is selling to the public. 

I can count the number of foraging chefs in the United States on two hands. By foraging chefs, I mean chefs that have muddy boots and a car trunk full of mesh bags and recycled produce boxes. These are not the same as chefs who order their wild greens mix from big suppliers, nor are they the same as chefs who pay professional foragers to bring them wild ingredients. A foraging chef hits the woods and shores most days, and has a menu that changes just as often, based on the bounty. 

I suspect that 95 percent of menus that list “foraged foods” are actually purchased forage. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but it raises questions about knowing your food source — no different from knowing your farmer and their farming practices. Purchasing forage creates a level of disconnect between chef and food that can’t be avoided. Foraging one part walking in the woods and four parts library research.

Foraging chefs are constantly thinking about sustainability, promoting healthy plant growth, removing trash, protecting wildlife and government policies. These are all matters crucial to ensuring a harvest for our next dinner service. Chefs who purchase forage are able to offload the burden onto their supplier. But we continue to realize through the food fraud discussions that purchasing forage may not be a good way of doing business. The more direct the sourcing, the more confidence chefs can have in their ingredients.

When I first began foraging for my restaurant, Curious Kumquat, I remember an article in which a chef in a major Texas city boasted that he served dandelion greens from an abandoned building lot downtown. His words showed no concern for the heavy metal pollutants in the soil, nor the asbestos remnants from the razed building that once stood on the lot. It was just an opportunity to serve “foraged wild greens.”

There was also the California chef who advertised the he bought forage gleaned from the corners of regional vineyards. And while I love the vicia of farmed fields, I would sure as hell confirm that the vineyard was organic before I even thought of serving those weeds, since vineyard chemicals drain to the edge of the plots.

And then there was a high-profile Midwest chef who told his foragers that he needed a certain flower to add petals to a very expensive dish he was creating that night. The foragers knew right where to get it. No need to drive an hour outside the city to get wild, clean ingredients when you can go to the bank three blocks away and steal theirs. I was told that the chef employs a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his foragers, and that he preferred not to know if the plants were legally obtained from a safe environment. 

I wonder if chefs who buy foraged morels know the issues behind commercial picking, and why the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have such strict rules governing these commercial outfits. Just as a chef should know and care about how a farmer raised tonight’s pork, so should they know how their forager gathered the day’s chanterelles.

An interesting takeaway from the “Farm to Fable” exposé was that customers don’t necessarily care about the descriptor put on their food, as long as the food tastes good. Yet chefs feel the need to use the labels local, biodynamic, organically raised, sustainable or foraged, even when they’re not, or they don’t really know — or care — if they are.

It’s no wonder customers lie to chefs about allergies, since so many chefs lie to customers about food. But the critical factor with foraged ingredients is that even if we disregard the potential health concerns, there can be an impact on the environment that lasts years. I recall so-called “Forager to the Stars” Pascal Baudar recounting foraging he did where a very rare plant had been harvested by an unknowing or unethical forager just days earlier. The plant was so rare in the area that it was unlikely that it would be seen for another hundred years. 

Foraging standards and ethical best practices can fit on a single page. They’re not difficult to know or apply when foraging. But they do exist. If you’re serving foraged foods on your menu, I encourage you to reach out to a foraging mentor. We love to share knowledge because we know it’s good for your customers, for sustainability, and for the integrity and authenticity of the “foraged” label on all of our menus. 

As we enter the summer harvest, strap on your boots, but also consider calling your risotto simply “mixed mushroom risotto,” and leave it at that.

The ethics of foraging

While there are no hard and fast rules for foraging, we can learn from the experience of those before us. The following guidelines were shared by my mentors as I was learning. These are considered starting points, not the final word. Your local foragers will welcome the opportunity to share issues relevant to the woods and fields in your area — just ask them.

Guidelines:

1.  Only forage plants that you can absolutely identify.

2. Forage only abundant groves, stands or plants.

3. Always forage with the permission of the land owner, whether it is an individual or a government entity.

4. Consider the role the plant may play in the diets of area wildlife.

5. Never deplete the forage. Always leave plenty to propagate in the future.

6. Do no harm in approaching the foraging area. Enter gently and leave an area better than when you arrived.

7. Do not pick anything within sight of a road or other area of pollution or contaminated runoff.

8. Consult with medicinal herbalists to ensure the health and safety of serving particular plants to guests. 

Excerpted with permission from “Acorns & Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field.  

Rob Connoley is a James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef Southwest and the author of Acorns & Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field (SkyHorse, 2016). He operated the foraged-foods restaurant Curious Kumquat in New Mexico for nearly a decade, and is preparing to open a new foraged foods restaurant, Bulrush STL, in St. Louis, in early 2018.

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