Momofuku’s Swamp Yankee
Posted by Richard Conniff on September 13, 2011
This is a story I wrote about edible biodiversity for the October issue of Outside Magazine.
ONE DAY IN MAY, in a venerable old cemetery somewhere in northwestern Connecticut, a trio of food professionals clusters around a handsome pitch pine tree delicately infused with essence of dead New England farmer. The three of them are greedily plucking pale green buds and stuffing them alternately into plastic baggies and into their mouths. “These are fucking good,” says a test-kitchen chef from the Momofuku restaurant empire. “Great texture!” a colleague agrees.
Evan Strusinski, who makes his living foraging wild foods, steps back and sizes up the tree as if he means to collect the whole damn thing. He eyes the car in which they arrived and asks, “Does this Prius have a roof rack?” Then he eats a few more pine buds and his voice pitches up like Regina Spektor singing about tangerines: “Oh! They’re so poppy! So juicy! They inspire me to nibble.”
“Put it in light syrup, focus on the texture,” the Momofuku guy riffs. “Pine poppers! Serve ’em on ice cream.” Later they notice the lemony-tasting sheep sorrel on a hilltop nearby, and all of them drop to their knees as though in worship.
A certain lunatic enthusiasm for wild foods tends to infect people who go foraging with Strusinski, especially when he is in his usual hunting grounds, in the mountains of Vermont or on the coast of Maine. It’s contagious: Strusinski, a boyish 39-year-old with curly, uncombed hair and a now-and-then beard, will be digging edible roots with his bare hands and suddenly whoop, “I feel like a wild pig foraging for truffles!” Or he’ll push back his battered fedora and start to sing as he works his scissors deftly through the perfect threadlike scapes in a sloping field of ramps—“I’m going to be rich”—and then speculate on how many scapes it will take to procure the 1972 Toyota Land Cruiser of his dreams. (The idea is not entirely far-fetched: he recently paid a doctor with wild mushrooms for removing an awkwardly placed tick.)
Filling out a shipping label one afternoon a few weeks later at a FedEx office in North Clarendon, Vermont, Strusinski pauses over the company-name line and writes “Monsanto Gone Wild.” He does not have a real company name, and his reluctance to come up with one has become both a running joke and a point of pride. (Other proposed names include Forgive Me My Trespasses and Nibble & Spit.) The Styrofoam cooler boxes he uses, mostly set aside for him by local merchants, carry labels saying “Grindstone Neck of Maine” and “Think Tropical Think Tilapia.” In the rush to get everything packed, Strusinski has inadvertently gotten some grass clippings caught under the packing tape. So he scribbles a message along the side: “= Authenticity.”
The destinations of the packages he ships that day include some of the most highly regarded restaurants in New York City: Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, Mario Batali’s Del Posto, David Chang’s Momofuku Ko and Ssäm Bar, Franny’s in Brooklyn, and trendy newcomers Atera and Torrisi Italian Specialties.
And when the packages Strusinski sends get opened in those busy restaurant kitchens, people tend to pause. They gather around to ogle the carefully trimmed cattail shoots, sweet flag, wild ginger, sea beans, and any of about 150 or so other plants, fungi, and even lichens in which Strusinski deals. They inhale deeply as the aroma of black locust flowers comes rolling across the prep tables. “It’s like opening a treasure chest,” says one chef. Another sends Strusinski a text message acknowledging receipt: “Everybody in the kitchen has a culinary boner.” Or, as one of Strusinski’s New York visitors explains it to the FedEx lady, somewhat more discreetly, “He’s a total superstar in New York. All the crazy-famous chefs really adore him.”
TECHNICALLY SPEAKING the wild-foods movement has been around since we first slithered up out of the primordial ooze. Euell Gibbons (“Ever eat a pine tree?”) made it a fad with his 1962 book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and crunchy back-to-the-earth sorts have kept the movement simmering ever since, particularly in Pacific Northwest cuisine. Foraging also has deep roots in Italy, France, Russia, Korea, and Japan, where gathering mushrooms and other wild foods is almost a sacred ritual.
Widespread queasiness about our dependence on the industrialized food system has encouraged the current wild-foods revival, and the ranks of neo-foragers may now number 100,000. “The basic act of knowing how to find your own food, to feed yourself with a meal you didn’t buy,” notes food writer Hank Shaw in his new book Hunt, Gather, Cook, “is a small act of freedom in an increasingly regimented and mechanical world.”
Restaurants have also pushed the movement toward foods that are local and “traceable,” that is, connected as directly as possible to their source. Wild foods take that agenda to its logical extreme. René Redzepi, the chef whose restaurant Noma in Copenhagen has been named the best in the world by San Pellegrino the past two years, is high priest of the movement, making a point, whenever possible, of foraging himself. But when he is in America, he relies, as many top American restaurants do, on wild foods supplied by Evan Strusinski.
Strusinski is plainly thrilled by his sudden success. Until two years ago his life was, by his own description, “scattered.” He grew up in rural Vermont, after his father, a landscape painter, moved the family from New York City with the dream of living an Andrew Wyeth sort of life. He began foraging when a summer-camp counselor pointed to a picture of a plant in a Euell Gibbons book and said, “Find some of this.” At Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Strusinski studied Buddhism but could not sit still long enough. He transferred home to Bennington College to become a dancer but dropped out because he did not have the stuff. The foraging always called him back.
Since college, Strusinski has spent most of his working life in restaurants and on organic farms, including brief stints around Italy and at Istanbul’s Ciya Sofrasi, a restaurant where foraged foods from the provinces sometimes bring Turkish diners to tears at the memory of childhood meals. Even now he has no permanent abode or place of business—just seasonal rentals in Vermont and Maine—and he often ends up preparing shipments in the barns or restaurant kitchens of friends.
His high-end foraging began in 2009, when he was working as a waiter at an upscale restaurant in Camden, Maine, and foraging on the side. From a friend, he heard that Momofuku founder David Chang needed someone to forage for his restaurants, and he thought, I can do that. Strusinski sent off some samples, and word spread quickly to a clique of like-minded chefs. Now they routinely send him text messages asking for sweet flag ($12 a pound), ramp scapes ($10), or whatever else happens to be in season. Sometimes a chef will say, “Send me what you think I will like.” Because there is no conventional market for the stuff he sends, prices can get pulled out of the sky, sometimes literally. When the black locusts flower, money seems to be pelting down like fat New England snowflakes. But mostly it’s a mad scramble to find enough of what his chefs want, and they often gently chide him for undercharging. Whatever the price, they just want more.
Strusinski worries that it’s all just another food-world fad. “I figure I’ve got two years at this,” he says. But he also dreams of bigger things: “I really want to sell to Dot’s Diner down the street.”
DRIVING WITH STRUSINSKI along winding New England back roads, you get the feeling he’s more likely to hit Dot’s Diner broadside. He has his hands in the classic ten-and-two position, simultaneously cradling the wheel and beating out a text message on a smartphone with both thumbs. Then, without looking sideways, he yelps, “Angelica! Did you see that angelica? I’m text messaging and I saw angelica!” Angelica is a tall herb with reddish-green flowers, and you can candy the stem. Then he adds, “Elder,” for a tree whose flowers, just blossoming, make a good cocktail ingredient. Sometimes he drives with his head hanging backward out the window, tantalized by a promising glimpse of color, pattern, or habitat in the forest. Then he’ll suddenly ululate and lurch to the side of the road to collect some chanterelles.
When he goes into the woods, his methods are a testimony to the hidden powers of attention-deficit disorder. In Maine he frets aloud about what he might be missing in Vermont, and in Vermont he frets about Maine. Everywhere, always, he frets about what kind of artistry chefs are up to with the foods he has sent them—Arctic char brined with sweet flag and sprinkled with black locust flowers, or lamb cooked in butter infused with tamarack tree needles. All the while, his eyes are drifting restlessly, alert to certain leaf shapes or, in early June, the combination of tree species and soil disturbance that could mean morel mushrooms.
He finds things, he explains, by not quite looking for them: “I’m just scanning. If you put up an image of the thing in your mind, you’re looking through a filter. You’re not going to find it, because it’s not going to match your image. It’s more a color or a pattern. I’ll scan very generally, and then my eye will catch it and I’ll swing back and sort of tease it out from the area.”
The rest of the world may be content to get 80 percent of its agricultural tonnage from a dozen dull, reliable plants—corn, wheat, rice, and the like. But Strusinski lives to find strange and tasty (or sometimes just strange) new things for dinner. Standing on a stony beach on Penobscot Bay, with a lobster boat rumbling past and a foghorn lowing, he spots a plant growing just in front of the tree line and cries, “Oh! Look at this! It’s called sea rocket.” He and a visitor nibble but do not spit because it tastes too good. It has the peppery bitterness of arugula but in crisp, succulent leaves packed with sweet and salty moisture, as if the ocean has suddenly become a plant. “We are standing in a gold mine!” he says. None of his clients in New York has ever seen sea rocket before, and he means to get it to them overnight, in pristine condition, even if he has to drive it there himself. “I want them to flip. I want to get to even the most conservative of them.” He takes out his scissors, conjures up his best Thor voice, and yells, “OK, let’s start pillaging! Let the thunder begin.” Later, he mentions that, before today, he had never tasted sea rocket. But he had read about it and seen a photograph. “I knew it grew on the coast, I knew it had that mustardy look. One little nibble and that was easy.”
His chefs also crave novelty, but sometimes they balk: “‘Hemlock shoots… Didn’t Socrates die from that?’” Strusinski explains that Socrates actually died from a feathery herbaceous weed that also happens to be called hemlock but is not related. “The only way a hemlock tree can hurt you,” he says, “is if it falls on you.” When someone asks if milkweed shoots need to be boiled three times to leach out the bitterness, he replies, “A lot of that started with Euell Gibbons writing incorrectly because he was eating dogbane, which is similar in appearance.”
The combination of extraordinary wild foods backed up with encyclopedic knowledge is one reason chefs have come to rely on Strusinski. Story is a popular buzzword in the food world, and Strusinski’s eccentric business practices, though sometimes frustrating, also make him more appealing, more authentic, to certain restaurants. The stuff he sends “is not some fabricated thing that comes out of a plastic bag,” says Matt Rudofker, a sous-chef at Ssäm Bar. “You have to pick out the leaves and clean off the dirt,” and that’s part of the charm. It might be easier if Strusinski concentrated on a short list of menu-friendly foods. But his latest novelties force chefs to think about food in new ways.
“There’s a fascination with information about plants that we as cooks are not intimately familiar with,” says Michael Anthony, executive chef at Gramercy Tavern. He recently served a dessert of marinated strawberries, for instance, and the addition of grated wild ginger from Strusinski “really married well with the strawberries and the lemon, in a way that was surprising and kind of confounding for people.
“More than that,” Anthony adds, “it’s like somebody who forages is connecting us to a separate universe that is right in front of our noses, part of our natural world that we don’t even really see. We’ve grown disconnected, and this isn’t really part of our living culture. And it’s strange because not all that long ago, people not only recognized and celebrated these things, they depended on them.”
So what are the chances of getting that back, of having ideas from Gramercy Tavern filter down to the diners of the world? Strusinski isn’t a businessman at heart, nor a proselytizer for big ideas. “I don’t want to be Willy Loman opening my briefcase,” he says. But his heart soars for a moment when the chef at a café on a Maine island says he is planning a Wild Foods Friday. Then it turns out he just means mussels, wild mushrooms, and “gazpacho from my garden.” Hold the sea rocket.
AT TWO ON A THURSDAY afternoon, Strusinski is behind the wheel again, humming the theme from Mission: Impossible, intent on getting a shipment of goose-tongue grass and rose hips to a FedEx office an hour south. First, though, there’s a beach where he thinks the sea beans might just be up, and when that turns out to be a bust he switches to a stand of wood sorrel instead. Everywhere, he stops to peer into yards and woods that are known to have produced morels or chanterelles in previous years. “These spots that I have, they’re like my children,” he explains. “I have to check in on them. I feel their pull.”
People often think that what he does is strange, Strusinski says. He once summarily sent a reporter from the Wall Street Journal out of the woods because she did not understand the pleasure of matsutake mushrooms. “Why not fall in love with mushrooms?” he asks. “It’s always surprising when I see the mushrooms in a new season. I can’t be sure they’re coming back and then they do, and every time it delights me, it takes my breath away for a moment. When I’m an old man and can no longer go foraging, if you hold a chanterelle under my nose, the smell will make me weep.”
That might sound wacky in the context of the United States, he says, but in Italy, for instance, “porcini hunting is not just some light thing. It’s an annual ritual, with the whole family going out.” It’s a way of knowing where they live and even who they are. “People at the train station will stop you so they can smell your porcini.”
Now and then, he says, something like that will happen to him in this country, too. Last summer in Camden, Maine, a group of Korean tourists were walking by, and they caught a glimpse of the matsutake mushrooms in his trunk. “I wasn’t really showing, but I was showing, and everybody gathered around. They elbowed me back like a bystander, and everyone was going through the trunk like it was their own. They were wielding them, they were smelling them, they were doing these little dances with them. One woman got into a parked car with a mushroom, and I went over to see what she was doing and she was holding it up to the nose of an old woman, who was inhaling it reverentially.” Afterward, they put everything back and left Strusinski behind, beaming. “Their pleasure was my pleasure,” he says.
Maybe it’s an impossible dream to think Americans, outside of a few fashionable restaurants, might also feel that kind of excitement. But for a moment, it was almost as if Dot’s Diner had come to him.