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When Tama Matsuoka Wong went for a meal at Daniel Boulud's world famous Daniel restaurant in New York for some reason she decided to take along a small plant from the meadow where she lives.
It didn't take long for the chef de cuisine Eddy Leroux to find out about this curious dinner who had brought her own ingredients to the restaurant and before long that foraged plant was transformed by Eddy in to what Tama describes as a 'fantastic dish for dinner'. It was also the beginning of a three year collaboration that's seen duo team up with Tama becoming Eddy's foraging companion.
It's a collaboration that involves Tama finding, sourcing and foraging ingredients and delivering her weekly finds to the restaurant for Eddy to turn into dishes on the menu. But Eddy explains that it took a bit longer than one meal to develop such a strong relationship and that it took a lot of research before he would place any of Tama's ingredients on the menu at Daniel.
"I spent a year with Tama researching the taste profile of these ingredients first before I decided to put them on the menu. So by now I have established a database of the plants and a calendar of when they are generally available and can use them to highlight the seasonality of our dishes. These seasonal high quality ingredients have a complex and rich flavor profile and that is the driving force behind the restaurant."
After spending this time developing profiles of the seasonal foraged ingredients available to the pair, Tama eventually became Eddy's head forager. In the beginning she would often lug the ingredients in a huge sack on the subway, not the easiest job, as she reveals: "On a foraging day I get up around 5:30 am. Sometimes I forage on my own place, sometimes I forage at my assistants place (she has a 250 acre farm) and sometimes we have planned to go together to a place that has the volume of what flavor Eddy has decided he needs and we talked about earlier in the week. We pick what we need and then bring it back and stick it in the foraging refrigerator. Divide in to bags, weigh and label.”
"When I am in the field I may see something that completely surprises me, like a great patch of yellow mellilot. I give out a "Whoop" in the field and immediately text Eddy with a photo from my iPhone. Then he texts back about how much to bring in, etc. In my head I am always carrying around a list of new plants to try or different season for a plant so if something looks exuberant I will pounce on it."
It's a unique coupling of chef and urban forager and one that's seen the pair develop some very interesting dishes. Cardamine Cress with Fennel and Orange Vinaigrette; Braised Beef, Dandelion Leaves, and Clear Noodles - a whole array of foraged creations.
The pair have even released a book called Foraged Flavor in which Tama sets out some tips and advice for other people who want to take up urban foraging and Eddy others up around 88 different recipes from the duo's work together.
Tama is passionate about the rise in popularity of foraged ingredients and reveals that she now delivers to small organic farms, restaurants, schools and independent grocers who want to use the ingredients she finds. "I think people are starting to recognize that it is a great way that they can get their own food and also that it is reconnecting them with the way we used to get food, we just lost the knowledge and practice. People are also thinking about their health and realizing that we need to incorporate more nutritious plants in our diets."
The increased interest in foraging is down to many factors, the rise in notoriety of chefs like Rene Redzepi who has been flying the flag for foraged local ingredients for many years. A more discerning palate and more focus on where food is sourced all play a role in this change in attitude towards foraging.
"I think in the future foraging will continue to grow” Tama says. “People will start to make more practical use of the space around them, so instead of a wall to wall carpet of lawn or ornamental garden, they will start to use some of these unused spaces and unwanted wild plants in wild kitchen gardens. It doesn't take a lot of tools or money to start foraging for yourself."
With collaborations like this between Tama and Eddy urban foraging's popularity will only continue to rise.