This June, join us as we defy the confines of the kitchen and look outside. If you need us, we'll be exploring the Great Outdoors.
"It started as a hobby. There was a lot of a demand and I have a hard time saying no, and here I am. It's become this thing that I just can't shake. It's become part of my persona."
That's Evan Strusinski, otherwise known as Evan the Forager. He's been sourcing wild produce professionally for the last seven years, supplying everything from morels to plants you didn't even know were edible to some of the East Coast's top restaurants—from Boston, to Philadelphia, to New York City, where most of his clients are located.
With peak foraging season upon us, tracking down Strusinski wasn't easy, but he took some time out of his long day to share a little glimpse into his wild world.
A typical day for Strusinski starts around 7 a.m. and ends around 9 p.m. Much of the time he's on his own, unless a chef has tagged along or it's a delivery day around Manhattan, which he enjoys just as much as the quiet, isolated moments out in the wild.
Photo: Evan Strusinski
"It's just me and the forest and the mushrooms I'm foraging," he says. On delivery days, though, he relishes "the immediacy" that translates between him and the chefs. (Getting a fried chicken sandwich from The Dutch or a salt-rimmed margarita from Cosme while doing drop-offs doesn't hurt either.)
When we spoke, Strusinski was in Vermont, having recently made the trip north from Pennsylvania. Following the seasons, he'll eventually end up in Maine, where he'll finally get some rest. For now, he works nonstop.
"It's a very athletic season," he says.
Not only must Strusinski be on his feet all day in search of obscure ingredients, he must also be available at Mother Nature's disposal. If it rains one night, a batch of mushrooms might crop up that he'll want to seek out. What drives Strusinski and the chefs he works with is the marked difference in the flavor of wild ingredients. Novelty is certainly part of it, but quality is another.
Pam Yung of Brooklyn's Semilla knows this well. Working with Evan regularly, she only sources local and sustainable ingredients. Describing the "intense flavor" of the wild bamboo she just used—versus the conventional kind you can buy in Chinese markets— it's clear there's no comparison.
With her sights now set on upcoming rose blossoms, "which grow wild on the beach and smell so strong they'll perfume the whole restaurant," she reflects on a recent batch of fragrant foraged cherry blossoms. She infused some into syrups and sauces, and dehydrated other for garnishes. Unique ingredients like these give chefs a chance to get really creative, and by extension, introduce the diner to all kinds of new flavors and dishes too.
Photo: Evan Strusinski
Another case in point? Jonathan Wu of Fung Tu, who has also worked with Stusinski, and his "hyper seasonal" amuse bouche made with foraged Toon tree leaves. Served as an egg white meringue that has been poached in aromatic dashi and surrounded by Toon leaves, it's a bite inspired both by a scrambled eggs dish his grandmother used to make and the classic French dessert floating islands. He calls it the Toon Cloud.
Foragers like Strusinski don't only provide chefs with incredibly unique ingredients. They also inspire those stuck in the kitchen to go far afield or get in touch with their roots. A niche but heavily covered part of vegetable-forward dining for years, foraging is nothing new. The beautiful thing about it, however, is that there's always something new to dig up and uncover. And, like the ingredients he harvests, Stusinski remains a rare, and special breed—dare we even say a secret weapon.
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