Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager
As much as we may cherish the summer’s bliss of a dotingly-cultivated heirloom tomato or a perfect, luscious peach, ingredients that grow wild, on the forest floor, exert a sort of exotic, irresistible allure. And suddenly, it seems, they’re everywhere. Adventurous diners no longer bat an eye at the likes of knotweed, prickly ash, stinging nettles or spruce shoots peppering the borough’s menus. This sheer variety of once-unfamiliar edibles, a powerful and delicious reminder of our planet’s staggering creative force, has ushered in a fresh sense of culinary wonder and delight on both sides of the kitchen door.
At Franny’s, doyenne of the simple, seasonal dining ethos that has swept through the borough like love’s first blush, foraged things have found their way into every corner of the menu, altering the restaurant’s DNA and opening the minds of a diner or two. And this, it turns out, is thanks largely to one man: Evan Strusinski, a professional forager who, over the past three years, has single-handedly forged a pipeline that’s now streaming a river of wild berries, blossoms, shoots and leaves from the woods of Vermont and islands of Maine into many of the city’s finest kitchens.
Always curious about the forest floor, for this episode of Field 2 Fork we travel north to spend a day in the woods with Mr. Strusinski, then follow the fruits of the forage back to the kitchen at Franny’s, on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Heights, where co-chef John Adler works his magic and waxes poetic on the often-profound charms of wild foods.
From the Forest Floor…
So Evan, how did you come to be a professional forager? To do this for a living?
Well, there are a lot things that factor into how I’ve come to be doing this. I grew up in Vermont, spending a lot of time in the woods. When I was a child, my father used to bring home trout he caught and cook them in the cast iron pan for us. So there was always a connection to the outside – the natural world.
I worked for a while on a series of farms, both here in Vermont and in Maine. Eventually I started working in restaurants in Maine, and while I was doing that, the chefs started seeking out mushrooms. So I started looking for mushrooms in my spare time, and it expanded from there. I started finding all kinds of other things, and I decided to try to see if I could get the chefs interested in things beyond mushrooms. I started them off with chanterelles and that sort of thing as a kind of gateway. And then I started plying them with other things. The samples. [laughter.]
I just wanted to do what I enjoyed doing, and what I enjoyed doing most was being in the woods. Pretty soon after I started foraging for mushrooms, I was making as much money selling mushrooms to restaurants as I was actually working in the restaurants. I enjoyed working in restaurants, but what happened as I started foraging was that I’d get up every morning and go into the woods, and I liked it. It was an adventure. It was all about discovery. It was just fun. A pure game – day after day it was, “What is this thing? This mushroom? This bush? This berry?” Another world sort of opened up for me.
And then three o’clock would come around and I’d have to go into the restaurant, and I’d just be deflated. I’d be in the middle of this beautiful forest, picking chanterelles, giddy with excitement, and then the ball and chain would strike, pulling me in to my job. So eventually I quit and started doing this full time, supplying chefs in Maine at first.
When and how did you make the leap to supplying New York City chefs?
It started three years ago. This guy Ryan Miller, who’s the chef at Momofuku Ssam Bar emailed me. He expressed some interest. I sent him some samples. He and a few of the other chefs from the Momofuku world came up to visit and we became friendly, and we started working together. So that’s where I cut my teeth. They’ve been great. It’s been a really fun relationship and I love working with them.
And it grew through word of mouth for the most part. Every once in a while they’d say, “You know, this restaurant or that restaurant is interested in your stuff. Should I pass along your information?” I didn’t know whether other people would be interested. I didn’t really pursue anyone else. But they were interested. It’s kind of incredible how interested chefs in New York have become.
There are legends out there of you rolling up unannounced at a restaurant you’ve never worked with before, blowing chefs’ minds with samples of stuff they’ve never heard of packed in the trunk…
That is one of my favorite things. It’s somewhat rare that I stop by a place without any introduction, but it does happen. If I know of a place and I think, “You know, it could be cool to work with those guys…” If I’m finding things that I’m excited about that I know would have an application on their menu, then I’ll do it.
I just pull up and park outside. I go in and say, “Hey, I think I have something you might be interested in.” They come out to the street. The trunk opens. It’s full of this medley of stuff from the forest. We look at things, try things. I know how it works now – At first they’re usually a little hesitant. Maybe a little suspicious. But they come out, try some things, the eyebrows go up, they get interested and they open up and a relationship begins.
There’s a real pleasure in that for me – bringing things to chefs that they’ve never had before, or may never have even heard of. It’s like opening a little portal into a parallel universe. And that can be exciting, for them and for me. If it’s not exciting for them, it’s terribly boring for me. This isn’t about the money – it’s all for the pleasure of it.
I pulled up to Jean Georges, in midtown, just the other week. I’d never been there before. I talked to the head chef. He came outside. We opened up the trunk and he started pulling things out, one after another, that he’d never worked with before. He didn’t know them, and they had a quality that got his attention and that got him a little excited.
There are some Japanese places in the East Village. I stopped by one called Kajitsu a few weeks ago. I’ve been finding something called Japanese angelica. I don’t know why they call it that because it’s actually related to angelica in any way. In Japan they call it tara-no-ki. They fry the shoots in tempura batter – it’s one of the delicacies of spring there. I knew that, and I knew you just can’t get the stuff in New York markets. So I thought they might be interested in it, and that they might be happy that I brought it by. So I dropped by and they liked it.
I’ve been finding wild bamboo too. I told them about it and they ordered two pounds. I brought it to them and they immediately ordered fifty-five pounds. They wanted it all. [laughter.] That happens fairly frequently.
Chefs seem to be eagerly diving down the rabbit hole of wild foraged things, and that’s led in turn to some excitement with diners. What’s your take on the allure of stuff from the forest floor?
I think it’s a logical extension of the local food movement. Once the interest in local foods and farm-to-table dining became so well entrenched, it made sense that the next step would be an interest in the hyper-local – in those edible things that grow in our backyards, along our stream banks, and in our forests. These are hyper-seasonal things. Most last only a few weeks. Often I’ll give chefs a sample of something, and by the time they process it, play around with it, work it into their menu and tell me they want more, it’ll be done for the year. That’s part of the learning process for them, and it can be frustrating.
I think that a lot of the time when a chef is new to this, they both love it and hate it. Chefs are taught that everything is about control, and foraged ingredients, because they’re so hyper-seasonal, add a kind of arbitrary element that can conflict with planning and control. It’s more about being attuned to what’s happening in the natural world right now. Working with this stuff forces a chef to be more improvisational. But they’re starting to get used to it. A lot of the chefs I work with in New York – it’s their second or third season working with me, so they know what to expect, when to expect it, and how to use it.
And I think that when they’re a little more comfortable with it, a lot of them start to get a lot of pleasure out of it. They begin to anticipate the season of something, and it’s very sweet when that thing arrives, and even when it passes. Because it has such a brief window, it’s like a mini-celebration. So the whole year becomes a series of little celebrations of these fleeting wild things, one after another after another. We mark our days by ingredients. We mark our years by seasons, and by the ingredients that populate those seasons. So the more ingredients, interesting ingredients, you have to work with, the more you have to celebrate and get excited about.
I can tell you something else. When I take people mushroom picking, even the most disinterested person becomes enthusiastic very quickly. There’s something hard wired in us, that likes the pursuit of wild food. It’s the combination of the hunt and the prize. I’ve seen it over and over again. They just turn into a child in pursuit of that treasure. There’s something pure about it that people just seem to naturally respond to.
So what’s your process? How do you actually find the things you’re looking for?
I grew up here, so I know the area very well, but that doesn’t really matter. You could spot me down anywhere, especially in New England, and I’ll be able to come up with the stuff. I have enough experience now that it’s second nature. I can’t drive the seven miles to the nearest town without passing galaxies of spots where there are all kinds of things to find. It’s a universe in between. Some spots produce in the spring, some in summer, some in fall. Every spot has its season, but they’re everywhere, all around us.
I spend a lot of time in winter doing research. It’s a great time for scouting because you can see deep into the woods. You can see the terrain, as it moves, without the obstruction of leaves. I gather spots in winter. I have notebooks full of them. That’s part of the game – very detailed notes. Hundreds and hundreds of places. I have places that are tried and true, places that have potential, and places that I haven’t even had time to check yet. All in notebooks. Beer stained notebooks. [laughter.]
And how did you learn all this?
I started by just walking around, looking at things. It was purely a personal interest at first. It was the same thing for me with birds. I just started walking around looking at birds. Getting to know what they looked like, their habitat, their songs – without guidebooks or anything. And later I supplemented what I’d learned by reading. It’s the same with plants – observing, referencing books, asking people who are more knowledgeable than you, and discovering things. Enthusiasm is the best teacher.
What’s a typical day like for you? How do you keep up with the demand?
I have lists of things that I can get each week, and I send those out. People are constantly emailing me with orders, so my phone is constantly buzzing. I prefer that people call, but who does that anymore?
At this time of year, I’m up early, dashing around to various spots to fill the day’s orders, fielding all these emails and texts, racing back here to the garage to package everything in bags and coolers for shipment, and racing to the FedEx office at the end of the day to get everything out.
I have relationships with a lot of restaurants now, where if I have something I know they’ll like, I just send it in whatever quantity I think is probably good for them. They tend to trust me after working with me for a few weeks to know what will fit into their menu and to know what quantity is sufficient. It works out.
But it’s already more than I can keep up with. I have a problem saying ,”No.” I don’t sleep much. The momentum keeps building and I just can’t stop because there are always more requests, more orders that I have to fill. It’s just non-stop from April to October. I feel like John Henry. [laughter.]
I suppose some day I’ll have to hire people. I’ll have to get someone to manage it, because I’m no manager. At all. Or maybe I’ll just not do it anymore.
What would you do?
Oh, I don’t know. Go into seclusion? [laughter.]
…To Flatbush Ave., in the kitchen at Franny’s, with Chef John Adler
So John, tell us a little about the approach at Franny’s, and how incorporating Evan’s foraged ingredients into the menu has affected what you do.
We tailor our menu here around what’s in season, and available locally. We get all of our produce, with the exception of onions and garlic, from the market and from local farmers directly. The question we always ask ourselves is, “How do we take the best products at the peak of their season, and treat them very simply?” Because if you’re working with the best product, you really don’t need to do much with them.
We love working with Evan. I’d say that he has changed the restaurant, in some pretty profound ways. The thing about seasonal cooking is, it gets repetitive. If you’re committed to a farm-to-table, seasonal approach – and we definitely are – you are starting out, by definition, in a rut. You’re limited to working with what’s at the market right now. It can be easy to get complacent. You’re not pushed, and that can get dull. But when you’re working with Evan, nothing is dull. There’s this constant influx of things that are new and unexpected. It’s challenging and it’s exciting.
Honestly, when a box from Evan arrives, you start to feel like that kid on Christmas. You get this box. You don’t know what’s in it. You might be hoping something specific is in it, but you don’t know. And you open it and it’s like a shiny new toy, each week. All the cooks here – people who’ve worked all around the world – you’d think they’d be jaded by now. But when Evan’s box comes in, they’re all freaking out, burying their faces in chanterelles or whatever’s in there. It’s cool. It’s really cool.
So what are we making today? What was in the box this week?
We’re making a salad featuring watercress and oxeye daisy, both foraged by Evan. Watercress, you’re familiar with. Oxeye daisy is a wild daisy that Evan picks before the flowers bloom. It’s got a really nice bitter flavor. To that we’re adding two different kinds of pea shoots – regular pea shoots and Lamborn pea shoots, which we get from Mountain Sweet Berry Farm. The farmer, Rick Bishop, is an amazing guy. He farms like a chef – for flavor, which is pretty unusual.
Then we’re adding some vegetables. We’ve got some of the first zucchini of the season, some zephyr squash, red onion, and two kinds of radishes, all raw and shaved on the mandolin.
And we’ve got two dressings for this salad. We start with a simple lemon vinaigrette – it’s just lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. The vegetables are a little heavier than the greens, so we’ll dress them now and let them marinate a bit.
The second dressing is made with creme fraiche, garlic confit, dill, basil, and white wine vinegar. When we’re ready to plate, we start by spreading the crème fraiche dressing on the plate, then we toss the veggies and greens with the vinaigrette and place them on top.
The idea behind this salad is to highlight that delicate crispness and freshness of spring vegetables and the contrasting flavors of the season. So you’ve got the sweetness of the zucchini and pea shoots, the spice of the wild watercress, crunchy and peppery radishes, sweet and pungent onion, and a creamy herb dressing to tie the raw flavors together and to mitigate some of the spice from the ‘cress and radishes.
You mentioned that working with Evan is both challenging and exciting. Does it make your job harder? Easier?
In some ways it makes our job harder. You’re dealing with unfamiliar ingredients that are in season for a very short time. It’s unreliable – you don’t know whether he’s going to be able to find what you request, or in the quantity you request, and you don’t know where you are in line to get it. Like morels – we don’t get morels. They’re so rare that he can only supply a few people with morels. And that’s fine.
So it may make things harder in some ways, but it makes everything better. Because you don’t ever have to worry about feeling challenged or inspired. You never need to force yourself to be creative. It keeps you out of that rut, and that’s the best thing you can have as a chef – a constant mainline of challenging, unfamiliar wild ingredients to tap into.
It challenges Danny [Franny’s co-chef Danny Amend] and I – forces us out of our comfort zone. And it’s not just in the kitchen. Our bartenders love it too. They’re making bitters with his stuff, and cocktails. It gives them something new to play with every week. So the influence of Evan’s ingredients just spreads throughout the restaurant. It changes the way everyone thinks. It introduces a little bit of adventure.
I got to work with Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern when they were both up at Stone Barns. I remember a conversation I had with Mike about the composition of dishes. He said, “One thing you can never forget is kireji.” He speaks fluent Japanese. I said, “What do you mean? What’s that?” He explained that in traditional haiku, there is something called kireji, or the cutting syllable. The principle of haiku is that there are three phrases in the poem – the first with five syllables, the second with seven, and the third with five. The kireji appears at the end of one of those phrases, and transforms a single short poem into two sort of separate, but related, poems that work in harmony, mirrored within the haiku. He said, “Every dish needs that cutting syllable.”
It’s an interesting principle, and something that’s always stuck in my head. I think that if you expand that concept to the context of a restaurant, Evan’s boxes are our cutting syllable. It’s really…it’s exciting. He’s taught us to expand our game.
Beyond the variety of ingredients that working with Evan offers, tell us about quality. What’s different about them?
To me, anything that grows in the wild grows the way the world intended it to grow. It tastes the way it should taste. I worked at Per Se for a while with Brad McDonald, who’s the chef at Colonie in Brooklyn Heights. He works with Evan too. Brad has this line about the point of local food. He says, “You have to know what your dirt tastes like.” It’s such a smart way of thinking about it. And that’s the thing – Evan’s ingredients taste like the forest, and smell like the forest, at a particular moment in time. They taste they way they were created to taste – the way nature, not people, created them to taste. With foraged things, nature is the control. And it’s awesome to be able to work with that kind of product.
Franny’s is located at 295 Flatbush Avenue, between Prospect Place and St. Marks, in Prospect Heights.
All photography by the cool and courageous Morgan Ione Yeager, who braved swarms of mosquitos and ticks to bring us this look at the glamourous world of foraging. All rights reserved.