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Food Foraging for Fun

That’s right, some hotels are heading out to the woods to find components for their guest’s next meal.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Caryn Eve Murray
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Hotels catering to guests with a taste for adventure make sure they have a menu of offerings – ingredients like kayaking, hot-air ballooning, zip-lining, mountain biking and rafting.

But sometimes a salad – or even a mushroom fricassee – is the single item on that adventure menu that offers the most extreme experience of all. Serving a palate that craves anything but domesticated offerings, a meal foraged directly from Mother Nature means it’s not only OK to go wild in the hotel kitchen but sometimes preferable.

Foraging for ingredients to fill a hotel menu embraces more than just mushrooms, berries and wild herbs. And it’s more than a mere contest to out-locavore even the most committed locavores. And an increasing number of chef-practitioners see it as a total mind-and-body experience, for themselves as well as guests.

The emerging acceptance of foraging is, in a way, the culinary legacy left to us from our earliest ancestors, according to chef Branden Lewis, instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. “Since the dawn of man we have always been foraging. Humans were scavengers gatherers and then hunters and farmers and now we are consumers. Foraging has always been there, but it is becoming popular again because we are in an age of defiance against consumerism and agribusiness. The locavore and slow food movements have emerged and what is emerging with them is farmers markets, organic labeling and sustainable farming. And so too, foraged foods have become popular.”

Bud Thomas, chef de cuisine at the Hotel Madeline Telluride in Colorado, said the height of the foraging experience for him culminates in a full, 5-course formal dinner outdoors paired with wine, served high on a mesa where the meal is also prepared, not far from where many of its ingredients – the wild onions, the porcinis, the sweet root - were growing only hours earlier. It is all presented on fine china, atop white tablecloths.

“To be able to cook without a floor and a ceiling is one of the great things,” said Thomas. “One of the monotonous things about being a chef is that it is repetitive. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is how you gain excellence. But it is also fun for all of us to get out of the kitchen and be silly, and translate that into the food.”

Even if the meal is cooked and served indoors, as it is for most of the year, foraging also provides freshness and a renewed connection with the earth. “It’s one thing to gather food from the wood, quite another to eat it only minutes or an hour after the food has been taken out of the ground,” he said.

The concept, Thomas said, was not a hard sell to guests, particularly attendees at the mesa dinner earlier this season. “Everyone was giddy, there is something about the idea of eating in the elements, food just tastes better,” he said.

Although foraging success depends on access to land where things grow – for obvious reasons – Thomas said urban hotel kitchens can forage too, if there are parks in the city.

“I think if you are really creative, you could make it work anywhere if you think outside the box. It depends where you are and if you do your homework,” he said.

For Richard Potts, executive chef at Sorrel River Ranch Hotel and Spa, the welcome mat for foraging was woven from the leaves of the eponymous sorrel outside the front doors of the Moab, Utah, luxury resort, which sits on 166 acres of ranch.

“Our whole line is this is where luxury meets adventure,” Potts said. “There is a lot of fun and adventure in eating local, indigenous things and things growing within reach.” Indigenous plants are his focus this year – imparting a taste of Utah. Wild greens, edible clover, dandelion and the like “come out of the ground really quickly,” he said, once the foraging season gets rolling in May. The season later progresses into wild plantain and prickly pear – two other indigenous offerings.

Having a combination of prairie and desert gives him even more options – as does the section of desert the resort irrigates using the Colorado River. He also takes advantage of the wild herbs and other plants that, he said, “pop up because so many people have grown seeds here over the years.”

A lifelong forager, Potts is now teaching his cooks the safe way to collect kitchen ingredients. “We need people to understand and recognize the way things look in their natural state,” h e said. The resort also makes use of its cultivated plants, which are raised in the on-site garden. If the harvest is not sufficient for an entrée, he fashions a tasting menu, or creates a side dish to the main course.

“I think everybody has been looking to be more locavore, but it is so cool when you can be a hyperlocavore. That is what we have been going for,” Potts said.

Of course, for Thomas, the spirit of foraging in and around Colorado’s Lizard Head Pass lives on even after the short, six-week season has ended. He then – necessarily – outsources when he can, bringing in foraged foods from elsewhere.

He also uses his foraged bounty to fashion new dishes.

“My most successful [foraged] dish this year has been the wild mushroom fricassee,” Thomas said. “It is like beef stroganoff but it has no beef in it. It was one of our starters this fall and everyone was blown away. It is a very simple and beautiful dish. It is on my menu for winter too,” he said, but it will incorporate commercial mushrooms when all the foraged ingredients are gone from the freezer.

It’s all part of the challenge,, said Lewis. “A lot of people describe foraging as the last wild frontier,” he said. “And as long as we have forests that are being protected and as long as the food is there, people will continue to heed the call of the wild because it is a passion for people.

“For the forager it is a passion, for the cook or chef it is a passion, and for the diner,” he said, “it is an adventure.”

Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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