- Associated Press - Monday, September 13, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO | When Chef Josh Skenes first sought the flavor of Northern California, he went to local growers. Then he went beyond farms, joining a growing number of urbanites who are returning to humanity’s first pursuit — foraging — in a search for food that satisfies a deeper hunger.

Eating foods that grow wild and learning to identify, harvest and prepare them satisfy a need to connect to the environment in a novel way. As a bonus, spicy pods of wild radishes and sweet fennel flowers can be delicious, especially in the hands of Mr. Skenes, a veteran of top restaurants who is one of a growing number of several high-profile chefs incorporating wild elements into his menu.

Mr. Skenes said the greens, roots, flowers and berries that thrive in California’s sun- and fog-drenched landscape taste sharper and purer than their farmed cousins.

“How do you find the deepest point in flavor?” he asked. “The wild is usually the answer. You can’t duplicate nature. There is a difference between something that grows naturally and something that is forced.”

Many might doubt the wisdom of eating stinging nettles or the tiny, stringent berries of the pink-flowered currant. But Mr. Skenes has found a following among San Francisco’s affluent, food-mad denizens. Demand has pushed him to expand, in one year, from once-a-week suppers to a full restaurant serving an eight-course tasting menu.

He’s in good company. Plenty of wild food is on the city’s best menus, from the venerable Chez Panisse, which has long served wild mushrooms, to Daniel Paterson’s Coi.

Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters said wild foods provide a direct connection to the outside world, untouched by human influence.

“The flavor and appearance of fennel flowers, miner’s lettuce, golden chanterelles or pristine Pacific king salmon is determined solely by the nature of each, uninfluenced by the desires of growers or consumers,” Ms. Waters said.

The drive to get close to nature — close enough to taste it — has inspired others as well.

The group ForageSF throws several monthly dinners that sell out at $80 a person, gathering enthusiasts around a communal table heaped with dishes such as wild fennel flan with blood-red daikon, garlic crostini and duck confit, or drakes bay oysters with tempura-fried sea beans.

The founder, Iso Rabins, plans to start offering subscriptions to wild-food boxes with vegetables, mushrooms and fish, where harried, time-pressed city dwellers can take home tasty bits of wilderness produce gathered by experienced foragers.

“When you know what’s edible in your area, you never look at the environment in the same way again,” Mr. Rabins said. “You value it more — it’s less abstract.”

Kevin Feinstein, a forager and instructor with the group, agreed.

“We come at it from the perspective of ‘uber-sustainability,’” he said. “We are part of the ecosystem. We want to be involved in it. Ideally, it’s a reciprocal relationship.”

The interest in wild food walks also shows how foraging has grown. On a recent Saturday, 15 people gathered in the parking lot of an Oakland park to follow Mr. Feinstein as he identified edible plants.

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