Connie Green, who gives herself the title “head huntress,” is a professional forager and the author of The Wild Table (Viking Studio, 2010). In the wee hours of the morning, she sets out from her Napa Valley home to hunt down exotic mushrooms and other wild ingredients for picky chefs and top restaurants. We sat down with Green to find out exactly what a professional forager does.
Q. Describe a typical day on the job.
A. Mushrooms and other wild plants are in the best condition early in the morning. So I get up in the dark and equip my vehicle. The essentials include baskets, knives, an ice chest, my backpack and very good boots. Then I head out to patches in the woods that I already know, rotating out from those and continually scouting the best places to return to the next day. It’s a pretty secretive affair; I sometimes take another person with me, but often go alone.
I devote 2 to 5 hours to picking, then head home. The afternoon is all about prep work. Each wild thing needs special care. It can take several hours just to wipe the dirt off the mushrooms. I then deliver orders six days a week.
Q. How did you connect with your restaurant customers?
A. When I started out 30 years ago, I ran into only two chefs who had ever seen a chanterelle. I started educating chefs in the early days of the California cooking era, knocking on back doors of restaurants in San Francisco, the Bay Area and Napa Valley. The strategy worked—I now have 180 restaurants as customers and I ship as far as Las Vegas and New Orleans. I also have a family of people who roam the land from Alaska to Montana to Idaho. They send me mushrooms, berries and other plants that I distribute. The pantry of wild plants is much more extensive than most people realize.
Q. How would a restaurant go about partnering with a forager?
A. Restaurateurs must first understand that they are forming a relationship with the oddest supplier they’ll ever have. People who forage wild foods have a very independent spirit. Plus, wild foods defy agriculture—they don’t all grow in the same size or can be counted on for a reliable supply. So a chef can’t have unrealistic expectations about what will be delivered.
That said, the best way to find a forager is by word of mouth. Talk to other chefs and deal with a known person—not just anybody who comes to the back door. A forager has to be knowledgeable about plants; be able to identify those mushrooms that are poisonous, for example. The safety of customers depends on that knowledge.
Q. What are the most popular items you gather?
A. Wild foods that can’t be cultivated are in high demand. Fresh porcini, morels and chanterelles head the list. Wild huckleberries and elderberries are a joy when they come in season—they knock chefs to their knees. Some wild foods are now being grown by small farmers to meet restaurant and consumer demand. These include purslane, fiddlehead ferns, dandelion, stinging nettles and ramps.
Q. Do chefs build menu items around the ingredients you forage?
A. Foraged ingredients such as porcinis may only last six weeks, so chefs have to jump on them right away. A good forager can predict what is coming into season and alert a restaurant client up to two weeks ahead so the chef can plan the menu and create dishes featuring those wild foods. I also send out a new price list every week and record the daily picks on my voicemail message. But chefs are more nimble now and will incorporate something onto the menu as soon as it hits. More diners realize that the season is short and will jump at the chance to sample these ingredients.