I started foraging 16 years ago, when I opened my first restaurant in Sonoma, California. As a transplanted East Coaster, wandering through forests and fields picking miner's lettuce and wild fennel was a way to connect with my adopted home.
The plant diversity in California is stunning, from the seaweeds and coastal grasses to forest roots and mountain herbs. At Coi, we work with herbalists and botanists to learn about wild, edible plants and how to transform them into food. It's not always obvious! Example: Elephant tree sap, which we dry and grate with a Microplane, releases a heady aroma similar to frankincense.
This is not new: Native Americans have been using some of these wild ingredients for hundreds of years. California's history is written in these flavors, but they are almost nonexistent in our regional cuisine. Inspired by my friend chef René Redzepi of Noma, who started a similar project in Denmark, we created a website we hope will encourage local cooks to bring these foods back into the kitchen. The site, called Ingredient Lab, is as much about cooking as gathering. It includes old techniques for drying, salting and pickling, designed to fill local California pantries with sumac berries, cured cherry blossoms, elderberry capers and angelica root. More modern recipes show how to turn acorns into feather-light pancakes, or how to infuse oil with Douglas fir.
I hope the project will inspire other chefs to participate, not just in California but around the country. Imagine: a flavor map of the United States, connecting past and future, people and place.