The North Carolina restaurant helmed by chef Katie Button (a 2015 F&W Best New Chef) is known for its small plates and signature cocktails prepared with regionally-sourced ingredients. But through a partnership with local forager Alan Muskat that began last summer, guests have been bringing in a bounty of freshly-gathered foods that Button and her team transform into inventive, custom and complimentary dishes.
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For the last twenty years, Muskat has been leading groups on “wild food adventures” through the fields and forests near downtown Asheville with his tour company, No Taste Like Home. After a brief tutorial that includes safety guidelines—there’s no substitute for practice and guidance, he says—the three-hour excursions are predominantly experiential. (Tours cost between $40 and $75 dollars.) Attendees spend part of the tour foraging solo, then reconvene to sift through their treasures, separating the edible from the inedible and cooking up a sampling right there. Afterward, they take the rest of their haul home or pass it off to the awaiting restaurant.
Button, the acclaimed executive chef and owner of both Nightbell and nearby Spanish tapas bar Cúrate, has found there are benefits to working with an ever-changing assortment of foraged foods.
“It allows all our team members to collaborate, have fun and think outside the box,” she says. “Plus, we get to learn more about the foods that grow around here. Each time Alan comes in, I learn something.” For example, she was surprised to find that wild passionfruit grows in Asheville. Button used it to whip up a vinaigrette.
Of course, there are also challenges to being presented with a surprise selection of ingredients, as though she were a perpetual cooking show contestant. “Lots of wild foods can tend to be pretty bitter, even though they’re edible, like dandelion leaves and creasy green flowers,” Button says. But the team finds a way to work with what they’re given. Mixed with turnip greens and cooked in bacon fat with a touch of vinegar and an egg, she says the greens’ bitterness complements the fattiness. Another major challenge is time. The team can be put to the test when foragers show up to their reservation with the ingredients in hand, instead of dropping them off post-tour. “We always do something with the items, but I will say you get a better experience the earlier you bring them in.”
“The Southern Appalachians, with Asheville in the center of it, is the most biodiverse natural area in the world after the tropics,” says Muskat. With more than 300 edibles in the area, the food forager’s harvest often change with the season. The Nightbell team has made ramp cavatelli with sautéed morel mushrooms and sochan (a coneflower) pesto, a trout crudo with foraged redbud capers (pickled, bright-pink blossoms from a redbud tree) and a wild ginger-root syrup used in cocktails, among a host of other deliciously resourceful creations.
While Muskat says that foragers can’t be choosers, as the whole point is variety, he names a few favorite finds. Among them is the Autumn Olive, which he says tastes like a cross between a grape and a raspberry. His other favorites might be directly correlated to Button’s culinary ingenuity. Tiny, creamy fairy potatoes, which Button has served alongside steak with a horseradish cream sauce, is another of Muskat’s top picks. He also loves “chicken of the woods,” a rose-shaped mushroom that can grow up to fifty pounds and tastes, predictably, like chicken.
“The funny thing is, I’ll make this at home—I have tons of this stuff, and when you have a lot of something you take it for granted,” he says. “But when you bring it to the restaurant, they really realize the flavor potential. They transform it into something remarkable.”
Aside from the creativity sparked by working with a lineup of diverse, unexpected ingredients, the partnership has had a more systemic impact on Nightbell, says Button. “Foraging has helped us look at everything in our restaurant and figure out how we can use all the bits and pieces and turn them into something delicious.”