From mustard greens and mushrooms to, yes, ramps.
Evan Strusinski is on the road, driving from eastern Maine to the outskirts of Philadelphia, a nine-hour drive that he’s pushing through with only stops for gasoline. The wilderness is calling, and Strusinski, known as Evan the Forager, must go.
“I’m really looking forward to eating orecchiette with wild mustard,” Strusinski tells me during a phone conversation. “It should be ready when I arrive outside of Philadelphia.”
In the first days of spring, Strusinski—who forages for many dozens of New York’s top restaurants—moves south into Pennsylvania where he will hunt for some 85 species of fungi, roots, greens, and shoots. From there, he’ll edge north as spring melts into summer, following the coastline in search of sea plants, stone fruit, herbs, and ocean fish—shellfish especially. By autumn, he may hit Vermont, where he’ll pick apples, pears, plums, and more mushrooms.
“In order to forage successfully, you have to know when a certain crop is ripe and where to look,” Strusinski explains, “and those things are rather predictable because they follow an order.” In a way, then, Strusinski’s path is set. “It’s not wandering about aimlessly,” he says. And yet, on the flip side, Mother Nature often throws a wrench in Strusinski’s carefully-laid plans. “It’s not exact,” he says, referring to the yield of plants each season, “and can change year-to-year due to weather and temperature and the cycle of the seasons.”
Strusinski forages in rural places, “where land isn’t posted and the harvesting is sensitive, done with sustainability in mind,” and in woods where non-native species are encroaching on native species, where foraging is actually a salvation for certain plants, Strusinski says.
Sometimes, “I free myself of the burden of things and go out with a handful of baskets for mushrooms,” Strusinski describes. Other times, “I’m weighed down with a truck-full of bins and tools, where I am going to spend an entire day out there harvesting and packing crops into bins and hustling them back for refrigeration,” he says. In the autumn months, the chill keeps his crops cold, “and I can go out and camp for a handful of days at a time,” Strusinski says, “crossing over into different states and harvesting various things as I go—following the scent of something until it dries up, following it wherever it leads.” A modern explorer.
This lifestyle comes naturally to Strusinski, who grew up in Vermont with a family who encouraged him to be one with nature. “The choices were to participate in things outside or not,” he says. In his late teens, Strusinski attended Farm & Wilderness, a summer camp where foraging for food and slaughtering and butchering animals were among the activities. “This [meaning his career] is just one step farther,” Strusinski explains now.
Eight years ago, foraging—what had once been a hobby—became a profession. “I was doing it anyway and the trend arrived and I was in a position to provide restaurants with a variety of things they were interested in, and it expanded from there as the trend really took hold,” he recounts.
“There was a time I pulled up with a truck full of stuff to Jean-Georges’ restaurant—and I had certainly never sold him anything, but I parked right in front of Trump Hotel, walked through the dining room, down to the kitchen, and asked who the chef was,” Strusinski recalls. “I convinced that chef to walk out to my car with me where some cop was watching it so I wouldn’t get a ticket, and he bought a bunch of things. And that’s how it went.”
He continues, “It was just kind of naïve enthusiasm. I simply cold-called places with the attitude that they needed these things, they were worthwhile, they would want them.”
At Kjitsu, a restaurant in Murray Hill, the chef uses broccoli rabe that Strusinski forages in a variety of dishes, from a dish simmered with Sakura petal, carrot, lotus root, and white miso to a "seasonal assortment" that includes Japanese parsley, tofu, pomegranate, beets petal, burdock root, fava beans, and seasonal mushrooms. He's also purchased mugwort and dried wakame foraged in Maine, Strusinski says.
ABC Kitchen works that same broccoli rabe into housemade pasta casarecce prepared with the wild broccoli, fennel sausage and shepherd’s basket cheese; and uses foraged nettles and dandelion greens elsewhere.
And at Metta in Brooklyn, wild mustard greens, ramp, and chaga—a kind of fungus—all foraged by Strusinski make appearances on the menu.
Despite his enthusiasm and love of the food he forages, however, Strusinski insists he’s not out to change the dining scene. “I’m not on a crusade,” he says. “I simply enjoy what I am doing and want others to try these foods and see if they enjoy them as much as I do. I want to give them a taste of something new and a sense of the natural world they might not have access to when they’re working in a kitchen. I like to think it inspires kitchens on occasion.”
Strusinski says the newest ingredients are what inspires chefs the most. In other words, the most popular plant or fruit or fish is the one that Evan is foraging next. "As the season goes on, chefs are like, 'I've had enough of this crop—and now, I want the next one," he explains. “Everyone is hungry for the new spring ingredient after the long winter."