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Wild Cuisines, Risky Futures: Reimagining What We Consider Edible Species

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With the “New Nordic Cuisine” of celebrity chefs René Redzepi (Noma and Nordic Food Lab) and Magnus Nilsson (Fäviken) as touchstones, ancient foraging and fermentation practices are offering a blueprint for a future beyond the farmers’ market. From Central in Lima, Peru to Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington, experimental chefs situated on the Pacific Ocean are taking up this blueprint — blending the products of Mediterranean agriculture with their own forays into marine and forest ecosystems to gather, catalog, study, and cook in new ways with undomesticated edible species. Given both the vulnerability of those ecosystems to climate change and the long indigenous histories of wild foods in the Americas, the investment in wild foods at such globally renowned restaurants raises thorny questions about the sustainability of the cuisine they are modeling.

Here in Los Angeles, evidence of what some term “hyper-localism” and what we will term “wild cuisine” abounds: from casual eateries and pop-up ventures like Baroo and Savage/Alchemy to tasting menus at n/naka and Vespertine to the ecotourism of self-taught enthusiasts like Pascal Baudar. These chefs and eco-entrepreneurs are rethinking what eating local means by pushing to the limit what counts as the edible plants, fungi, and animals of particular places and, at the same time, by fostering novel agricultural and culinary networks that span the globe.

Whether social movement or food fad, their wild cuisines point to a convergence under way between survivalism and wellness. In a 2015 review of Baroo, the late Jonathan Gold got to the heart of this convergence. Crafting “a taste of the future,” Gold wrote, Baroo chef Kwang Uh serves the fermentation aid Aspergillus oryzae (whose first recorded culinary mention happens in 300 BCE China) as a signature dish called noorook (after the Korean term for the fungus). What exactly makes this moldy mush served in a small eatery with counter seating and a few communal tables “taste like the future”? Having worked briefly at Noma, Uh crafts such dishes in a “freestyle experimental kitchen” that is part medicinal apothecary and part survivalist commune. Or in Gold’s words, Baroo’s menu conjures a future that may be “one of utopian bliss or one of nutrislime cultivated in jars when the radiation forces us all into underground caves.” 

Baudar, author of “The New Wildcrafted Cuisine,” sees the foraging forays and meals he offers for a fee in the Angeles National Forest in similar terms. Asked if he considers himself a 21st-century alchemist, he replies, "I want to blend stuff, do research, I don't have any rules." For Baudar and those who sign up for his guided forest walks and partly foraged meals, wild foods offer an opportunity to rethink the past, present, and future of Southern California by reimagining what is edible and what should constitute a local diet. 

Survivalist training first brought Baudar to the hills around Los Angeles, but he found himself frustrated by the focus on wild foods as sustenance rather than as resource for culinary delicacies and innovations. As he explains, there is "incredible flavor but nobody's doing anything with it." Baudar takes on this task, gathering non-native plants, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms to create colorful and sometimes unusual foods. His quirky business model — that also aims to seed other urban foragers and fermenters — means being inventive with taste and engaging in new ways with urban locales and the wilderness spaces that border and run through them. 

Mounting evidence that neither agribusiness nor its most established alternatives (grassland ranching, organic vegetable and fruit farming, etc.) are well poised to be sustainable food systems may be another motivation for culinary gambits like Uh’s and Baudar’s. A 2018 study enumerated the risks that climate change poses to iconic California crops, risks that stem from longer and hotter summers and reduced snowpack, and their implications for agricultural “pests and diseases.” Many of the affected crops — avocados, heirloom stone fruit, wine grapes and so on — are staples of farmers’ markets and the locavore dishes such foods have inspired in our region for two decades. The study joins a chorus of voices that go beyond familiar critiques of conventional agriculture by suggesting that farms and ranches of all stripes depend on water, energy, and climate assumptions that are increasingly out of step with environmental realities. 

One solution is fairly well known: make plants rather than animals more central to our food systems in the future. A UC Santa Barbara team, led by Professor David Cleveland, offers one of the strongest cases for this proposition. Their research has shown that diets without red meat would be a major boon to greenhouse gas reduction in the U.S. 

But the question remains: do human diets need to adapt even more radically to climate change than by modifying the mix of how farms cultivate and what markets sell?

Skeptical about the 10,000-year-old history of agriculture itself, one future scenario goes like this: jettison livestock and crops and start to eat the wild species most likely to prove resilient to climate change — algae, crickets, jellyfish, and certain edible plants among them. Redzepi and his American compatriots seem intrigued by this scientific and ethical case for collecting and cooking what science writer David Quamman once called “weedy species.” Certainly for Baudar, such species offer a more exciting, if not necessarily more sustainable, foundation for California cuisine than the heritage livestock and heirloom fruits, vegetables, and grains prized by the state’s farm-to-table chefs and their patrons. 

In response to criticisms that his practices co-opt native knowledge, Baudar emphasizes that his interest is on “invasive” nuts, seeds, fungi, and grasses. While some environmentalists fault him and other non-native foragers for disrupting vulnerable ecosystems, Baudar counters, “We have so many plants, that are so plentiful, that actually are non-native. So, I'm going like, ‘Guys, why don't you learn how to use those plants, and then the native plants, you can plant them.’" 

“This is the terroir” of California, Baudar says, “the flavors are not on farmlands. The true flavors … are everywhere around us." 

But by his account, he’s “not an extremist,” and admits his own reliance on supermarkets for some 80 percent of his food. Small as his own impact may be for now, Baudar ultimately has big hopes for wild cuisine: hopes that it will inform not nostalgia for distant pasts but innovations toward a “new California cuisine” structured to incorporate “gourmet uses for wild plants” that are abundant — mustard, lambsquarter, mugwort, and the list goes on.

Enter Vespertine, “a gastronomical experience seeking to disrupt the course of the modern restaurant,” which made the number one spot on Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles just months after opening last year. “From a time that is yet to be, and a place that does not exist,” the restaurant melds cooking, architecture, stagecraft, music, ceramics, textiles, and biodynamic farming. Baudar gets to the heart of the venture: "It's more like art than anything else,” albeit art that uses California landscapes to tell a story about the future of experimental gastronomy and urban-wild ecologies at once.

Whatever Vespertine chef Jordan Kahn’s day-to-day practices of procurement and preparation may be, wild ingredients foraged from coastal California are at the center of the restaurant’s environmental story of itself. On the Vespertine homepage, an ethereal promotional video opens with a female figure cloaked in a monastic hooded robe walking through a chaparral landscape while running her fingers first through the coals of a smoldering wood fire and then through the fronds and flowers of grasses. The figure’s hand bleeds into that of Kahn, who dressed similarly (absent the hood) is molding these same wild ingredients into sculptural pieces that look almost inedible and otherworldly. The significance of the montage comes to light with a snippet of text found elsewhere on the restaurant’s website. The text refers to one of Kahn’s several collaborators: Stefan Hagopian, an L.A. farmer and osteopathic physician who spearheads the restaurant’s “biodynamics.” Under Hagopian’s name, a short statement appears: “Seeking to approximate or reproduce the ideal of what nature does in the wild is what draws him deeper into biodynamic farming. These ecosystems are self-regulating, self-growing, self-fertile … partly because they are self-contained. They cannot rely on unsustainable inputs outside man-made sources.” Vespertine by all accounts avoids the familiar practices of farm-to-table restaurants like Chez Panisse in not publicizing its food-sourcing principles or agricultural partners. Instead it rethinks what ecologically-attuned food means.  

For both Kahn and Baudar, rethinking the edible is an aesthetic act, one that could be perceived as antagonistic by its audience. Several reviewers have found Vespertine to offer a "challenging" and even "depressing" dining experience. At his events, likewise, Baudar serves foods that many of his participants would find inedible at first blush, including insects and unfamiliar meats like alligator. But perhaps the discomfiting and deliberately eccentric style of these cuisines point to new narratives,  new artistic practices, and new environmental premises for the local food movement. 

At one of Baudar's wild food tasting and plant walks, a young couple, excited to share photos of their recent camping trip, tapped into this sense of novelty. Over their campfire cooked a duck flavored with wild herbs and a bubbling pot of "cream of mustard" soup. In response to seeing and sampling the dish, they said it changes your perspective to look at a wild landscape and see food.

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