Foraging, it must be said, is dangerous work. This is mostly because of the inherent dangers of getting poisoned: The wrong weeds can kill you. For Pascal Baudar, the 54-year-old Belgian who is a prominent forager in Los Angeles, this aspect of his profession has been less a danger than what else he's encountered in the woods: rattlesnakes and bears, mountain lions and, lately, zombies.
"I was foraging in the Angeles Forest a few weeks ago," said Baudar on a return trip in late February, a few days after some desperately needed rainfall, "and saw a zombie going by. Then I saw the camera." The Angeles National Forest is not only about 15 miles away from where Baudar lives with his partner Mia Wasilevich, a private chef who specializes in wild food — it's also about the same distance away from Hollywood. "Another time, I saw a guy in full armor with a hatchet, and not a small one. I have a small knife." Baudar held up the inexpensive pocket knife he'd just used to harvest a thatch of burr chervil. "But most of the time it's just you and the mountain lions."
For the Record
March 7, 11:05 a.m.: This article misspells n/naka chef Niki Nakayama's last name as Nakamura.
The biggest danger to his profession these days, though, comes less from a zombie apocalypse or the burgeoning cougar population in the local mountains than it does from the weather: California has been in a severe drought for years, which has had a debilitating effect not only on our snowpack and water supply, but everything that depends on it. "This year was the worst," Baudar said. "But it's made me more creative. Last year I went into seeds — I never had to do seeds before — I started studying bark. We adapt; we improvise."
He paused in a clearing surrounded by live oaks, surveying a patch of oxalis and the thick grasses hiding his boots. "This is like Whole Foods for me," he said. "People say wild food is free, but they don't realize the work you do for it."
It's this work that is the focus of his first book, "The New Wildcrafted Cuisine," which comes out from Chelsea Green next month. It's a gorgeously photographed — mostly by Baudar — collection of prose and recipes that's both survival manual and mission statement. (Wasilevich's own first book, on wild greens, will come out later this year.)
The chefs' go-to
If you've heard of Baudar, that's probably because of the work he's done with some of the best chefs in Los Angeles: Josiah Citrin of Mélisse in Santa Monica, Ari Taymor of Alma, Girasol's C.J. Jacobson and Trois Mec's Ludo Lefebvre, as well as bartender Matthew Biancaniello, have all spent extended time foraging with Baudar and incorporating his wild ingredients into their dishes and drinks. Right now Baudar, who typically works with one chef at a time, is foraging with Niki Nakamura of n/naka, who's been redesigning her kaiseki menu around local ingredients.
In less than an hour in the woods, Baudar filled the bag on his shoulder with California sagebrush ("dried, it's great on steak"), London rocket ("spicy but a hint of gasoline; perfect for L.A."), mallow ("kind of like okra when you cook it"), mugwort ("the Vikings used it to make beer"), piñon pine ("tastes like tangerine") and black sage ("hot chocolate with black sage: You go to heaven"). Other items in that bag: rocks, bark, mulefat branches he'll make into chopsticks. "Eighty percent of what you see," he says, pointing out some sow thistle, "can be used for culinary purposes"; if not in his dishes of chaparral-roasted quail, pickled trout in mountain vinegar or rosin-baked potatoes, then for making wine or beer, or through other methods of preservation and fermentation.
But although Baudar grew up foraging in the country ("In Belgium it's normal. The old people teach you.") for parents whom he describes as "incredible cooks," he's quick to point out that he's not a chef. And it wasn't the pull of kitchens or restaurants that drew him back to the craft, 16 years ago, after a career as a graphic artist and virtual reality programmer: It was the millennium itself, or rather the end of it.
"I knew Y2K wouldn't be a big deal, but I worried that people would panic; I remember people at Ralphs yelling for water." So Baudar went back to the woods, and began taking and eventually teaching classes in survivalism and self-reliance. "I was definitely not an extremist, but my life changed."
His learning process
Baudar credits not only survivalists for inspiration and back story, but the Native Americans who were using wild plants centuries before celebrated chefs such as Marc Veyrat, Michel Bras, René Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson ("Magnus can go very primitive, and I like that about him") rediscovered them. He also credits the botanists and medieval scholars who studied them — Baudar obsessively researches any plant before using it, consulting books in French and Latin, plus the endless network of the Internet — as well as the old European ladies he says he sometimes sees foraging.
"If you do research and find nobody is using it for 10,000 years, you figure there's a reason," he said, picking some cleaver, a green from the coffee family that Baudar uses in medicinal beer and that sticks to your clothes like Velcro. "This could be interesting at the end of the world, when the Starbucks are all closed."
A few hours later, his bag full, Baudar got supplies out of his Jeep (equal parts red paint and dust, 250,000 miles and counting), and set up lunch. As he does with the classes he teaches, the forager translates what he's collected into a meal, doing an ad hoc cooking demo in the woods for the small collection of hikers and foodies who typically sign up. He sets out Mason jars of pickled seeds, smoked chickweed powder and cattail pollen, then fires a portable gas stove to heat up a cast-iron pot containing a dish of lamb in mugwort beer with manzanita berries and willow leaves.
This is cooking that is both exactly on-trend and vaguely prehistoric. "Over time, it's become my own cuisine," said Baudar as he pounded some "forest floor" spice blend (leaves, grass, sagebrush) with a mortar and pestle, the rocks for which he'd also found in the woods. "And then, guess what: Five years ago, it became trendy!"
A good trend, of course, is also a moving target, a recurrent motif, a coda. Being able to find your dinner outside is as pragmatic as it is creative, a skill — please remember that you cannot eat just anything — that can only get handier in the future. This is true whether your idea of the end times means "The Walking Dead" or GMO foods infiltrating tasting menus.
"My passion since 1999 has been to discover the flavor of California," said Baudar, summing up both that day's path through the local forest and many of the more ambitious newer restaurants in Los Angeles. "What if you could create a real California cuisine? And I'm not talking farmers markets." Wind blew through the oak trees, the smell of sage moved in like weather.
"I could spend 10 lifetimes and still not discover everything. There's so much more to do."