Alabama Chef Chris Hastings On The Heroes Of The Southern Foraging Scene

In 2012, Chris Hastings won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South for his work at the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama. We have asked him write in from time to time to tell us what is on his mind, and on his stove.

Since the interest in foraging both nationally and internationally is at an all-time high, I thought this would be a great opportunity to expand your knowledge of the wild foraged foods in the South. We have relied on foraging to incorporate amazing wild edibles into our menu at Hot and Hot for more than a decade — and have found it to be a delicious, eye-opening experience for our guests. It also affords us a new level of understanding for wild edible food — the medicinal qualities and nutrition opportunities that these foods present in our creative evolution as chefs.

We have recently hired an herbalist to help us better understand the ways we can incorporate our foraged ingredients into our mixology, pastry, savory and tea programs to take advantage of the foraged food's medicinal benefits. Before we had pharmacies, mankind looked to the forest to find relief from many ailments and for nutritional supplements. Hopefully you will use this information to expand your understanding of the foods just outside your backdoor.

Foragers will tell you that unlike food raised via traditional agricultural practices, wild food has to grow on its own and find success without the added benefit of fertilization, regular watering, weed prevention or pest control. The struggle and ultimate success of these efforts results in foods that are stronger and richer in nutritional and medicinal values. Foragers will also tell you that the variety of their medicinal uses is just now being understood — and reflected on menus around the South. Whether it is a tea, a warm broth, tonic or elixir, chefs and mixologists are bringing a new level of health and creativity to your local eateries. I think this is all VERY cool.

As you would imagine, there is a broad a range of geographic and climate conditions across the South, so understanding, say, Alabama's five regions and the different opportunities in each one is important if you want to take advantage of what is available. Spring is here and a great time to venture into your local forest to find wild edibles, like watercress in the Alabama Valley and Ridge regions, spring onions in the Cumberland Plateau, edible flowers in the Highland Rim, wild arugula in the Coastal Plain, cinnamon and chanterelle mushrooms in the Piedmont Upland, Virginia pine needles everywhere...and on and on.

One of the innovators in Southern foraged food is Drew Belline of Restaurant 246 in Atlanta. He applies his in-depth understanding of wild edibles' varied applications to create world-class food that is delicious, creative and cutting edge, and food that is inherently healthy. For more than a decade, Ken Zinkand has provided foraged foods and mentorship to Drew, sharing his passion and intellectual curiosity for these found ingredients. Says Belline:

"One of my favorite foraged dishes that we are doing right now at 246 is a mushroom tea that consists of dried reishi, turkey tail, hen of the woods, oyster and chanterelle mushrooms that are steeped in a French press with rich chicken broth and poured over wild dandelion greens, purple deadnettle and radishes with EVOO and sea salt (tableside). Just a heads up, this is a dish is not always available since these ingredients have an extremely quick season. It's very simple and refreshing for a rainy, early spring day."

Another great thinker and avid forager is Jeremiah Langhorne, chef de cuisine at McCrady's in Charleston. He, Sean Brock and the culinary team at McCrady's find time to do their own foraging, largely because there is no local foraging network in Charleston like we have in Alabama. But Charleston's geographic location provides different opportunities than we have in our surrounding forests. Jeremiah and his team comb the Charleston beaches for amazing edibles like beach wort, wild red bay, sea beans, samphire, wild saltbush, beach arugula, primrose flowers, beach onions and prickly pear, just to name a few. Coastal foraging represents one of the most interesting and diverse opportunities to find wild edibles. Jeremiah and I agreed that foraging is an opportunity for chefs to expand their thinking and approach to cooking, but also a chance — through dining–to educate consumers about what's just outside the door. Says Langhorne:

"I was inspired to create this Lowcountry shellfish dish with wild onion dashi and meyer lemon during my morning walks on the beach and the insane diversity of plants and wildlife on the beaches here in South Carolina. I really wanted the guest to get a sense of what it might be like to stroll along the beach, picking up things as they walked, and trying them out while still giving that sense of refinement and excitement that comes with eating a well put together dish."

We also have a number of hometown heroes in the Alabama foraging community. Chris Bennett of Hollow Spring Farm teaches classes on foraging and how to cook the amazing wild edibles he finds in the forest. As a former chef, Chris can really help you incorporate foraged foods practically into your home cooking and highlight their nutritional and medicinal values. You can also see his tireless work reflected in both Alabama's chefs and general public, who have a better-than-average understanding of a wild edible's application and benefits. He is also working on a foraging book, which we hope to see in 2015.

And when foraging the northern ranges of our state, I rely on Tim Feitzer to lend his wealth of knowledge and understanding of the land he walks so regularly. You can find information to contact them both below if you are in the area and would like to forage or speak with them. Connecting with foragers and chefs alike is the key to learning about foraged foods, which brings diversity and pleasure to what you cook and how you acquire it. Not to mention getting out into the forest in Alabama this time of year is visually stunning and a moment not to be missed.

In collaboration with Chris and Tim, we recently created a dish at Hot and Hot that we call the "Forager's Walk." Like all of the chefs featured here, we have a "you find it, we'll buy it" policy in an effort to sustain Chris and Tim's foraging efforts, as well as expand our understanding of the amazing diversity of foraged foods and how to reflect it in our cooking. "Forager's Walk" is the direct result of the collaboration between our foragers and our restaurant. This all-Alabama-foraged dish incorporated no less than 13 wild edibles, including: hickory nuts, black walnuts, chickweed, wild lettuces, cat ear dandelion, field onions, chestnuts, pine needle, a variety of mushrooms, watercress, field mustard flowers, the list goes on.

When you travel around the South, here are a few chefs, foragers, and teachers you can turn to if you would like to eat and learn more about how to forage safely:

Previous Chris Hastings dispatches from the South: