The Bachelor Farmer Hires a Forager
Jonathan Gans (left), Chef of The Bachelor Farmer, and Alan Bergo (right), The Forager Chef.
Ramps, ramps, ramps. We all freak out the first warm days of the year for the first foraged onions of spring, wild ramps, right? They’re earthy, they’re springy, above all they have that one quality you can’t achieve otherwise: Wildness, surprise, a palpable taste of forest and stream. One bite of a ramp and you know these are not last winter’s onions, this is the spring, alive. But is that all there is to eat out there in the woods? Intuitively we all know that the answer is no, that’s not even close to all there is. And if you follow the work of Alan Bergo, The Forager Chef, you see a year-long progression of things that look quite delightful, like interesting wild mustards, tender little leaves, curly bits and bobs. It should be no surprise that Bergo will soon launch a series of three Forager Chef cookbooks based on his work.
Ground Elder (sometimes called Bishop’s Weed) gathered by Alan Bergo
Maybe it’s also no surprise that the new chef of The Bachelor Farmer, Jonathan Gans, wants to take his kitchen’s exploration of #Northern flavors up a notch. But the big news is that the two have put their heads together, and maybe for the first time in the history of Minnesota restaurants, a kitchen has a full-time forager on staff to go out and gather not just the ramps and morels (those big game trophies of the foraging world) but all the little stuff, all season long. This means the weird little bits and bobs most everyday eaters have only heard about will be showing up not just on the plates of the restaurant, but also in some cocktails down below in Marvel Bar. I popped by to try a few things and friends, I was floored with springy wild joy.
“Have you ever had ground elder?” Bergo asked me, proffering a container of little nubby green leaves edged with a butter yellow color. I had not, so popped one in my mouth, “It’s like angelica?” I asked. “But much milder,” explained Bergo. “These are called samaras,” he said, offering me another deli container full of something I think I’ve seen in the woods, young tree seed clusters a little like tiny pea-pods. They were very green and fresh, but resilient, like a chewy butterhead lettuce.
Chef Jonathan Gans began pushing things through the window of the kitchen for me to try before kitchen-service began: A Vietnamese-inspired pork meatball with foraged watercress, a roast hen with fiddlehead ferns and toothwort, a horseradish-edged green spring ephemeral. This seems to be a perfect match: Bergo needed to be out foraging for photography for his book, and Gans yearned to really push things to the next level at TBF, this partnership helps both of them.
“A lot of the stuff I’m going to bring in, it’s available for a week, at most. You get a few cups, maybe.” Ordinarily a forager couldn’t charge enough to make it worth the time it takes to go into the woods and spend all day hunting these little bits and bobs, but by putting Bergo on retainer and promising to take whatever he found, the restaurant made it worth both their time.
“Growing up in Seattle, foraging on a certain level is part of the restaurant scene: Ramps, nettles, mushrooms,” Gans told me. He took over TBF last fall after a few years of hopping around through different parts of the restaurant scene, and was drawn to TBF by the chance to do some really meaningful cooking. “Here, our goal is to really dive as deep as we can into the woods. Our whole goal now is to explore what it means to cook from here. I told Alan: Bring me the whole forest.”
Then, Gans pushed a plate of walleye through the window that blew my mind. A few curls of well-seared walleye, skin-on which I never see, sat with a tangle of ramps, toothwort, and watercress tossed with strips of preserved lemon and deeply roasted potatoes, all of it united by a watercress cream. Friends, this dish was the best walleye I’ve had in years: The fish tender and perfectly cold-lake scented, the tangle of greens a shock of fresh life, given shape by the lemon. And the potatoes were just terrific, roasty and simple. And all the foraged greens weren’t parsimoniously tweezered out, the way the expensive stuff usually is, but generously given forth, because they’ve got scads. (In addition to the tiny things the week I was there, Bergo had also brought 50 pounds of ramps, a bin of watercress the size of a beer cooler, and 10 pounds of wild nettles.) I’ve eaten a lot of walleye in my day, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a version as lively, new, and accomplished.
While we stood above, below in Marvel Bar pussy willow fronds were macerating in vodka for future use, and the pastry chefs who supply the café were experimenting with wild spearmint. Gans hopes that his diners are ready to actually push themselves to learn some new vocabulary, like toothwort. “I’m hoping that’s what happens is this year, we’ll do education at the tables, explaining what toothwort is. People try it, they’re like: Wow this is really good. Then next year, guests are pounding on the door asking: Is it toothwort season yet?”
We already do it for ramps, right?