Backstory: Haute cuisine's hunter-gatherer
Professional forager Kerry Clasby roams California's mushroomed forest floors, garlic fields, and berry patches to help top chefs keep their edge.
SANTA BARBARA, CALIF.
When Jimmy Boyce, the chef of Studio, the high-end California Mediterranean restaurant at the posh Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, Calif., wants seasonal delicacies such as heirloom runner beans, miner's lettuce, or organic Fuji apples to pump up his menu, he doesn't go to the farmer's market or dial the local produce company. He calls Kerry Clasby, professional forager.Skip to next paragraph
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"Intuitive forager," says her business card.
What hunter-gatherers did for ancient societies, this petite Boston native does for modern haute cuisine, roaming in a Chevy SUV from central California garlic fields to mushroom-laden oak forests near Santa Barbara to macadamia farms near San Diego.
Mr. Boyce, who's cooking on the highest level of fine dining, says Clasby's finds help him keep his edge.
There are probably no more than a couple dozen professional foragers nationally, says restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. That's not to say that chefs don't buy the odd mushroom, cache of mussels, or wild huckleberries from people who show up at the kitchen door. But there's a difference, he says, "In some cases, [foragers] keep certain top, top-level chefs at the top or in other cases they keep vegetarian or alternative or holistic restaurants grounded."
The practice is most common in California, where, Mr. Wolf says, the first restaurant foragers brought backyard crops such as epazote and Meyer lemons to menus in the '80s. Alice Waters legitimized the job when her Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, was one of the first restaurants to hire a full-time forager.
Clasby describes the vital link she is between farmer and chef this way: "They call me Friday night, the farmer picks it Saturday morning ... and it's on your plate Saturday night. That's as fresh as it gets."
Assisted by Dragon Ivanovic, a young Serbian immigrant eager to learn from her, Clasby distributes produce from a white scraped-up produce truck, a walk-in refrigerator on wheels. Shelves are lined with a cornucopia of ripe, slightly exotic produce: yellowish carrots, fresh garbanzo beans nestled in bright green pods, fiery Page mandarins, buckets of organic honey, ramps flown down from Oregon, cardoons, bisque-colored morel mushrooms as big as an egg, and sticky dried Black Mission figs that smell like molasses.
Clasby supplies a select group of restaurants where chefs value her produce and pay what she charges. Her heirloom tomatoes cost $6 a pound; at Studio, they use 75 pounds a week. Her short list also includes Spago in Beverly Hills, Lucques, A.O.C., Chateau Marmont, Four Seasons Beverly Hills, Michael Mina's Stonehill Tavern, and Studio and the Loft, both at Montage. She could work with more restaurants, but chooses not to.
Chefs have to have the right attitude.
"There's a spirit of doing it right," she says. "If I find something cool, I want to have the three or four chefs who say we'll buy it all. I want a chef who's excited about greengage plums. When I find this great stuff, I'm grateful to have a good home where it's appreciated."
Clasby says matter-of-factly that every chef in LA wants what she has on her truck; but only the ones who agree with her philosophy of offering only the best get it: "What a lot of chefs do is they want to take the best of my stuff and put 'organic' on the menu and then use non-organics. My stuff is about having a vision for the whole menu."
Clasby starts her day at her cluttered Thousand Oaks office, north of LA, listening to orders called in the night before. She writes them down on bright orange and pink index cards.