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.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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."

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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.

On a recent morning, she called chefs to tempt them with choice items. "I've got blond morels, they're nice and big; you could stuff them," she tells a chef named Jason. Then, peering into the back of her truck, she makes another call to a chef named Corey to offer beets. She tells Mr. Ivanovic to pack up 25 pounds of carrots, 20 pounds of Brussels sprouts, 25 pounds of butternut squash, 15 pounds of kabocha squash, and eight bunches of the black kale known as cavolo nero.

While Mr. Ivanovic spends the day making deliveries, Clasby drives north in search of gems at the Santa Barbara farmer's market. She can drive 350 miles a day, traversing Ventura Highway - in the sunshine or rain - passing the Rincon, a primo surfing spot off Santa Barbara, and climbing the Camarillo grade, California's steepest incline.

Mid-afternoon at the farmer's market, Clasby, dressed in a preppy pink cotton sweater, navy quilted vest, jeans, and Gore-Tex boots, pulls a red nylon bag on wheels the throng of neo hippies, college students, and women in faux fur.

All of the farmers know her.

"My strength is my relationship to these farmers," she says. She teases one, asking if she can stand there all afternoon and eat his cherimoya samples. She eyes the avocados from Mud Creek Ranch. There's Zutano, Pinkerton, Bacon, and Fuerte - but she chooses Fuertes and Pinkertons, because those taste best in late spring.

"You have to have the ability to remember and know where and who grows the best-tasting of everything," says Clasby. "I may buy tomatoes from one farmer, but I don't buy all of his tomatoes," she says.

She's still at the market making deals for next week as dusk falls.

The next day, in the hills near Santa Barbara, Clasby heads for a spot where she's found mushrooms before. Mushrooms, especially chanterelles, grow in shade near mature oaks and streams. It's public land, but she's never gotten caught foraging in a park. "What does the Bible say? Be cautious as serpents, innocent as doves?" she asks as she parks the SUV in a patch of shade.

The area she picks, overgrown with unripe wild raspberries and poison oak, is dry. Further into the woods, she jumps on a large branch that has fallen over a creek. Carefully, climbs along for 10 feet until she can jump onto the bank on the other side. She disappears into the brush, returning about 20 minutes later. A lock of hair escapes her navy baseball cap, but Clasby holds a sack of mushrooms, including one perfect golden chanterelle shaped like a trumpet. It would have brought $20 from a chef, had she not shared it with a reporter.

Clasby says she came to foraging when she and her husband split and she needed a way to support her two sons. She was already growing biodynamic heirloom tomatoes and selling them at farmer's markets. Friends offered to let Clasby forage for mushrooms on their Santa Barbara cattle ranch. She added to her offerings golden chanterelles, almond caps, porcinis, and bluettes, a rare Earthy-tasting mushroom that appears briefly after a rain.

"The chefs were blown away. They said do you have more?" she recalls.

Clasby, a prematurely gray woman with a calm, studied manner, believes her success as a forager comes by following intuition. "It works like this: I believe we have a God-given intuition and if you follow it, it leads you to the things you need in your life," she says, noting that 20 minutes of meditation each morning helps her stay in contact with that voice.

Later that night, she visits one of her client restaurants north of Los Angeles, where the new chef has created a promising menu. Scanning the list of dishes, she takes credit for the asparagus, the strawberries, the endive.

Tasting a salad of red and white endive, with crumbles of gorgonzola, candied hazelnuts, and perfectly sweet red strawberries, she's pleased: "I want to have the best product so when people sit down and eat my food, they taste it and say, 'Wow, this is incredible.'"

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