A comment from a recent review of our restaurant brought up a question that often comes to haunt François.
How can wild foods be considered a luxury? Aren't they out of place on a fine dining menu?
Well, it depends how you define luxury, or what you consider as fine dining, I guess.
Certainly, foraged food can be inexpensive, even free - if you have the land, the knowledge and the TIME to do it yourself. But in this day and age, no one has much of either when it comes to getting down on your hands and knees in the woods. Truffles are free too, if you happen to live in the ideal micro-climate, own a pig (or the right dog) and have nothing to do but scavenge for truffles.
In the old days, when fine dining wasn't even a phrase among common mortals, foraging was an essential and economical way to help feed the family. Like all the old school DIY homemaking skills and traditions, the use of wild edibles has become somewhat of a lost tool and art. Along with artisanal everything that is old but becoming new again. These are things our great-grandmothers did all day – foraging and farming, butchering and cooking from scratch, making cheese, growing heirloom vegetables, composting and etc. They were necessarily fully in tune with nature, totally connected to where their food came from.
Thankfully, François’ family never stopped any of this. In fact, the only reason Jardins Sauvages exists is because he kept up what his ancestors were doing for long enough so that trends like Slowfood, and chefs into local, seasonal, fresh food eventually caught up to him.
There was never any marketing, any angle, or calculated, carved out business plan in his case. However he happened to be making a living from his teenage years onward, he was always serving up the wild things on the side, naturally passionate about keeping his family’s foraging tradition alive and sharing, making people taste and smile. He has never made any money to talk about doing it. To the contrary, through the 90’s and for years afterwards servicing chefs, he struggled to make a living. He carried on nonetheless, persistently exploring new ways to introduce people to his foraged treasures, causing his business to evolve and morph into what it is today. I am only a part of the last chapter, but coming on ten years now around François, I know enough about the whole deal to size up the issues.
So I took offence along with him to that one little comment in the Voir article that implied that wild foods and haute cuisine (food that costs money) don’t mesh. Although the write-up was fine (more about that later), the last matter-of-fact statement about how unfortunate it is that these weeds so accessible to all have become elevated to luxury status got our goat. Although delicately said, and whether intentional or not, it remains a misinformed, misleading, hurtful dig. Leaving me with much to say on his behalf.
You see, it so happens that in this modern world of mass produced food where the majority of eaters are disconnected from the land, foraged foods actually do deserve luxury status. Not because we decided this, only because by nature, they just are relatively costly to deal with if you count time as money, which of course is a given, especially today. Anyone one who dabbles beyond making their own dinner (and even then) will attest to this. You have to know what you are doing first off, and then take the time and energy to find the good stuff, to be there at the right moment (requiring outings beforehand to prospect and figure out when and where the sweet spots are), to do the hard physical work bent over picking for hours, getting dirty and bitten by bugs. Then you have to get back to the kitchen and clean and prepare it all. And every plant and mushroom has it's own schedule.
When you take it to the realm of a restaurant, it is even more complicated. In our case, it’s not just a couple of weeds from the backyard either, it’s twenty odd different sprouts and greens, several other wild roots and vegetables, the panoply of marine greens, a dozen different flowers, another dozen varieties of berries, thirty kinds of mushrooms. These wild edibles are labour intensive and you can rarely decide when and where you will harvest them. It makes menu planning a nightmare for a chef. And it is hard to find people who are willing to work flexible schedules and game for the physical aspect of the job, let alone to spend the preparatory time and effort to learn beforehand. That's on the picking side. In the kitchen, there are many sets of hands needed to process the stuff following the same unpredictable, race with nature schedule. When the cattails decide to be ready, you cannot be at a wedding, on a photo shoot or have a catering gig.
François has been doing it for 25 years professionally, sharing and teaching, providing wild foods, foraged respectfully with care, to chefs and curious consumers, while fighting to make a living throughout. We still work hard every day at it. I hope you can see how that comment was mildly insulting, even infuriating.
With fumes coming out of all orifices, François could only rant and rave about taking this journalist out in the woods for a week (or even just a full day) of foraging to enlighten her to the real value of this ‘free’ food. I tried to calm him down, reminding him of how many people just don’t have a clue about anything green, and all that is second nature to him.
As a chef who has worked in the city ordering stuff for 24hr delivery from purveyors, I can vouch that this foraging thing is WAY much more work, WAY more expensive, but also WAY better. When I think of garde-mangers across town sticking their hands into boxes of mesclun (made in Chile or China), throwing a bit of dressing and cheese shards on top every two minutes for 12$ a pop, while on the flip side, I consider the work that goes into a salad or dish of the equivalent price at our restaurant, I shudder and wonder what the hell we are doing. I might also point out that à la Table des Jardins Sauvages, we aren’t just serving weed salad, there is real cooking going on here, as well as all kinds of other locally sourced products on the menu. When I tally up the labour costs and yields of each harvest, what goes into the enterprise, onto the menu and into each jar or sac sousvide, the numbers tell me we aren’t charging enough.
I understand that people don’t grasp the work behind wild foods. If you haven’t done it, you have no idea, as with real food in general. Be it grass fed beef, artisanal cheese, cultivating organic vegetables or dining out Toque style.. People wonder why these all cost so much, when in fact they are less marked up than so much other crap on the market. So many people don’t even visit a farmers’ market regularly; have never even met a farmer, let alone a forager, shopping in super-stores, taking it all for granted (all while missing out on the good stuff).
And if a restaurant critic (albeit with an urban job, this is someone who is supposedly knowledgeable about food) doesn’t see the big picture, then it is obvious that many others would think along the same lines, leaving us misunderstood.
I haven’t forgotten either that I was once a well educated, but stupid city chef who only saw loins or bavettes (as opposed to carcasses), who trusted my suppliers about what was in season (bad idea if you don’t want to be 3 weeks behind or miss out completely). So how is the average person living a ‘normal’, non-food-centric, urban life to know about the best strawberries, duck or nettles? When they don’t see country stalls (Blé D’inde, Framboises!) on their way to work.. If they’ve never picked enough wild berries to make a pie in their life, or gotten poison ivy or stung by a cloud of wasps getting dinner on the table.
Even with cooks working in top kitchens in the countryside (Anne Desjardins taught me this), you have to take them out picking mushrooms, or to visit a farmer to make them understand the value of the product that passes through their hands daily. When they meet the farmer, see his day to day and hear his stories – how much turmoil he goes through living nature’s ups and downs, dealing with the predators, the lack of labourers, the fussy chefs, in order to get it all done and make a meagre living. I saw the change in cooks when I took them out foraging on several occasions - to see them pick a small basket of mushrooms after a full day's work, and come back to sort, clean and cook, finishing with enough for two people. Let me tell you, in a few precious hours, they learn to vastly value the product beyond, ‘wow, nice shrooms’, and nothing is going to waste.
With the wild stuff, we’re not dealing with neat lines of cultivated crops that follow the calendar, and even that’s more difficult than most people imagine. Talk to any farmer about trying to pick his green beans or apples in the time frame without cheaply paid migrant workers. So much of the food people are used to seeing in super stores is unreasonably inexpensive because it is either massed produced with hidden costs to the environment, to the animals or crops in question given their economical but unhealthly diets, the use of antibiotics and pesticides, and/or because the people working (even the owner-producers) are underpaid.
Good food isn’t cheap, and it shouldn’t be. Wake up.
P.S. Take a closer look at the chain or the random restaurant on your street corner, what they are sourcing and charging for it, and think about that. Some restauranteurs may be opportunistic; but most can't ask for a fair price for their work. Otherwise, maybe cooks and farmers would have the same salary and benefits as an average fonctionnaire (civil servant/ desk job).
As for this write-up about the restaurant in general.. Ok, it’s not the best ever, but not bad at all, and in any case, ‘j’assume’. For the record, it was one of my worst days in recent history, when the reservations sky-rocketed at the last minute.. I was short-staffed and afraid to come up short on all levels (even food wise); but most stressfully, I ran out of gas (as in no stove) - rigging up a bbq tank to my gas-line for hours, only cooking what was essential (like pie crust) until the guy came (at 6pm) for an extra 250$. It was a surreal day - the kind of ‘juice’ day that hits you every once and a while no matter how damn well organized you are. A humbling reminder of how fragile any kind of success is when you are cooking for a living. In the end, I was just proud to get through that god forsaken day without too many scrapes and apparently happy customers intact. That’s enough for me.