Do you ever wonder about the journey your food takes to get to your plate?
Food has come a long way since the processed prawn cocktails popular in the 1970s. Celebrity chefs like Neil Perry, Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein have revolutionised the way we think about food and as a result more of us are becoming “foodies” and the restaurant business has become fiercely competitive. Chefs want to give consumers the best possible experience and it starts with their quest to find the most exquisite produce.
One way chefs do this is by foraging. Foraging is defined as searching but we’re not talking about the local Coles aisles, we’re talking further afield, like the woods. There are many places you can forage, but you need to do your research before you go outside, so you pick the right thing. Mushrooms, for example, are extremely dangerous and you need to know what varieties are okay to eat.
Chef Elijah Holland, 24 from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is a professional forager. He was hooked on finding first-class ingredients at a young age, when he would go spear fishing and hunting. He then went on to study commercial cookery at Brookvale TAFE where his talent and creativity shone. He has worked in fine dining establishments across Sydney such as Barrenjoey House at Palm Beach and later as head chef at the Powder Keg in Potts Point. Recently, Holland was given the remarkable opportunity to work with world-renowned chef Rene Redzepi, the famous creator of the Copenhagen restaurant, Noma.
Redzepi arrived in Sydney for his pop-up restaurant at Barangaroo earlier this year and Holland was hired to be his head forager. He went diving and fishing in the clean, tranquil waters of Tasmania to find the plumpest fish, freshest seaweed, best Pacific oysters and the most scrumptious abalone to use throughout the whole menu.
But foraging is not as simple as it sounds – you can’t simply walk into the forest and start picking randomly. Holland researches the area, finds out what is around, what isn’t poisonous, and then tastes and smells the produce to ensure it will suit the intended dish.
“With foraging, there is a different legal requirement like, for example, if you go to a beach and collect a whole bundle of things…there could be an issue so you need to do it wisely and smartly,” he says. “You need to study, you need to make yourself aware and you need to respect the environment and the wildlife.”
His favourite thing he has picked so far is lemon aspen, a rainforest berry with all the flavours of lemon but no sourness or bitterness. It’s finding and understanding ingredients like a lemon aspen that can give you an edge in the hospitality world. “It gives me a point of a difference with cookery,” says Holland.
Not only does foraging give you a point of difference, but it can lead to your own business.
Josh Rea is a gourmet sorcerer. He started out by collecting different foods and unusual ingredients like edible gold, then drove around Sydney to show his breathtaking produce to chefs. As his business grew, he needed a shop front and so he recently opened Gourmet Life in Edgecliff, supplying the best ethnic ingredients. He has competition, such as Thomas Dux Grocer in Paddington, but Rea does things differently: he travels all over the world to find interesting ingredients and acquire renowned treasures such as sardines from Sardinia and even black truffles from the forests of France – found and dug up by himself and the traditional truffle-hunting pig.
“I forage in many ways. Chefs tell me they are looking for produce, then I go to the internet or travel across the globe to get it,” he says. “But sometimes you get suggested things from suppliers. Like I have an artisan friend, for instance, who referred me to the person who sources the finest and best Italian almonds so I bought them.”
Usually though, he goes for things less common than almonds. “I look for new things; stuff I have never seen before like edible gold for instance. But mostly what I strive to look for is fresh things as this is a point of difference and selling point.”
It’s often hard to know though if something will appeal to Australian tastebuds. “Unfortunately, it is a massive gamble to bring new things to the other side of the world. Sometimes the food is a hit but then something just doesn’t take off. For example, I bought in octopus from Galicia while I was travelling in Spain and it’s selling like hot cakes.”
Then there’s the issue of getting the food into Australia.
“The produce I source is mostly perishables so I get it shipped by plane. But for anything with long shelf life, I put it in the container, then ship it slowly to my shop,” explains Rea.
The pricing is another struggle for business. There is not much money in the food game, so you have to be smart with the way you set your markups and profit margins. “It is terrible. 1 Euro = $1.60 … plus freight, customs and quarantine. It hurts big time in my business,” he says. As more people focus on healthy ingredients and demand increases, he should turn more of a profit.
A nutritionist from Raw Cave, Zac Deane Roesler, told The Newsroom that eating foraged food is better for your health. “The natural soils, no pesticides and all the nutrients are what makes the food taste good,” he says.
Roesler also believes many packaged foods on shelves today have too much saturated fat and too much salt. So he’s happy that restaurants are introducing fresh nuts, goji berries, protein powders, tea extracts, and special herbs like lemon myrtle, with extra inventiveness in the area of desserts. – Jesse Mullens
Top photo of Elijah Holland performing one of his food demos from his personal Facebook page.