Growing up in central Vermont unknowingly prepared Evan Strusinski, a full-time forager, for his career. “As an adolescent, I had an interest in identifying wild plants and flowers and birds and when it came to identifying natural edibles, it was a natural extension of everything that came before,” he says. After working in various restaurants, Strusinski, 40, has spent the last three years splitting his time between central Vermont, coastal Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania, foraging for ingredients he sells to restaurants, including prominent locals like Bondir, Strip T’s, Eastern Standard, and Clio.
Q. What does it take to be effective at foraging?
A. Knowing how to look, knowing how to see, which sounds simple, but in fact is, I think, a complex formula. And of course those skills coupled with a simple interest or, in my case, an obsession. You just have to be someone who appreciates plants. The foraged ingredients are everywhere around us, one can walk outside of their house or office, city, country, and within 10 steps, you’ll find something growing that can be applied for culinary use or medicinal use or as a flavoring agent.
Q. Take me through a typical day, if that exists.
A. Thinking all night while sleeping about those spots where I need to get those things for those chefs who are demanding certain things. And then I wake up early and begin to scramble to get enough stuff for that day’s shipment. Once a season arrives, there’s no break. It’s just a sprint for five months. And there’s a lot of routine checking in on spots, anticipating what’s coming up and then checking to see. Then telling chefs what I have and what’s available, sending it off [via mail], and starting over the next day. But it’s from very early in the morning until after dark. It’s relentless.
Q. You are almost constantly on the move around the region. Are you always hunting for something specific?
A. I do move around a considerable amount, but it doesn’t matter where I am or where anyone is for that matter. If you’re looking for a particular thing and it grows on a beach setting, you’re not going to go to inland forest. Each thing has its own ecology. And in moving at my leisure, I keep my eyes open for those things that might grow wherever it is I am. Really, this stuff is everywhere, it’s just a matter of paying attention and believing that they have a use. I feel like it’s been my job to try to unlock some of these things from their cages and these chefs play a big role in doing that, because they’re the ones who dictate food trends.
Q. With all the moving around that you do in this region, how is there any consistency to what you provide?
A. It’s not farming. I don’t want to farm. I like the sort of mercurial nature of the things I’m seeking, specifically mushrooms, although there is a pattern and if you understand the species you have a better chance of locating it. Once you know what to look for and where and when, it’s a little more like cultivation because nature’s doing the farming for you and you just have to know what the thing is and where to look.
Q. What specific kinds of things are you foraging?
A. It gets as pedestrian as dandelion greens or milkweed shoots and as exotic as Szechuan peppercorn.
Q. So what does a typical shipment to a restaurant like Bondir look like?
A. Depending on the season, it would be a variety of herbs, roots, mushrooms, berries, and aquatic reeds. Maybe seven to eight different things at a time.
Q. How closely do you work with chefs coming up with
A. I might talk about what [an ingredient] complements. I’m not a chef and so of course I don’t want to insult any chef by suggesting what should be done with it. But I can say, this is what this thing is like, what it’s most compared to, what its applications in historical or traditional use have been, or maybe what I think of how the thing could be used. It’s a collaborative effort a lot of the time up to a point, once it’s in the kitchen. Sometimes they can make it work, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they ask me and sometimes they don’t until much later. It’s all very improvisational.