Jeff Smedstad Isn't Afraid Of Foraged Flavor

Like canning, foraging is making a comeback in popular culture and in the rarified airs of gourmet cooking. Urban foragers, such as those featured last week in this New York Times article, are driven to use food that's going to waste in foreclosed property. 

But here in Arizona, traditional foragers have been picking through the brush for years to bring fresh ingredients out of the wilderness and into the kitchens of local chefs.

We asked Chef Jeff Smedstad of Sedona's Elote Cafe how he came to use foraged ingredients. 

"Actually, I met a dude in a Circle K who said he had been foraging mushrooms," Smedstad admits. The mushroom guy liked Smedstad's restaurant and wanted to offer him some of his found bounty. Smedstad's not shy, so he gave the mushrooms a shot and loved them. 

Years have passed but the chef still loves the challenge of working foraged foods into his menu. 

Since that Circle K introduction, Smedstad has built a solid reputation as a chef who appreciates the difficulty of hunting for untouched patches of wild berries and mushrooms. Foragers bring him everything from morel mushrooms to the spinach-like lamb's quarters and he works to incorporate the very best of these into his daily menu. He says he pays prices comparable to what might be charged at a farmers' market, but the bonus is that he gets first crack at any juicy finds. 

There are some obvious safety concerns associated with using foraged ingredients. To combat these dangers Smedstad says he only buys from people he knows. 

"I have two main mushroom guys.... If you aren't connected with them I ain't touching your 'shrooms," he says, adding that he also only works with varieties of mushroom he's intimately familiar with. He's cooked with the morel, lobster and chantrel varieties for decades now. 

Last week, a guy named Steve Becker showed up with a basket of wild Himalayan blackberries. These particular berries came from Oak Creek, which runs right by the Elote Cafe. The blackberry ice cream Smedstad made with them sold out in two hours. 

Wild Himalayan blackberry ice cream sound fantastic? Tomorrow we'll give you Chef Smedstad's recipe and Steve Becker's tips for finding your own berries.

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Ando Muneno
Contact: Ando Muneno