Photograph by Jonathan Levitt courtesy of Evan Strusinski.

New York Restaurants’ Best-Kept Secret: The Luxury Forager

The freaky vegetables foraged by Evan Strusinski in the woods of New England are the secret ingredient at everywhere from Roberta’s to Momofuku Ko.

by Zoe Dubno
Jun 18 2018, 6:53pm

Photograph by Jonathan Levitt courtesy of Evan Strusinski.

Beginning in the spring, when morel mushrooms and flowering plants begin to appear, Evan Strusinski is on duty seven days a week. He spends his daylight hours in the woods of New England foraging for wild foods, save for Fridays. Friday is the worst day of the week, he tells me. He wakes up at 3 AM and drives to New York City, where he shuttles a Toyota pickup truck’s worth of foraged goods to restaurants, like Momofuku Ko, abcV, and Frenchette. In many cases, Strusinski’s produce is a through line between many of the places that end up on lists of New York’s best restaurants, from tiny Japanese omakase rooms to downtown celebrity and fashion world haunts.

I arrived at our designated meeting point in midtown wearing my best approximation of “Carrie Bradshaw Acting Earthy”: a sparkly sheer top under thrift store overalls, accessorized with a huge Essentia water. Strusinski, 45, approached me like an old friend. By way of introduction, he said, “So! You want to become a forager!” One half of his collar was turned upright, reminding me of excited cartoon dog ears. He wore brown boots, workpants, and a baseball cap. His shirt was covered in pollen and multiple spiders, both dead and alive.

Strusinski at the back of his truck. Photograph courtesy of the author.
The truck. Photograph courtesy of the author.

While vegetable-driven menus are increasingly common across New York City, Strusinski’s goods include plants even studied vegans may find unfamiliar—even alien. On our first delivery, to the vegetarian Japanese restaurant Kajitsu, near Grand Central station, we dropped off bracken fern, a fiddlehead that tastes like asparagus and kale, which is carcinogenic unless properly treated with vegetable ash, and kind of looks like pot. Strusinski also included dame’s rocket, a bloom of pretty little purple and white flowers that taste like mustardy arugula, as well as a number of other plants I’d never seen before.

What began as a hobby transformed into a fully-fledged business a decade ago, as Strusinski capitalized on the enduring wild food trend in the avant-garde culinary scene. The popularity of chefs for whom foraging is integral, like Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, and Magnus Nilssun at Faviken in Norway, resulted in something of a Scandinavian invasion in the US. Strusinski was situated perfectly for this wild food boom, and for the past ten years, he’s been hunting for wild foods and mushrooms along the coastline of New England. In the early spring, he’s based in rural Pennsylvania. As temperatures climb, he follows the ideal growing climate up to Vermont, then to Maine.

Black locust flowers. Photograph courtesy of the author.
The author with the goods.
Mini-garlic. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Strusinski says he loves delivering to Kajitsu because he knows they’ll do right by the ingredients, but there’s a long list of restaurants that want his foraged wares that he won’t deliver to. It gives him anxiety to think of them ruining the things he’s painstakingly searched for. When you look for a mushroom using just your nose and the texture of the dirt, the thought of it overcooked and slathered in a cloying sauce is understandably disquieting. “It’s like serving Chilean wine with Italian food,” he says of one restaurant he’s stopped delivering to. “It’s problematic.”

Strusinski, who grew up in Vermont, is self-taught. He learned to forage “by getting to know the flora and fauna around [him], and consulting guidebooks and people when necessary.” Experience is the most important element, he says: “The real work must be made on the ground over many seasons, until finely tuned.” Mushrooms and vegetables that he once had to carefully comb through the woods for, he now “couldn’t miss the signs of if [he] was driving by them at 30 miles an hour.” Discovering where things grow, which plants they’re commonly found in proximity to, and remembering their location from one season to the next makes up the heft of Strusinski’s foraging practice.

A mushroom in the wild. Photograph courtesy of Evan Strusinski.

Strusinski drives through the city like a veteran cabbie, maneuvering around slow drivers at breakneck speeds, occasionally cutting them off. We’ve got a lot of places to go, after all, and the number of neighborhoods that we visit—from Bushwick to the East Village to midtown—shows the sheer range of New York restaurants that require Strusinski’s produce to bring their menus to life. We drop off a wax box of bouquets of miniature garlics, a subtle tasting vegetable with chivelike stems that have pungent, teeny-tiny knobs of garlic at the head, at abcV, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s vegetarian restaurant, where everybody dining al fresco was gorgeous and the perfect shade of ash-blonde. Later, we visited the Bushwick pizza nouveau-classic Roberta’s, where Strusinski said he wants me to bring the delivery in for him. Though he’s friends with the chefs at Roberta’s, he hates Brooklyn hipsterism with a fervor. “These assholes in Brooklyn,” he joked, gesturing at some technicolor graffiti. “They’ve completely ruined boots for me. I actually need to wear these hiking boots. They think these are show boots. Well, they’re right!” he screamed at no one in particular. “They’ve caught me! I’ve never been in the woods! I had them professionally scuffed!”

When he goes out in the woods—which, of course, he actually does—Strusinski does so with the help of an assistant, usually a new one every year. This year’s apprentice is a 23-year-old skateboarder that spends the winter in New York. (Though this may seem like an incongruous side-hustle, have you ever walked around a city with a skateboarder? They can spot every rail and ledge from blocks away, and keep this information logged forever.)

“These assholes in Brooklyn.... They’ve completely ruined boots for me. I actually need to wear these hiking boots.”

Each week he emails his clients, most of whom are the head chefs of restaurants, with photos of his foraged pickings. Often, they are things they’ve never tasted before. The photos are accompanied by descriptions of the flavor and suggested cooking methods gleaned from his experience cooking with the produce that week.

Strusinski carries a batch of fuki. Photograph courtesy of the author.

This week, that’s cow’s parsnip, a leafy green that contains phototoxic chemicals: skin that’s been in contact with the plant becomes hypersensitive to the sun, and burns extremely quickly. Strusinski said he’s walked by it knowing it was edible for years but never bothered tasting it because he was worried about getting burned. I tasted it: I found it kind of gross, and with a flavor of bitter celery, but Strusinski promised it mellowed out with blanching or roasting. Strusinski became enamored with it this week: he foraged so much of the cow’s parsnip that he decided every restaurant must purchase five pounds of the stuff in order to collect their order.

Perhaps Strusinski’s most inspiring customer is the team at Momofuku Ko, the two-Michelin-starred seat of David Chang’s empire, where the chefs sampled a little bit of every item, and bought as much as Strusinski would let them. Even the world-class chefs he delivers to have never tasted many of the ingredients he brings them; Momofoku’s chefs were excited when tasting the cow’s parsnip that had been forced upon them, and asked Struskinski for guidance in its preparation. When they heard about its phototoxicity, they smiled, happy to brush up against danger. He is more than a food purveyor—he’s a wild foods encyclopedia on wheels. Strusinski pointed to a box of mugwort, a bitter green plant I’m familiar with, as some friends from Oberlin would roll it into joints to invoke lucid dreaming. He let the chefs know it was available for eight dollars a pound, and they quickly corrected him: ten dollars. They said Strusinski is a notorious undercharger.

Many restaurants design their menus with his goods in mind, leaving spots open where his mushrooms or greens might fill in, or purchasing his reliably delicious produce with only a vague sense of how they’ll use it. At Honey’s, the Bushwick cocktail bar, event space, and mead tasting room, chefs Tara Norvell and Amanny Ahmad were preparing to host “Good Food,” a series of dinners centered on grilled fresh foods; they selected some bracken fern for a noodle dish, birch bark for infusions, and fragrant black locust flowers for a yet-to-be-determined purpose. At Shoji, a 12-seat omakase restaurant in Tribeca, Strusinski sent me in with a full box and a huge bunch of the Japanese plant fuki over my shoulders. Fuki, also known as Japanese butterbur, is an invasive species with long stalks and huge leaves. The stalk tastes like bitter cucumber and looks like thick celery, and Derek Wilcox, the restaurant’s chef, told me they serve the fuki stalks blanched and sliced lengthwise to reveal their deep emerald cores. They save the leaves for the staff meal and combine them with niboshi, dried infant sardines, making a classic Japanese lunchtime side dish.

The unusual variety of Strusinski’s plants can also be a kind of creative outlet for some chefs. Danny Newberg, head chef of pop-up restaurant series Joint Venture, was fresh off of cooking for celebrities at Urs Fischer’s studio space, and was thrilled to see Strusinski and experiment with new ingredients. He selected some of the huge-leaved fuki plant to wrap around fish and throw directly onto a fire. He told me that he and Strusinski are on the same wavelength. “It’s about getting in touch with the plants and the animals, and cutting out all of the bullshit.”

Construction workers with fuki and black locust flowers. Photograph courtesy of Evan Strusinski.

As the end of the day neared, we returned to Momofuku Ko—they’d cooked with the foraged stuff and wanted more of it. We decided to finish at Scarr’s Pizza on Orchard Street, the only New York slice shop where you can order a glass of pét-nat with your pepperoni. Strusinski ordered us two glasses of orange wine and got in line while I peed out a liter of Essentia water.

When I returned, I thought about the fact that I’d seen no real foraging take place all day. After waiting a few minutes, I noticed no new pizzas coming out of the oven. I saw a long wait time in our future. Then, Strusinski spotted a couple being served a large vegetable pie. He approached them, asking to purchase two of their slices in exchange for another round of beers. They accepted, and Strusinski handed me a slice. “Foraged pizza,” he said. The slice tasted all the better for it.

An earlier version of this story stated that Strusinski text messages photos of his foraged produce to his clients for selection; in fact, he emails them. The story also stated that Strusinski begins the season in rural Vermont; he starts in rural Pennsylvania, then goes north to Vermont.

Per Se
Carrie Bradshaw