Logan Cox is driving south down Porter Street NW, making small talk with passengers about a wedding he recently attended, when he interrupts himself to point out a small median covered with lavender-like weeds blowing in the breeze.
“The other day, I stopped there and filled up a big bag of that wild chicory,” says Cox, the executive chef of Ripple (3417 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-244-7995). “We use the flowers for garnishing. But the roots, you roast them and grind them into a powder and use them as a bittering agent. If you make a tea or some sort of broth that needs a little depth, it definitely adds flavor.”
Some diners might find it off-putting to learn that their chef picks ingredients from the side of the road. For Cox, “urban foraging” is a point of pride. “We take risks,” he says of Ripple. “We definitely strive to be unique and … showcase as best we can the really cool produce that is around.”
As out-there as it sounds, foraging is becoming the thing to do for creative chefs. Look no further than the “world’s best” place to dine (according to Restaurant magazine), Copenhagen’s Noma, where chef Rene Redzepi makes acclaimed Nordic cuisine using wild ingredients. The topic is also the subject of a number of new books, including the part field guide, part recipe book “Foraged Flavor,” by Tama Matsuoka Wong, a New Jersey lawyer who supplies foraged foods for New York City restaurants.
Cox, 32, was first exposed to foraging before it came into vogue, during a few months he spent in Orvieto, Italy, in the mid-2000s, when a chef there introduced him to scavenging for wild fennel. Still, it wasn’t until about four years ago, when Cox was cooking at Charleston, S.C.’s Woodlands Inn and foraging for chanterelle mushrooms, that it became a passion.
Today, he uses a few reference books (such as Euell Gibbons’ “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” from 1962) and the Google Goggles smartphone app to help him expand his knowledge.
Cooking is “just one of those things that can get pretty stagnant — your work and what products you’re using — so you’re always looking for new things to inspire,” he says.
The ingredients Cox collects for Ripple — such as dandelions, purslane, greater plantain and wood sorrel — are typically dismissed as weeds. But he and other chefs embrace their underappreciated flavors. Wood sorrel, for instance, tastes like a mild green with the delicate texture of basil and the acidity of lemon. Cox uses it to garnish dishes such as roasted fish and composed seasonal salad.
Foraging is a natural extension of “the whole farm-to-table idea,” says Tarver King, the chef at the Ashby Inn & Restaurant in Paris, Va., and Cox’s former Woodlands Inn colleague. “You can buy seeds at the grocery store and put them into the ground, pull up [a crop] and put it on the table at a restaurant. But picking something that’s wild, that’s growing naturally, is one step beyond that.”
Though traditional foraging might involve trekking in dense forests to gather grub, the urban version isn’t usually as demanding. But it may involve plucking from public spaces such as state parks (which is illegal). Cox tries to visit spots with lots of greenery, and avoids busy areas or places that might have been sprayed with pesticides.
At Ripple, he tells customers that ingredients were gathered locally, though he never reveals their exact origins (“Some people might be squeamish,” he says).
Regardless of what diners know, a wild dandelion artfully displayed atop a plate of lamb ragu gets eaten only about half the time, Cox says.
“Visually, it’s very enticing,” he says, “but I think some people still can’t get past the fact that it’s something they wanted to remove from their lawn.”
Here are a few other local chefs who hand-pick items from the wild:
Eric McKamey, the executive chef of The Curious Grape Wine, Dine & Shop, collected wild garlic from fields in Reston, Va., to use in pasta dishes this past spring. 2900 S. Quincy St., Arlington; 703-671-8700
Orlando Amaro, the chef of Station 4, forages in Frederick, Md., for wild mushrooms. He’s incorporated them into menu specials, such as pan-roasted halibut with golden mushroom ragout. 1101 4th St. SW; 202-488-0987
Johnny Spero, the chef of forthcoming modern American restaurant Suna (opening in Eastern Market in the fall), plans to use foraged ingredients such as purslane and wood sorrel.