Foraged Food Trend Has Restaurants Breaking Health Code

May 21, 2014

Chef Rob Connoley uses ingredients commonly found in the wilderness, but not in most peoples diets.
Credit Hugo Perez

Every day Chef Rob Connoley walks through the Gilal national forest to look for ingredients for the nights  menu at his restaurant the Curious Kumquat in Silver City.

"I know so many chiefs that sit in that kitchen all day every day breathing in the smoke and working the long hours and for me the foods so connected to the land and the land is so tied into the season"

Foraged plants like stinging nettles, hackberries and Amaranth grain make up about 40% of the Connoley's dinner menu. 

The Curious Kumquat initially started out as locally sourced food grocery store when Connoley came across research on to how Apaches in the region years and years ago were feeding themselves, he started cooking with foods like acorns, wild grasses, seeds and cattails from wilderness.

" That led me to a nice little palate of food I could pull out of the woods my self '

Finding and foraging food is one thing but preparing and serving it up to paying customers at higher end restaurant takes an untried and inspired take on cooking.

Still only after a few years of being open and a string of reviews some of foods most prestigious magazines such as Saveur, the Curious Kumquat has become a seminal destination restaurant.

"They are coming from all over, a lot from Seattle and Portland- lot from the bay area San Francisco and a lot from the north east, still from the New York Times article. It is bazaar we never dreamed it would be like this- we are just a little restaurant in the middle of no where"

A lot of Connoley's time is spent driving and trekking into national parks where wilderness food hasn't is been exposed to traffic, industry and air pollution. He says it's New Mexico's sparse, spread out population and lack of development that makes it one of more pristine and ideal places in country to serve and source foraged food.

"It is just going to grow, you can find forage food restaurants in most major cities, but should we be eating that food? There really is only a couple of places in the US that we should even consider eating food out of the wilderness. I think that has an impact economically in this region and ultimately the state." he says.

But the New Mexico Environment Department says serving foraged foods is a public health concern and go's against regulations. They decline to be interviewed, but they in a statement said;

"For the protection of public health, all food sold and served to the public must be procured from an approved source".

But Connoley says  distributors and approved sources don't supply most of his ingredients.

"If I pick up the phone and say give me amaranth- no one can get me Amaranth. I can go on a ten minute drive to get amaranth. The vast majority of my ingredients,these are not things that you can buy they just don't exist to be purchased. But they are known to be safe food sources"

Still the Food Code the New Mexico Environmental Department is charged with enforcing doesn't specifically mention foods that have been foraged or the associated health risk. Except for wild mushrooms, which can be foraged and served by restaurants that have been approved to do so.

But New Mexico is yet to adopt this part of the code or any licensing mechanism. Connoley says he hopes it and equivalent procedures can be developed to allow restaurants in New Mexico to bring the states pristine wilderness to the table.

"Policy makers, don't want to, they don't have the time to invest and I don't know that they should be investing they do need to protect my customers-but they also need to be able to support systems that are different" he says.

He says works with professor in the field and documents his foraging to replicate what he thinks what safe wild food policies would look like.