A Chat with Jeremy Umansky
It’s peak season for foraging walks, and we took class with Jeremy Umansky in Cleveland to learn about how he brings wild foods to his community.
Jeremy: So my name’s Jeremy Umansky. I am a chef, a mycologist, an author, and I focus on zymology and applied fermentation.
Foraged: And what is Larder?
Jeremy: Larder is an Eastern European Jewish deli. I think there’s a few things unique about it, but I think that the most glowing and outward thing is our use of fungi – everything from filamentous molds, like Koji, up through wild harvest chanterelles that are on the menu today.
Foraged: What percentage of the, of that menu gets some of those mushroom things in there?
Jeremy: Pretty much, every single thing we make has either been touched by a mold or has a fruiting fungi in it.
Foraged: Wow, I didn’t realize it was that prolific!
Jeremy: Oh yeah! We use Koji in pretty much everything.
Foraged: Amazing – and then what percentage of what’s making it on the menu is wild forged or has some sort of wild ingredient?
Jeremy: It depends on the time of year. At any given time, I would say, I’d say average throughout the year, like 20%. But there’s some weeks in the summer where like 70% of the menu could have a forged ingredient in it. You know, other times of the year, middle of winter, we’re relying on like roots and barks that we’ve preserved. And, you know, so then we’re just doing like seasonings and spices and that sort of thing.
Foraged: Foraging as a whole is getting obviously more popular. But there’s like a pretty small set of restaurants and proper food businesses that are able to understand the supply chain and get those wild foods onto their menu. I’m curious, where did that start? Were there any restaurants that you were looking up to, or modeling after, as you started things out?
Jeremy: No, not, not necessarily at that time. It was just more of like, This was one of my personal interests, just as much as making charcuterie. And it was like, if I wanted very specific ingredients for very specific things, I had to go out and find them. You know, whether it was a farmer that was gonna cultivate it or raise it for me, or it was, you know, the wild world taking care of it. It was just a very logical kind of, more or less streamline progression just with, if I want these things I need to know about them.
I need to also know too – part of my just general inquisitive nature is – there’s so many things within wild foods that are classed as inedible. And this is this broad category that we use for foods that are not considered like a choice edible that you’d either sautée up or grill up or blanch or whatever, it’s the star of the plate and the dish. And you have the deadly, you know, toxins and all that stuff. So there’s this whole group in the middle and it’s like, well, why is everything inedible?
Like there’s many reasons that something can be inedible. And outside of certain organisms that go through like things like deliquescence, or self digestion where they’re like mucusy and that sort of thing. Those, we might be able to extract a flavor or an aroma from something. But so many things that are traditionally classed inedible do have gastronomic value.
So I think the, the kind of the bigger thing has been investigating why so many of these foods aren’t considered foods or were in one place or at a given time – why they fell out of favor, why they’re not used anymore… sometimes it’s something better came along. It’s more, whether it’s more prolific or it’s easier to obtain, easier to store, uh, maybe it’s just personal taste and preference over time, you know? Things change and evolve. So a lot more than just kind of finding things in the act of foraging, it’s been investigating the true gastronomic nature of any given ingredient and how that can be applied to any dish across the board.
Foraged: Can you give us an example or two of things that are largely considered inedible that you’ve investigated and done some work with?
Jeremy: Yeah. I mean, everything from some basic things, we have this whole category of a lot of things that are just considered inedible because they’re too bitter to consume. Well, bitterness, when we use bitterness, we use it more as a balancing ingredient or a high note, a highlight. So think of, uh, a radicchio salad, right? There, it’s the high note, whereas in coffee or chocolate, it maybe like the underlying uniter that’s tying the sweet, the tang, the fat feel all that together. It’s just an anchor. So a lot of investigation with bitter ingredients and just seeing like, alright, you say, uh, you know, a species of Sarcodon, right? Kind of looks like a hedgehog mushroom, call them Hawk’s wings, that sort of thing – they’re normally just ridiculously bitter. We were talking about this the other day. So you don’t wanna cook and saute that thing up. But, you know, if you did really thin slices of it and maybe fried it up, and it was the accent with a frisée salad, with some lardons and a poached egg, then maybe it’s got a great gastronomic use.
You know, and the investigation into different, uh, especially aromatics, you know? Things like barks or parts of plants and/or fungi that contain volatile oils, extracting them and using them. And whether we do something high tech, like, you know, uh, muddle a bunch of sweet gum leaves in a solution and then run it through our centrifuge, um, or we’re simply just like, no, we can put a warm piece of food on the sweet gum leaves and still get the aroma and that sort of thing. So like there’s various approaches we can take and, and investigate something with.
Foraged: Yeah. So much of what you’re just talking about, like feels like it involves like, so much like research and time and experimentation.
Jeremy: Yeah, but you gotta think we didn’t, we didn’t just get to the place we’re at now. You know, this is, uh, I mean, I’ve been working with these, the core concepts and these techniques for the better part of 20 years at this point, you know? So Larder itself is like more of like a culmination of that and all being gathered together. And then here it is, and being able to put it out there.
Foraged: Right. So speaking of 20 years . Talk to me about like, what’s that training look like? What’s that certification look like? What does that early experience look like for you?
Jeremy: It’s completely wild west because, um, there’s only a handful of states that, you know, do wild mushroom certifications, um, or that have naturalist programs and so on and so forth. So Ohio has a volunteer naturalist program, you get certified, it’s through Ohio state, you get a license… You get this degree certificate and everything. Um, but they don’t have licensing for wild mushrooms, but Michigan does next door. So does Pennsylvania, there’s this crisscross, you know, basically mix of laws across the place. So there isn’t like one thing you need to do to be at a level where you’re, you know, an expert or certified. Because a Michigan license, well, for mushrooms, Ohio, won’t recognize that license applied to product found in Ohio. But found in Michigan and then brought into Ohio or sold into Ohio, They’re like “okay!” It’s this weird bullshit. That’s like, well what laws apply to a forager and what don’t? And what food code jurisdiction are you following? And this sort of thing. And it, you know, there’s, there’s a lot to, to get in there.
So early on, I was very fortunate. Um, when my interest in agriculture was being driven really heavily, I was a student in culinary school and I was running a farm, a 40 acre vegetable farm in the Hudson valley. And the owner of that farm, Paul Wigsten (who recently passed), Paul was on the alumni board for Cornell. He was also the head buyer, um, food buyer for the culinary school I went to. Very, very large buying operation of very high quality and oftentimes exquisite ingredients. Um, so. Paul knew a bunch and we did a lot of work on the farm with Cornell. We did seed development and testing. We created an added value program at the time that taught farmers how to identify what weeds were edible on their roads. Instead of spraying, when they’re going through and inspecting and harvesting, they can have a separate bin and be grabbing the purselane and the amaranth and like these sorts of things that are growing wild.
And then they have, you know, added product that they put no effort into, you know, in terms of rearing it and raising and prepping the land, you know, you gotta put a little effort into, to sorting and packaging, getting it out to the market. But, um, so we did that. And during that time period also, um, I was studying via Cornell with some notable mycologists at the time, uh, Bill Bakaitis, who was in the Hudson valley.
Uh, he was a professor emeritus of, I believe, botany for the SUNY network (state university of New York). Through him, I met other great forgers: a very well published one, her name is Leda Meredith. Leda was based in Brooklyn for a number of years when I lived in there and we became really close friends and she was an instructor at the Brooklyn botanical gardens about wild plants and fungi. Um, and through her, then I met Gary Lincoff who wrote the North American guide to mycology f or the Audobon association. So I was really fortunate to have like these mentors early on in my career where there wasn’t clear lines of, like I said, to get certified licensed, like, what do you do? How do you do this? So I literally was able to find like the best of the best from field work to academia, for fungi and foraged foods, and work with them and study with them. And over time, you know, I ended up contributing to a few of Leda’s books that she’s written on foraging and that sort of thing. Um, it’s just been, uh, been a fun and wild ride.
It wasn’t until years later, when we were getting ready to open up Larder that I actually got the, the licensed wild mushroom certification through the state of Michigan. And currently, now I’m going through Ohio’s naturalist program. So as I’m becoming more business savvy with how the foraging world works, how to get product from the field and the forest to a restaurant table, I’m realizing that the more I’m working with food regulatory agencies, the more, just whatever layers of certification I can have to back up what I’m doing and reinforce the safety, the reliability, all of those things that food safety advocates are very concerned with (and rightly so) uh, the better.
JB: Do you think that there’s something that like Ohio’s a state could be doing better to, or like differently to make it easier?
Jeremy: Uh, yes. I definitely think Ohio could copy and paste a licensing program from a neighboring state and apply it. Or Ohio could very simply adjust its food code . Right now, for things like, uh, wild mushrooms and forged ingredients, they have to come from licensed processing facilities. Um, they could put in an addendum to that that says a processing facility can exist in Ohio, if the license is verified through another state agency through reciprocity.
So there’s things that Ohio could simply do to allow this to be something that’s, um, you know, by the book and verified, and there’s a legit industry behind it and you know, which means we’re collecting taxes and we’re paying people to do a job. And we’re doing all these things that, you know, we need for a company to survive in, in the modern day and that we have a legal framework for.
Ohio could do some things very simply. And it’s really interesting because yes, we’re Midwestern state, but a large part of us is Appalachian, which has a very, very, very deep arduous history with foraging, gathering wild foods, and hunting, and fishing and this sort of thing, more so than some other areas of the country.
Um, yet for whatever reason, those food traditions were shut out – whole nother conversation we could get into with social inequity and racism and segregationist policy that was developed early 1900s on through. That’s another conversation.
JB: I’m also reminded like, as we’re dipping into the legalese stuff, that’s kind of like where you started that foraging walk on Sunday just to like give that broad overview to people. Can you gimme a little insight about like how you structure or how you think about doing those walks for your community?
Jeremy: Yeah. So a, the first thing is we try to keep the price point to them very accessible. Um, my colleagues, other people I know in the industry, I’ve either been on their foraging walks, I see what they charge and that sort of thing, and most of the time for a walk, like what we do, people are charging like 75 to a hundred dollars.
Um, and I’m just kind of like… man, you know, if we… I’m in a fortunate position that I have another business behind me that I can do this through that generates income and salary for me, my employees, you know, it’s self-sustaining, as long as people walk in the door. A lot of other foragers don’t necessarily have that. They try to forage when they can full time, so you gotta make as much money as you can in a few months, compared to having steady work the rest of the year, that we see in banking or the restaurant industry or retail or just whatever, whatever it is. Foraging is very seasonal unless you’re nomadic , and you, you move around
JB: …or you’re able to preserve enough …
Jeremy: -right. Or preserve enough to be able to create a market. Um, you know, so first off we set off making them affordable. And we started the first three years we were doing them, they were $25. We’ve recently made them $35. And I still think that’s very fair. And the black and white reality was it’s a day, the restaurant’s closed. So it’s technically a day off for me. Yet, I’m still taking between four or six hours of my time. I got a relatively new baby at home now and that sort of thing. So we are like, we need to make this a little bit more. just cushion it for us on that end. And that’s understandable, but still we didn’t want to go above like 40 bucks. You know, we still thought $35 was in the range that most people who are looking to do something fun, something extracurricular, you know, you’d pay that for a concert ticket, you know, for a local band, that sort of thing. You’re, you know, so for a few hours out in the forest, a nice event, and you’re probably gonna be taking home, you know, a book bag full of who knows what. Um, yeah, it’s not bad for, you know, a little lesson and then having everything you need to cook dinner afterwards.
JB: I saw some people walking around with, well, over $35 worth of chanterelles on Sunday.
Jeremy: Yes. Yes, exactly. So, um, so that was the first thing. And then, um, we wanted to make sure that… I’ve found over the years, with gastronomic education, whether it’s cooking classes or foraging or how to garden… there’s a lot of intimidation and a lot of unknown. People have questions with the foraging from, well, “am I gonna kill myself?” All the way up to gardening, you know, “can I grow two things next to each other?” Cooking, like, you know, “I’m gonna set the house on fire, I’m gonna burn everything.” Like people have all these intimidations. Right? So we found out that the kind of format that works best for destroying that intimidation and creating comfortability. Is letting the class guide itself, letting what people, the aspects of what you’re focusing on, people are interested in being the drive instead of just walking up to something, giving a verbal spout of whatever’s in whatever guidebooks for identification, you know, that sort of thing, which is what a lot of walks are.
It’s more like, no let’s fan out. Let’s find everything we can, let’s bring it together. We’ll go over it. When you find things, we’ll explain how we figure out what an identifying characteristic for it is. Because if we approach it other ways. And we have like a syllabus for foraging and we’re like, okay, we’re gonna talk about plants because this time of year it’s early spring. And, and then we go out and we don’t find many plants and there’s a bunch of Morel fruiting up. It’s like, you know,
JB: …gotta reroute!
Jeremy: Yeah. I gotta reroute. So we have to rely on the direct feedback of what’s happening in, you know, time and place just with what’s growing and also how people absorb and learn and, you know, Each time of year, we explain to people it’s, they’re more or less broken into these micro seasons, right? Some things only appear for a few weeks out of the whole year and then they’re gone. So when we start to approach things that way, we can narrow what you’re learning down to a given season, a few given things that are highly prized and, you know, hopefully after a couple hours of walking out with us, y ou’re like, “man, chanterelles? They’re white fleshed inside, they’re yellow or orange on the outside. They smell like fruit they’re growing on the ground and not on wood,” you know?