The Wisdom of L.A.’s First Couple of Foraging

Los Angeles is a city built for rummaging around
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I need to remember that Pascal Baudar is not trying to kill me—even though the plant he’s offering looks exactly like hemlock, the shiny green sprout that spelled curtains for Socrates.

“So I can eat this?” I ask. “Yes,” he says. “Trust me.”

We are in a scruffy, sun-baked clearing within earshot of the Foothill Freeway, north of Burbank. All morning I’ve been munching on shoots and branches I assumed only rabbits and squirrels ate, or maybe druids: mugwort, yerba santa, miner’s lettuce. Now Baudar wants me to try wild chervil, an invasive species, which, like Baudar himself, is native to Europe. With its pointy, fernlike leaves, it is a ringer for deadly Conium maculatum, except chervil has infinitesimal hairs. I take a bite and wait for convulsions.

Baudar, a lean, soft-spoken 54-year-old with gray hair, sticks out his lower lip and gives a distinctly Gallic shrug. As a professional forager and master preserver, he knows he stands alone in a Los Angeles food scene where “local” and “sustainable” can mean your cherries are trucked in from Fresno or beyond. Growing up in the Belgian countryside, Baudar consumed what flourished in the gardens and forests around him. After 30 years here, he still relies largely on whatever he snips, cans, dries, smokes, ferments, steams, and pickles.

Camouflage cargo pants and steely gaze notwithstanding, Baudar is no bunker-dwelling, off-the-grid commando. He lives in the Verdugo Mountains neighborhood of Shadow Hills with his wife, Mia Wasilevich, a vivacious wild-foods chef and photographer. The shelves in the couple’s fragrant kitchen are arrayed as neatly as the ones at Gelson’s, though their mason jars are marked with handwritten labels like cicada skin sheds. For the past hour we have been knocking around in the field not far from their home, stuffing Ziploc bags with elderberries and black mustard flowers for chef Ludo Lefebvre, because that’s what Baudar does for a living: He is the go-to weed dealer (of a sort) for L.A.’s culinary elite, including Curtis Stone, Josiah Citrin, and cocktail wizard Matt Biancaniello. He is up and out by seven most mornings, collecting cactus buds or vacuuming harvester ants (a favorite of Lefebvre’s). When she’s not at his side, Wasilevich, a former entertainment publicist, experiments with flavor profiles and designs menus—all to serve the highest aspirations of the city’s most enterprising gourmands. “The majority of chefs use 30 wild ingredients maximum,” Baudar says. “We deal with 456.”

 

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Los Angeles is a city built for foraging, and not just because magnificent vegetation grows everywhere virtually year-round. Unlike New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, which foist their charms on you by dint of sheer density, L.A. demands some rummaging around. Disagree with me if you want, but while this town may be great to live in, it can be a terrible place to visit. Steadfast hunting and gathering is what makes the sun shine.

It took me two years to get my head around Los Angeles after relocating from Manhattan in the mid-’90s, and becoming situated required serious exploring. It wasn’t just finding the strip-mall sushi bar that would leave New York friends quivering with envy. I started devoting whole Saturdays to tracking down the most authentic Brazilian moqueca or the perfect public paddle tennis court. Two decades later the city continues to conjure unexpected magic. The traffic navigation app Waze routinely directs me through neighborhoods I didn’t know existed: View Park, Harvard Heights, Colfax Meadows. Just this month I looked closer at a house I’d passed hundreds of times near me in Culver City and noticed a discreet historic property plaque that reads “Louis Armstrong residence”. Satchmo! Such not-knowingness is, in fact, the allure of Los Angeles. Even Baudar and Wasilevich, who can stroll through a field and distinguish their shaggy parasol mushrooms from their man-on-horsebacks, cannot pretend to master L.A. because L.A. cannot be mastered. “We keep unearthing amazing new things,” Wasilevich says. “We recently found cardoon, an ancient artichoke from the Roman Empire, growing wild here. I mean, who knew?”

Psychology professor Thomas Hills at the University of Warwick in England believes the primal search instinct is a “ubiquitous requirement of life.” Animals forage for food, territory, and sexual partners, which, come to think of it, drive most human behavior here, too. For a laboratory study published in the journal Psychological Science, Hills tracked subjects as they “foraged” in a video game for hidden caches of food and water, noting that certain volunteers took time to carefully assess their surroundings while others missed their quarry because they were rushing. The plodders turned out to be more successful in a follow-up word puzzle, suggesting that foraging styles reveal something significant about problem solving and, perhaps, ambition and achievement as well. If nothing else, that tenacity can open doors. At a bar called Lock & Key in Koreatown, getting into the back-room cocktail lounge means determining which of the more than 50 knobs on a wall actually work (hint: Try the gold one on the far right).

For those whose persistence needs polishing, Baudar leads outdoor skills workshops that essentially transform a patch of weeds into a field of possibilities. He had been working as a freelance graphic designer and photographer since arriving here in 1986. A survivalist course he took during the Y2K bug scare is what turned his attention to grazing full-time. He met Wasilevich online, and they spent their first date nettle hunting (“We keep a couple of the nettle wontons we made in our freezer,” Wasilevich says). Baudar estimates that 20 to 30 percent of their diet comes from foraged fare, and his expertise—he’s taken more than 100 classes on plant identification and wild gastronomy—qualifies him as an authority on practically anything that takes root.

Baudar’s is a timeless pursuit. For centuries only the poor scrounged in tangled thickets for their sustenance. Today found food is the hallmark of one of the most fussed-over chefs in the world: Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. My meal there two summers ago began with a pot of edible nasturtium flowers in a dirtlike emulsion of forest herbs, followed by deep-fried moss. It ended 24 courses later with swirly crowns of chocolate inlaid with sea buckthorn marshmallow. Cooks everywhere try to replicate Redzepi’s taste of wilderness, though most come off as mere scavengers.

Baudar hates the idea that he’s part of some global foraging trend. “I got the Noma cookbook and immediately gave it to my daughter,” he says. (Baudar has two adult kids from a previous marriage.) The flavor of the greens he grabs, not the fashion, is what energizes him. “With certain plants, I can taste them before I pick them,” he says. “I’m not spiritual at all, but eating this way has an almost divine quality for me.” He’s working on a book of his own—400-plus pages, lushly photographed and due out in 2016—to spread the word about the simple pleasures that can be derived from exploring your surroundings.

A couple of days after our outing, Baudar and Wasilevich host a “forest and field” dinner for an appreciative group of 25, each of whom pays $250 to feast on dishes like wild thistle uni and acorn-morel “truffles” sealed in ravioli. For dessert Wasilevich serves frozen mastic yogurt sprinkled with candied ants and lerps in a cricket-flour cone. The presentation is artful. Nothing tastes like chicken. Wasilevich sends everyone home with stylish tins of smoked wild black sage cocoa with honey powder.

Hiking with my wife and 11-year-old son the next morning on our usual path across the bluffs in Playa del Rey, I try impressing them with some Baudarian know-how. It’s a clear morning, and Los Angeles stretches in panorama from the marina to the Hollywood sign, but I’m interested in the food at our feet. Desert thistle has a stem you can snack on if you remove the thorns. The flavor is like sweet celery. Wild chamomile has the tangy tartness of pineapple. I point out juniper berries and giant fennel and a hillside of rosemary. A week earlier this same landscape was a wasteland to me. Suddenly it’s a supermarket. But my middle schooler looks bored, which is why I grab a heaping handful of black mustard weed, strip the yellow flowers into a clump in my hand, and wait for the wonder in his eyes as I start chewing.

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