Photo by Kyle Johnson
Photo by Kyle Johnson
Portland chefs Joel Stocks and Will Preisch forage the Oregon Coast for ingredients.
A subversive band of Portland chefs has a new grocery store: the ocean. You’re going to want to taste what they’re cooking up.
It’s a salty morning in a surging cove and I’m tallying: All those years, oblivious to the bounty underfoot. The legion meals I’ve trampled. The countless appetizers I’ve mowed down.
But now is no time to wallow. The novice coastal forager, blasted by pale Oregon sun and buffeted by frigid Pacific Ocean breakers, passes through remorse en route to liberation. There are gooseneck barnacles to pry from rock faces, sesuvium portulacastrum to pluck from sand, matted sheaves of slimy sea lettuce to yank from a bright green bed.
A couple of beachcombers amble by, admiring a ghostly sea stack. I, too, once came to the coast to marvel. Today I’m here to filch.
Foraging for wild food has become almost de rigueur in certain foodie circles, the next step when you’ve wrung all thrill from the farmers’ market. In Portland’s flourishing food scene, you can’t swing a chanterelle without hitting a cook who sources from the woods outside town, or, for that matter, the woods in town. But coastal foraging is another story: less-charted terrain, sparser terrain, at least at first blush. The number of chefs in this country regularly procuring their ingredients at the ocean is tiny; the number in Portland can be counted on one hand.
I’m here with three of the fingers, mucking around outside the misty seaside town of Lincoln City. Will Preisch and Joel Stocks come to the coast on Wednesdays to gather ingredients. Joining them today is chef and fellow picker David Padberg, along with a former colleague, Matthew Domingo, and me, a person who once waited tables poorly for a winter. They’ve promised to show me the ropes and then cook up a massive feast, assuming we scavenge enough in the hours ahead.
At certain misty times, on certain desolate stretches of coastline, this segment of the planet is super fucking creepy.
Preisch has a thoughtful and long and vaguely Amish face, an enviable blond beard, and an even more enviable grasp of wild edibles. “People tell me I’m now on their zombie apocalypse team,” he says. Ditto for Stocks, who’s currently plundering a tide pool for kombu, the edible kelp used in dashi. If civilization does collapse in the next few days, I’ll be with the well-fed survivor kings.
Our liberating army spends the morning working a pry bar against jagged mussel colonies and digging feeble weeds from the base of towering, spruce-topped cliffs. The feeling is at once illicit and virtuous. We’re skulking around shoplifting barnacles and so forth from nature’s 7-Eleven. But we’re also using what others neglect, eating local, and opting out of a problematic commercial food system.
Indeed, from the outside, the enterprise might seem like just another diverting culinary adventure—and at some level I suppose it is. But for its practitioners, foraging represents nothing less than a shot across the bow of Big Agriculture, if a sprig of sandwort can be called a shot across anything. To hear any half-awake chef talk these days is to absorb an earful on the deceits and corruptions endemic to the commercial produce world, the poultry world, the seafood world. Nobody thinks a sack of sea veggies will change this. But in the briny, twiggy simplicity of today’s haul lurks a teaspoon of resistance.
David Padberg is central to today’s tiny revolt. Square-jawed and flip-flopped, he’s a chef ’s chef in the Portland restaurant firmament; Preisch and Stocks worked under him years ago at the restaurant Park Kitchen, as did Domingo. Tonight he’ll be cooking for us, including whatever we can scavenge—a midweek feast in a house we’ve rented for the sole purposes of consuming good food.
The coast sufficiently raided, we climb into cars and bomb up past the Coast Range mountains, spruce boughs cathedraling over our ribbon of U.S. Highway 101. I hope to offend no one by saying that at certain misty times, on certain desolate stretches of coastline, this segment of the planet is super fucking creepy. One minute you’re driving along, the next you’ve vanished in a swirl of fog that’s barreling across the road like tumbleweed. It spirals into the trees and just sort of settles there, leaving you to picture generations of backwoods Oregonians swallowed entirely by the mist.
But today has turned bright and nice, plus explosively colorful. On the left, the un-trammeled riotous red of a crimson clover field. On the right, the wild, Big Bird yellow of Scotch broom popping off the banks of the Salmon River. (Not edible! Just pretty.) The odd parked RV registers not as an eyesore but as simple good thinking. If you could live on the rim of the seashore’s salad bowl, wouldn’t you
Before dinner, Preisch, Stocks, and I stop at Netarts Bay, the more-than-2,300-acre estuary below Tillamook. It’s low tide, and a stiff wind ripples the long grasses along the edge of the bay’s vast, exposed floor. In the distance, a handful of harbor seals lie sausagelike in the sun, contemplating existence. We venture in, Preisch and Stocks stepping around like cranes, in search of a few more interesting flavors: the bright pineyness of sea purslane, the intense cilantro taste of sea plantain, the refreshing, sour crunch of sea spinach, with its memorable arrow-shaped leaf. Oh, and Turkish bath towel, which I can only assume tastes similar to Armenian bath towel.
“It’s the fantasy of a more adventurous life,” he tells me. “With coastal foraging, there’s this basic element of the unknown.”
Padberg has already peeled off for the cabin we’ve rented. His feast will feed not just us but a broader community of like-minded food producers, all coaxing high-end ingredients from the area in one way or another. Husband-and-wife Portlanders Jennifer Bloeser and Markus Mead added farming to their resumes a few years back, and now, with the company Frog Eyes Wasabi, find themselves one of the very few commercial growers of the temperamental rhizome in this country. (That ubiquitous stuff alongside your California roll? Horseradish and green dye.) Up the road from Frog Eyes is Ben Jacobsen, the only salt celebrity I can claim to have encountered. A couple years back, the tall, freckled ex-software executive became the first soul to harvest salt commercially from the Oregon coast since Lewis and Clark, and his celebrated Jacobsen Salt Co. crystals are now found in such restaurants as the French Laundry and the Spotted Pig. Finally, we’ll be joined by Damian Magista and Ryan LeBrun of Bee Local, a Portland operation gathering and selling honey from different neighborhoods around town, each with a distinct flavor profile.
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By the time I get around to jotting the words “flavor profile” in my pad late that afternoon, it’s a scrawl. In our cabin, a tall, glassy box peering out at Netarts Bay, sake-fueled mayhem is under way. The assorted guests filter in and gather around Padberg’s adopted kitchen, pouring this and that. The next eight hours area a ragged conversational romp through gooseneck barnacles and salmon collar and razor clam shooters, through swilling Magista’s homemade salted mead and grousing about honey laundering, through Padberg’s delicate tule salmon cooked on cedar planking (hello, familiar-looking sea lettuce), through a 17-year-old Japanese whiskey and Magista’s lubricated attempt to sell Preisch on adding a skunk cabbage roll to his culinary repertoire.
When food people drink, they make jokes about skunk cabbage.
It’s after midnight when I finally drift off, and Preisch, Stocks, and Padberg are pulling some spot prawns from the fridge for a late snack. The following morning we pop ibuprofen and pile into cars for Portland, where somehow there’s a bigger evening to prepare for.
It wasn’t just the coastal foraging phenomenon that brought me up to Oregon this week. I’d wanted to meet Preisch and Stocks, who came to this stage in their careers via rough terrain. Their regular trips to the ocean celebrate not just nature’s cornucopia but their own good fortune, which wasn’t always so.
At the shore, hypnotized by surf and emptiness, it’s not hard to get caught up in the search.
“He looks like Santa Claus. That’s the first thing,” Preisch tells me, as we romp through tide pools. “The second thing is he has been running a B&B for a little more than forty dollars a night. An hour of foraging with him, meanwhile, costs three hundred and ten bucks.”
Through his approach to foraging, Rittman preaches a departure from industrialized food and a return to the natural and surprising. His sourcing was central to the character and success of Noma, the legendary Copenhagen restaurant frequently called the best in the world. Preisch came away from his tutelage changed.
“It’s the fantasy of a more adventurous life,” he tells me now, scooching down some rocks. “With coastal foraging, there’s this basic element of the unknown. There’s no official body of knowledge about all these edible plants.”
Preisch returned to Portland and, in 2013, began paying for time in KitchenCru, a shared, ambience-free commissary kitchen near the Pearl District. Stocks left Chicago to join him. The new vision would afford them culinary success on their own terms, meaning they could pay the bills, reap accolades, and even allow themselves meditative jaunts to the coast when other cooks would be cursing in their kitchens. Named for the rootlike mechanism a marine organism uses to grip whatever joyless substrate it calls home, Holdfast Dining quickly became Portland’s most popular underground restaurant.
On Friday, I’ll be a Holdfast diner. Whenever I’ve spent time with chefs, I’ve come away with admiration but not envy. I mean this in the nicest way, chef friends, but: Oh, god, what a horrible life you lead. Every evening spoken for, all those humans to manage, all that money not to make. Since launching, Holdfast has upended all that. It’s open just three nights a week. No lease, no waiters, no investors, no allergies accommodated, no fuss. Preisch and Stocks procure, prep, cook, serve, bus, and manage everything themselves. If they feel like making a 19-course dinner, they do.
Which sounds food-trucky in spirit. In fact, Holdfast is one of the city’s few fine dining operations. Seaweed gnocchi. Pork collar with gooseberries and burnt bay leaves. Celery root ice cream. Bone marrow custard. Pickled huckleberry. Everyone eats in a single seating, at a shared bar facing the kitchen. Reservations are made a month out, and filled in minutes.shuttered) are a world away. Their weekly drives to the coast for picking expeditions aren’t just about filling the larder. Thread the needle just so, and a tiny underground dinner can fan deeper dreams: the simpler existence, more itinerant gatherer, less rooted farmer. A reconnection with both our surroundings and our baser selves. “Kneel on the ground,” Rittman said at the MAD symposium, a gathering of chefs, in Copenhagen in 2013. “Humbly bend your head. Take a bite from a rooted plant. Graze as the animal you are.”
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