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Wilderness On A Plate: A California Chef On His Foraged Feasts

We at The Salt did our fair share of foraging last year: Allison Aubrey gathered pawpaws in Maryland, and Nancy Shute scavenged nutritious greens in the abandoned lots right near our office.

As the trend attracts more enthusiasts, home cooks are learning local botany, and high-end chefs are turning this most traditional method of gathering food into a glamorous sport.

But few American chefs take foraging wild foods quite as seriously as Daniel Patterson, of Coi restaurant in San Francisco. At any given day, he might be cooking with clams, lichens, coastal spinach, Monterey Cypress, angelica root, and forest mushrooms — all native California foods from the beaches and forests a few dozen miles from his restaurant. (In 2010, on the Cook It Raw chef trip to Finland, he cooked beets in reindeer blood.)

"There are things that have natural harmonies, so we use them together, but in pursuit of something delicious, something meaningful, and resonant," Patterson tells The Salt. His attention to the craft of foraging has earned him two highly coveted Michelin stars from some of the world's toughest food critics.

When I saw these images of Patterson's dishes at Coi, I was reminded of the striking beauty of the coast of California, where I went to college. Patterson clearly has a knack for assembling bright leaves and flowers in a way that looks like they just fell off the tree. So I decided to ask him if his food tries to recreate those landscapes on the plate.

It turns out it's a little more nuanced than that.

"We live on the coast and that's very important, because it's a place where water and earth meet," says Patterson. "I'm inspired by this place; it's something worth capturing and fixing on the plate and serving to customers.

"But we try not to be too literal, and it's really important that a dish doesn't become a geographical study. It's more about capturing a feeling, emotion, sensibility. I think the echoes of nature that come out do so kind of organically rather than through intention."

Makes sense. After all, the forest and the beach have to stop somewhere — no one really wants dirt and grit and sand for dinner.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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