Long before he got into foraging, Jonathan Bernard was and still is, a farmer. He worked closely with restaurants to supply them with locally grown ingredients and he realized a lot of chefs were interested in a different element.
“I would ask chefs what else they would like, and I noticed that foraged mushrooms were a big trend,” he said. So Bernard set out to take advantage of that movement. The Long Island native realized the area, despite how suburban many parts are, has a lot to offer the forager and he began doing research and exploring for wildly grown edible plants.
“I started realizing there’s a lot of cool stuff on Long Island,” he said. “There were mushrooms I was growing whose wild forms could be found on Long Island.” One place Bernard likes to come to for its sandy soils and goods to forage is the North Fork. He has been supplying restaurants all over New York with foraged ingredients for two years, but when he first started out, he kept it basic.
“I stuck to the simple ones at first that had no poisonous lookalikes,” he said. “I would just master one and move on to the next.” Even though he has been at it for some time, Bernard is hesitant to call himself an authority on the topic.
“I never tell people I’m an expert, because there are so many things I don’t know,” he said. “I tend to stick to what I do know.” Part of Bernard’s business, Jon’s Gourmet Mushrooms, is connecting with foragers all over the country to bring those unique ingredients to kitchens in New York. But when Bernard forages himself, he looks out for a few key things.
“Mushrooms tend to have relationships with certain trees in the area,” he said. “They’re either directly grown on a tree or they’re growing nearby. So if you’re looking for a certain kind of mushroom and you want to increase the odds you find it, you want to go to places you know have a lot of that tree.”
On the North Fork, Bernard forages for chanterelle, shiitake and maitake mushrooms, along with other edible plants like beach plums found near sandy soils, green and black walnuts, watercress and — one of Bernard’s favorites — sea beans. These crunchy, salty plants look like a cross between an asparagus and a green bean and can be found when the tide is low in many North Fork inlets.
Chef Noah Schwartz remembers meeting Bernard after he wandered into the back door of his Greenport restaurant, Noah’s, in 2018.
“He was like, ‘Can I speak with the chef?’ ” Schwartz said. From then on, Bernard has been supplying Noah’s with locally foraged items, including sea beans.
“Not many people even realize that it’s edible,” he said. “[It’s] like a grass that grows by the beach and has an awesome salty kind of burst to it.”
“The type of cuisine we get to put forward is pretty adventurous,” Schwartz continued. “We like to experiment with as many local ingredients as we can and some of them grow wildly.”
One of the reasons Schwartz likes using locally foraged ingredients is because of how it shocks people that these plants do grow wildly here. “Some of the things that are around us are not even farmed but are wild,” he said. “And somebody just has to go out there and be willing to look for them and pick them. I get a lot of surprise when people find out some of the ingredients that we serve [are foraged].”
Another local chef who uses the North Fork’s bounty to his advantage is PAWPAW’s Taylor Knapp, who said the “foraging bug” bit him as a kid in Indiana.
“We foraged for mushrooms, persimmon and pawpaw, which is how that all came about,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t realize that was foraging.”
While working at Noma, a world-renowned restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, Knapp was reintroduced to foraging.
“So much of the menu there was built around foraging,” he said. “I mean, it was really like the heart and soul of the restaurant.”
He returned to Long Island in 2010, ready to forage, and when PAWPAW opened in 2015, he started putting foraged items on the menu.
“There was really a place for those ingredients to go,” he said. “And like any ingredient, you have to kind of find the ways to make it shine the best.” Knapp does just that throughout the year. In the winter, he incorporates a lot of wood barks, roots, and needles through steeping and infusion. In the warmer months when the greenery comes out, the more delicate plants are served in their raw state as a garnish.
Foraging may seem like a boiled down version of gathering, but to Knapp, it’s a thrill-filled treasure hunt.
“When you find what you’re looking for, that’s very exciting,” he said. “Then bringing it back into the kitchen is just kind of like the ultimate distillation of getting to cook Long Island ingredients — they were grown here, and they’ve been growing here for who knows how long. So it’s kind of like what makes up the soul of eating a quote-unquote Long Island cuisine.”
Bernard finds that foraging brings him back to his roots, literally.
“Foraging is kind of a thing that is supposed to be for everybody. It’s the most basic way that we ever did things,” he said. “You just get to know where food comes from and I always got a sense of respect when I did things like that.”
“I guess being a farmer-forager, when you grow the food, and you see how it gets to this plate,” he continued. “There’s a different level of respect there.”