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Interview: Iso Rabins of forageSF

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Photo by Andria Lo

The DIY food revolution has been in effect for some time, but only now is it coming full circle. Witness the evolution from terms like “local,” “sustainable” and “farmers’ market” to “homegrown,” “foraged” and “underground market.” At the forefront is a man whose efforts are putting him on the map far beyond his Bay Area locale.

Part pathmaker, part revolutionist, and wholly pioneer, Iso Rabins is the man behind forageSF, an organization that connects foragers and eaters. Among its growing repertoire of services, forageSF offers Wild Food Walks, where participants learn about urban foraging and harvest wild foods from land and sea; roving Wild Kitchen dinner parties that feature those sustainable, locally harvested ingredients; an underground marketplace where people buy and sell homemade foods; and the extremely popular–but currently on hiatus–community-supported forage (CSF) boxes.

So what happens when an intentionally underground venture generates so much buzz it becomes mainstream? For some, it might render the business defunct, but in forageSF’s case, like the edible weeds collected by its founder, it just keeps growing—and at a hearty pace. Case in point: since forageSF’s first underground market in December 2009, the vendor list has grown from 7 to 150; and attendance has mushroomed from about 500 to 2,700.

Up next: there’s a cookbook in the works, and Iso himself has confirmed that it’ll feature recipes from the Wild Kitchen dinners.

Give us the quick version of how you got to where you are now.

I started forageSF following my own fairly recent discovery of wild foods. I moved out to San Francisco after graduating from film school in ’07. About six months after I’d moved out, I was up in Northern California visiting my dad and met some professional mushroom foragers who were friends of my sister’s. I was amazed that these people actually made their living by going out into the wild and collecting this fungus. If you were to ask me before that point where wild food came from, I would have said that someone probably went out into the woods to get it, but I had never really given it much thought.

I was hooked. I started foraging with them, then driving down to San Francisco with mushrooms to sell to restaurants. It all spiraled from there. I started to notice the abundance of other wild edibles around, and started forageSF as a way to connect people with the edibles all around them in the form of a wild food CSF (a subscription box of wild foods). The Wild Kitchen (my underground restaurant) came about a year later, following my interest in spending more time cooking these foods, and showing people what could be done with wild food.

How did you learn to recognize wild foods? Have you had any negative experiences collecting wild foods?

I learned mostly from other people and books. It’s a slow process, because you need to be 100% sure of what you’re picking before you eat it. I have never had a bad experience with wild edibles.

Tell us about the bounty of foods that are native to the Bay Area. What’s your favorite season for foraging, and why?

Every season is great except late summer. By then everything is dried out and dead, and just waiting for the rains of winter to come. But it’s pretty amazing how much you can get at every season out here. Winter is great for mushrooms, obviously, because of all the rain. In the spring there are great greens, and summer is great for seaweeds.

Education seems like an integral component of ForageSF. Why is it important for people to learn about the foods that grow wild where we live?

I had an experience when I started learning about wild edibles. I was up at my dad’s [place] in Northern California, looking at his lawn. I’d looked at the lawn dozens of times on previous trips, and seen a mat of green, perhaps grass, but I didn’t give it much thought. I had just learned what miner’s lettuce (now one of my favorite wild greens) was. As I was looking [at it], the lawn suddenly transformed into a huge patch of miner’s lettuce. It was amazing. What had previously been an abstractly beautiful piece of land had become something I could eat. I feel like that is one of the most important and interesting things about wild food: its ability to change your relationship with your environment. Rather that seeing nature as something that you want to preserve because it’s pretty, you instead want to preserve it because the food you eat literally comes from it.

You recently appeared on “The Wild Within” on the Travel Channel with Steven Rinella. Tell us about that experience.

It was fun. Random, but fun. I had never been on TV before except for the local news, and in a two-week time span, I was filmed for two shows. I’d gone to film school and had always imagined myself behind the camera, so to be “talent” was strange. Overall, it was good. The crew was great and a lot of fun, and Steve and I got along great, too. I haven’t actually seen the show yet (no TV), but I hear it came out well. To be honest, I’m a bit nervous about the whole thing.

You made an appearance on “Bizarre Foods” recently as well, with Andrew Zimmern—how was that?

“Bizarre Foods” was fun to shoot. It was interesting after coming off a full week shooting “The Wild Within” to see the different styles of the crew/host. Again, not something I ever imagined, but I hope good will come of it.

I hear you had raccoon on “The Wild Within”! How was it? And speaking of raccoon, what’s the weirdest food you ever ate? Anything you won’t eat?

I haven’t seen a food yet I won’t eat, although some of the stuff Zimmern eats could put me off. I think the raccoon was the most “out there” thing I’ve eaten; it was delicious, though.

Any aspirations to have your own TV show in the future? If you could design the perfect show for you, what would it focus on?

I don’t have an interest in having my own show. My privacy is very important to me, and the idea of not being able to walk down the street without people approaching you sounds pretty terrible. At the same time, I’ve been thinking recently about doing some kind of cooking program, probably more YouTube than Travel Channel. Maybe me traveling around in an RV cooking wild food.

What does it mean to forage sustainably?

To forage sustainably, you really just need an awareness of the environment you’re collecting in. Never collect more than a third of what you see, and never collect rare species.

You’ve been able to circumvent the red tape most farmers’ markets and vendors must deal with by operating your underground markets like a private club. But without regulation, how do you address quality control and safety concerns, like environmental pollutants and basic edibility, with foraged foods and products?

First I would like to clear up a misconception about the market. Very little of it is foraged food. I sell some wild edibles, but that’s pretty much it. Most of it is home producers of conventional (but organic) foods. Safety is a definite concern at the market, and something we take very seriously. With that said, we don’t police our vendors. Our vendors are making what they love to make, and in very small batches. I think where food safety becomes a more intense concern is where you get into large industrial production of food. We have served over 30,000 people at the Underground Market, and not one person has reported being sick, so we must be doing something right.

Besides forageSF, your Wild Food Walks, Underground Markets and Wild Kitchen dinners, are you working on any other projects right now that you can tell us about?

I’ve got some ideas, but they’re still too fresh to share.

What’s your day-to-day life like now?

I wake up, write, organize events, forage, plan menus, cook, recipe test, write some more, answer emails, ride my bike, go to bars with friends, meet with people interested in collaborating, put on dinners, put on markets, and cook some more.

Tell us about your Wild Kitchen dinners. How are they going? Do you cook everything yourself?

They are going great. We just had our biggest yet: 440 people served over three days. Was pretty insane. I plan the menus and some of the cooking, and I have others who collaborate with me. The dinners are really about opening people’s eyes to wild food. I get up between courses and talk about the dish they’re about to eat, and a story or two about collecting it.

Tell us about a dish you make that best represents your culinary point of view.

I just made a dish called “Coffee and Cream,” which was bay nut (from bay laurel trees; when you roast them, they taste like coffee) crusted skirt steak with potatoes au gratin. I try to play with foraged ingredients in such a way that they are accessible but also surprising.

Guilty pleasures?

El Farolito super chicken burritos and Safeway sandwiches.

Who inspires you in the culinary world, and why?

I’m a big fan of David Chang and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. They are both chefs, of NYC and the UK respectively, who seem to follow their own paths, and make some amazing food.

Since founding forageSF, what are you most proud of having achieved?

I’m proud of different things for different reasons. I’m really proud of the [Wild Kitchen] dinners because they started from nothing, and people have a really great time. I’m proud of the market because it’s helped so many people realize that they have it in them to be an entrepreneur and do what they love.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

Staying focused is a big challenge. I have so many ideas of different projects and directions I want to go, so knowing my limits is hard sometimes.

What have you learned since you began forageSF?

I’ve learned that the ideas I have are good—something I’ve always suspected, but now I have proof.

Any parting words of advice for aspiring culinary entrepreneurs?

My impulse here is to say, “Just do it! The worst that can happen is you’ll fail,” but I realize that many people have a hard time jumping into something like that. Maybe a more measured way to go about it is to say, “If you want to start something, make a list of all the things that need to happen to start your dream, and then start checking them off.” I think we get overwhelmed with the mammoth size of our ideas and forget that everything is done one step at a time.

  • http://blog.justinchen.net/ Justin C

    I lived off of Safeway sandwiches for a whole summer during one of my internships. Those things are magical.

  • Anonymous

    I went to the last underground market and can vouch for the impressive and delicious array of homemade foods. Lots of fun chatting with these passionate, knowledgeable vendors, too. Looking forward to the next one!

Nikki Jong is an earth-friendly eater who’s never met a vegetable she didn’t adore. In addition to her edible plant obsession, she nurses a neverending hankering for sustainable seafood and is a champion oyster eater (and shucker). Nikki loves hoppy beers, bold, spicy reds, and believes that nothing beats a cold glass of moscato d’Asti on a hot summer afternoon. As Editor of The Menuism Blog, she has the pleasure of interviewing some of the hungriest, thirstiest and most ambitious folks in food and wine.


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