"I don't believe in paying for anything that I can get for free," says my classmate as we cross Wilshire Boulevard on LA's Miracle Mile. Although it's packed with cars at almost any time of day, at rush hour it's a particularly chaotic stretch—not the most desirable place in town to travel by foot or wheels, and definitely not a spot you'd think to look for food underfoot.
Yet here we are at a foraging workshop called "Nibble Your Neighborhood: Wild Foods of Los Angeles," organized by independent curator Leyna Lightman at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. The write-up promised we'd get to hunt and gather edibles from around the neighborhood, which we would then mix into wild yeast breads and bake on the spot under the guidance of Josey Baker of The Mill in San Francisco.
Leading our group is Pascal Baudar, a self-professed "wild culinary alchemist," who's been a professional forager in Southern California for over six years. He has provided some of LA's top restaurants—from Ink to N/Naka—with grasses, nettles, acorns, and other seasonal finds.
"Not only do I forage, but I take what I forage and make all kinds of beer, wine, syrup, salt, sugar. I mean, you name it," says Baudar, who runs Urban Outdoor Skills, a school where he teaches classes on foraging and food preservation.
Before we even start, Baudar admits that the concrete jungle of Miracle Mile isn't an ideal foraging setting; he prefers local forests and more natural surroundings. Minutes later, however, he's showing us a yarrow plant, which he says is "psychotropic to some degree" and good for making beer. Funky in flavor, it's also useful for spice blends, and the stem can double as a flavor-infusing skewer for open-flame cooking. He encourages us to smell it and chew on it.
Next, we spot elderberries covered in a white coat of wild yeast that's potent enough to make bread rise. The berries are ideal for jams, jellies, sodas, and "incredible wine." Baudar warns, though, that the raw juice contains a small amount of cyanide that makes some people sick. "About 40 percent of people have a tendency to barf," he says.
Those kinds of risks and worse (like, you know, death) are crucial for would-be foragers to understand. Baudar doesn't suggest anyone go foraging without proper instruction. He grew up eating off the land in his native Belgium, but when he decided to start foraging in earnest as an adult, he took countless classes and workshops taught by indigenous people, survivalists, and botanists to learn everything he could about the practice and avoid its dangers.
Baudar and his wife Mia Wasilevich, a wild foods chef, also believe that foraging can benefit California cuisine as a whole—"true California cuisine," as Baudar calls it—and encourage the idea that native foods are gourmet foods.
"By foraging, if you actually know what you're doing, you're actually dealing with a very organic product, with no pesticides, nothing, but you're also rediscovering a brand-new flavor that has been forgotten," says Baudar. He adds that the area is home to about 450 native ingredients, from plants to seeds, that don't appear in grocery stores or California's farmers markets.
Wasilevich's wild foods catering company and cooking school Transitional Gastronomy is a vehicle for these rediscovered flavors and reimagined California cookery. She defines "transitional gastronomy" as "a new kind of cuisine that bridges the gap between what people had [forgotten] a long time ago and the modern palate."
The dishes she creates—including delicious fried quail brined in wild bay leaves, juniper, and yarrow, served with pickled native seeds and mountain vinegar slaw—are a true union of the couple's skill sets. When they started dating, it didn't take long for Baudar and Wasilevich to realize their potential as a foraged food power couple. "We put two and two together, and thought, You know what? This could be a good thing," she says.
The relationship also prompted Wasilevich to further develop her own foraging skills, which she found liberating.
"There is a little bit of DIY, like, Wow, I just learned to source my own food—how awesome is that? You really feel empowered, knowing where this food comes from and that you can identify it, and that people have been doing this forever, but it's been lost," she says. "It's kind of a little Indiana Jones-ish."
Baudar agrees. "It gives you a sense of freedom, but it also gives you real freedom from the packaged food system, from the current food system of which you don't have a choice anymore," he says.
The remainder of the Miracle Mile hunt yields mugwort, sagebrush, and black sage, which Baudar slaps a few times before giving us a sniff. It goes well with milk and chocolate, he says. (Wasilevich will later prove this with some chocolate black sage cookies.) Square stems, we learn, indicate that a plant is nontoxic and from the mint family. As for California pink peppercorns? Don't eat them—there's a good chance they'll make you instantaneously ill.
Baudar also regales us with stories about flavoring soups, salad dressings, poached pears, and compound butter with grass. This is possible with everyday, find-it-in-your-front-yard grass, but in the city, he cautions, you might want to consider the amount of dog traffic the grass gets before you ingest it.
Back at the museum, Baudar confers with Baker on our findings. Baker already has a dough at the ready, made from a five-year-old sourdough starter that he sent by mail a few days prior to his arrival. (Baker wanted to make sure the starter was imbued with a combination of LA's and San Francisco's "spirit," as he calls it.) He sprinkles the dough with sage and cooks it in a mobile pizza oven. The results are addictive—the group tears each round apart the second it comes out.
The bread is supplemented with Baudar and Wasilevich's other creations, too. There's the fried quail and the cookies, plus Baudar's homebrewed beer, sodas, and a jug of water flavored with lemons, berries, and a bunch of leaves, which is startlingly good. Cubes of cheese are dusted with a blend of dried spices that Baudar grinds in a molcajete as we watch; the simple combination is hard to resist eating. Mark Jilg, owner of Craftsman Brewing in nearby Pasadena, serves acorn and juniper beer.
Energized by the experience and the spread, I ask Baudar if he thinks foraging will become more of a mainstream pursuit.
"I don't think it will ever be popular," he says unequivocally. "I think the vast majority of people are happy to go to the store … You have chefs and foodies who are looking for new flavor, but it's always going to be a very small amount of people—it requires a tremendous amount of education."