Jitti Chaithiraphant was once offered a job at Le Bernardin. He turned it down. That’s a bold gamble for an ambitious chef who’d cooked in esteemed local establishments like Radius, West Bridge and Bistro du Midi. Considering that Chaithiraphant once harbored ambitions of owning a Michelin-starred restaurant, some might even call it foolhardy. Or maybe not.
We’re a long way away from New York and Eric Ripert’s refined three-starred restaurant. In the woods north of Boston, where the rustle of leaves and cracking of twigs under our feet provides the only sound, it’s difficult to imagine Chaithiraphant in Midtown—though not for lack of talent. He seems at home in the woods. A passionate forager, Chaithiraphant spends long hours hunting for edible plants to ferment or pickle in the tiny kitchen of his Brighton apartment, where his Heritage Vinegar business was born in 2011. His fermented concoctions have been tapped by a number of local chefs, but now Chaithiraphant is focusing most of his culinary efforts on Spring Summer Fall, a pop-up dinner series featuring all manner of local flora he’s foraged. On a sunny day in May, we’re along for the ride.
Armed with Peterson Field Guides’ Edible Wild Plants and the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Mushrooms, along with a backpack full of plastic bags and Tupperware containers, Chaithiraphant doesn’t yet know what he’s looking for. “But I think that’s the beauty of it,” he says. “Because each plant changes, every week you go back and there’s something different happening.”
We’re almost immediately in luck: An Eastern pine tree just on the edge of the woods is sprouting tender leaves. “The whole pine tree is edible—if it’s an edible pine,” Chaithiraphant explains. “That’s one thing I could also pick in winter, but pine is best in early spring before the pollen comes out. European settlers survived the hardship of winter with pine. They’d scrape the inner bark of the pine and eat it. It’s a good source of vitamin C. People chew [the needles] directly, or you can boil them for tea and steep them. Or you can use it as a marinade for steak or chicken.” We chew our needles solemnly; the flavor is full and invigorating.
Chaithiraphant has a large plastic cooler in the trunk of his car to keep such foraged finds fresh on the ride back to Brighton, where curiosity-filled bottles, vats and vials line the walls, corners and closets of his crowded apartment. He’s used them at events like last June’s Spring Summer Fall pop-up at the Merchant. For $65 a head, 47 guests were treated to eight courses featuring ingredients sourced and foraged within a 150-mile radius—including more than 50 wild plants.
Chaithiraphant wasn’t always interested in this kind of cooking. He once dreamed of working at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. But when he was offered the gig at Le Bernardin, he was working long hours in Boston during what he calls the worst period of his life.
“I sabotaged my body. I was pushing, pushing, pushing. I would get up in the morning, have coffee and a banana, a half gallon of milk, and go to work,” he recalls. “It was just bad. When you don’t eat right, it catches up to you. I was really sick at one point.”
So he had to make a decision of a lifetime. “I turned down the job and rewrote my plan. But it’s a good thing. If I didn’t hit that rock bottom, I still would have pushed myself to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant. And that’s not really what I want,” he says. “Eventually I was like, ‘I need to learn how to eat well.’ I wanted to learn how the food was grown. I had $27,000 left in my bank account after I’d saved for like 14 years, and I was like, ‘Screw it, I’m going to spend all of it.’ So I took it and I traveled around the country for a year, spent every penny. I went to every state, from Maine all the way down to New Orleans.”
Those travels eventually led him to Ojai Farm in the Blue Ridge foothills of Franklin County, Virginia. He spent five months living and working on the farm, learning firsthand how to forage from his mentor, the farm’s owner Lori, and her son Nate. He calls the experience “life changing.”
“You’d wake up in the morning, and the air was so fresh and clean. The food was good,” he remembers. “Lori said, ‘Just pick whatever you want.’ I’d see a zucchini covered with dirt, and I’d just pull it out of the ground and eat it.” His time at Ojai Farm forged the foundation for what is now his culinary credo, but it also took him back to his roots. “I grew up with a soul sister, who was a farmer’s adopted daughter, and was like a nanny, who lived with my parents in Thailand,” he says. “She raised us, and she’d always talk about food. I didn’t know how much I really loved cooking until I was with her. She’d always talk about life on the farm, and I was fascinated by it.”
That fascination with the land is on full display as we head west to the second stop on our foraging field trip. We wander through overgrown underbrush, dodging the gnats and bees that flit about our heads, undaunted by our shooing hands. It’s their territory, and we’re just visiting. Soon we find tansy, a perennial plant marked by clusters of little yellow flowers. Chaithiraphant crushes it between his palms and invites me to sniff. It smells of eucalyptus, delicious but bracing. He laughs and notes that tansy always makes him think of coffins—long ago it was used in funerary rites to mask the odor of death. “The flowers are really strong. These are good for making tea,” he says. “I’ve also made syrups with it before, but I’m not picking it today.”
Indeed, Chaithiraphant stresses the importance of moderation. “My rule is that I never pick more than 10 percent of what I can see,” he says. “Basically, just pick what you need. You have to assume that 10 other guys will do the same.”
We do, however, pick a variety of other plants—some, like wood sorrel and mugwort, with foreign names that seem plucked from a Harry Potter spell book. We’ll eat some of them later that afternoon in a spring salad. Others, Chaithiraphant will dry, press, pickle or ferment in his kitchen, to squirrel away for future Spring Summer Fall pop-ups. He says that his next dinner will feature six courses, which will likely include dishes like chicken prepared with hay, whey hot sauce, burdock root and dandelion as well as a dessert starring sweet beech tree leaves. Going forward, he hopes to host dinners on a regular bimonthly basis. He’s also reaching out to area restaurants, offering to school their staff on the art of fermentation, free of charge. For Chaithiraphant, it’s never been about the money. “I no longer want to work in a restaurant because at a lot of places I can’t cook the kind of food I want,” he says. “I wanted to do something really meaningful.”
Here’s a quick primer on some of Chaithiraphant’s favorite edible specimens. Want to learn more? You can find foraging classes through groups like the Boston Mycological Club and places like Allandale Farm.
COWPEA VETCH | Part of the legume family, cowpea vetch can be identified by its small purple flowers, which taste like fresh peas and can be used as a garnish in salads.
CATTAILS | Cattails’ shoots taste like jicama, and in summer, when the plants flower, you can cover the tops with a plastic bag, shake them and collect the pollen to make a cattail meal for pancake batter.
WOOD SORREL | This common flowering plant closely resembles clover. Its leaves taste like fresh lemons and can be used as a zesty garnish.
MAPLE LEAVES | Raw, these common New England leaves taste like fresh apple skin. You can fry them or, if you pick them while they’re still young, eat them whole in a salad.
MUGWORT | A leafy green that can grow up to 3 feet tall, it’s easily confused with common ragweed. But this plant can be identified by its leaves, the underside of which are silvery, almost white. Fresh, the leaves are slightly bitter, but they can be dried to use in tea.
QUEEN ANNE’S LACE | Also known as wild carrot, this is easily confused with toxic hemlock, which has a smooth stem, while Queen Anne’s lace has a slightly hairy stem. Careful! The white flowers can be lightly battered or fried, and the leaves indeed taste like raw carrots.
PLANTAIN | Not to be confused with the fruit, this low-growing herb is abundant in suburban areas and identified by its smooth leaves surrounding a flowering shoot. The fresh leaves taste like vanilla.
DAYLILY | A popular staple of Asian cuisine, this flower’s shoots can be grilled, and its roots taste like jicama or water chestnut. It’s easily identified by its vibrant orange petals, which can be used to garnish a salad.
GARLIC MUSTARD | This resilient flowering plant is considered a common weed by many frustrated homeowners. The crown can be sauteed and tastes like broccoli raab, while the roots are quite potent and smell of horseradish.
PEPPERGRASS | Identified by tiny white flowers with four petals, peppergrass can often be found growing along the side of the road and on lawns. The roots taste like horseradish, and the leaves are also edible.