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Beauty and Nourishment: Foraged Eatery

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Morels, chanterelles, chicken of the woods, lion’s mane, hen of the woods, fiddlehead ferns, ramps, black walnut tree sap, trifoliolate orange, paw paw, salt—the edible landscape of Maryland stretches throughout the seasons for forager and Chef Chris Amendola. It takes a heroic effort to seek and gather edibles from our forests—a task in which the Foraged Eatery owner takes great pleasure.

Nearly all of the forest along the eastern coastline of North America were razed for fuel, lumber, and farmland by European colonists. Today, deforestation has been identified as the second leading cause of climate change, second only to burning fossil fuels, and accounts for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. Forests are leveled, burned, and cleared to make space for large-scale agriculture, destroying natural carbon sequestration in exchange for soy farms or cattle grazing. Yet, canopies of trees reemerge and arc and bend in resilient forests.

If deforestation has an opposite, foraging might be it. To forage food in the natural landscape of a forest, or to crystalize salt from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, is simply a chore, but to serve it on a plate in a restaurant centered around the mission—is narrative art.

The flesh of an orange and white fruiting mushroom, plucked carefully from the bark of a 200-year-old tree, mixed with locally grown and milled grains, tossed in fragrant seasoning, pan-fried, and served on a hand-crafted ceramic plate made by a Baltimore artisan—the presentation and the food become a vessel for storytelling. A transient tale of life, death, abundance, and loss. The story of our region, our city, and the nation that it lies within.

 

“Maryland really captivated me. You could be an hour into the mountains and [within] a couple of hours be at the beach and everything in between,” Chef Chris shares. His soft, deep voice carries fully through the empty dining room with the strength of a long drawn bow pulling across a cello. The dining room feels like a greenhouse—boxes of live greens punctuate the walls, illuminated in the artificial glow of warm bulbs mimicking sunlight. The heavy wood tables and hand-carved mushroom sculptures create a feeling of being surrounded by the canopy of the forest, a place Chris has spent endless hours over the past twenty years.

Chef Chris, originally from St. Augustine, Florida, began his journey as a forager from an early age. “When I was younger, we’d go out in the cow fields and pick hallucinogens,” he shares candidly. “We got shot at with some salt rock. I caught a little piece in the back of the leg one time,” he says, laughing.

Nowadays, he asks for permission before going onto private property to forage, and he only forages in what he believes are truly wild and natural spots. “I won’t forage in the city or collect things in the city because of pollution.” In Maryland, foraging in state parks and forests is monitored and restricted in county and city parks. Making foraging inaccessible reinforces our reliance on a broken food system, a systemic issue Chris hopes to shed light on through his restaurant.

 

Foraging has long been an act of perseverance and food sovereignty.
Nani Ferreira-Mathews

Chris became a licensed forager when he opened the restaurant. “You wanna be sustainable about it,” he says after explaining how delicate plants should only be harvested in small amounts. He’s witnessed a surge in interest in foraging since 2020, but worries that nascent foragers who don’t use good practices can disrupt the ecosystem. He shares a few anecdotal stories he’s witnessed, poison mushrooms in the same basket with edible mushrooms, entire patches of ramps and ferns cleared, “The ignorance on foraging,” he says, shaking his head. “I understand that people want to get back into foraging, but you just gotta understand, you can’t do that.”

Foraging in the U.S. has deep historical roots in indigenous and black cultures. Before they were dispossessed of their lands, indigenous tribes would forage for food and medicine. Slave narratives reference the use of foraging to supplement the often inadequate meals served by plantation owners. Today, the Mid-Atlantic has many black historians and authors who bridge those histories to contemporary and sustainable foraging practices. Foraging has long been an act of perseverance and food sovereignty.

Chef Chris has lived and foraged for the past 20 years along the east coast, Florida, South Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland. Maryland made a home for him, as if by invitation.

“No,” he says when I ask if anyone showed him his favorite foraging locations in Maryland. “The first spot I went to ended up being a huge spot for fiddlehead ferns,” he shares. “The second spot I picked, it was so random,” he says, recalling his disbelief, “I went and started walking around and there were all these morels.”

It wasn’t just the abundant forests of Maryland that enticed Chef Chris to plant roots in Baltimore. Foraged Eatery happened serendipitously, through some chance and a lot of ambition. The original location in Hampden was offered to him by a restaurant investor for $200k.

“I talked to a bunch of people, and nobody wanted to invest,” he shares of his initial quest for capital. The original offer came down from $200k to $150k, to a minimum down payment, and finally into a manageable repayment plan after Chef Chris could not secure investment or come up with upfront capital. “Our first month open, we lost ten grand,” he shares.

“It was a struuugggle those first two years,” he says, over-enunciating the word struggle. “In year two, I had overdrawn the bank account a few hundred dollars; credit cards were maxed out. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have shit.”

He cashed in his loose change jar to bring the bank account back into the green. “Everybody says the first three years of a restaurant are the hardest,” he says, hinting toward a resolve, but year three was 2020. State-mandated Covid-19 restrictions shut down the restaurant for months, but Chef Chris, like many other resilient restaurant owners, pivoted and made it work. “It still blows my mind, like how did I do this?” he says, baffled. Foraged moved from Hampden to a larger location in 2021. In 2023 Chef Chris was named a semi-finalist for James Beard’s Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic.

 

The mission of Foraged is to dispel the myth of abundance and to showcase that despite what a grocery store looks like, food does not grow in endless cycles.
Nani Ferreira-Mathews

“Working 90 hours a week is a lot, and I’d love to have a little bit more of a balance, but I love this,” he says. Foraged is everything Chef Chris loved about the industry, and he has no excitement for the brutish drill-sergeant-style kitchens he once worked in. Foraged is a practice of patience and empathy, not unlike actual foraging. Chef Chris takes his time to find the right management style that suits his team and understands that people receive direction differently. He utilizes the same ethos with the guests at Foraged. “I would prefer if a guest asks what we do or how we’re sourcing—that tells me that they’re already engaged in what we’re doing, so we’ll just drop knowledge on whatever questions that they’re asking.”

Chef Chris is passionate about telling the story of where our food comes from, “It just always blew my mind. How do you not know where salt comes from or what’s growing right now, or what’s coming up in a couple of weeks? People just don’t know anymore. I just find that fascinating.”

Despite his spirited reflections, he hesitates to sculpt the experience too much. “I try and educate them [the team] as much as humanly possible on what we do and where we source from. To kinda give them a broader picture of what we do here.” Guests can access answers if they have questions, but Chef Chris wants the menu and the food to tell the story.

When he’s not in the restaurant, Chris is likely on his farm or foraging in the pristine forests of Maryland. He finds peace in the tranquility of the woods and the blurry edges of a fast-paced dinner rush. The mission of Foraged is to dispel the myth of abundance and to showcase that despite what a grocery store looks like, food does not grow in endless cycles. “It’s fucking March, why would we have tomatoes in here right now?” he says during our chat. I smile and shrug.

Foraged reminds me of a forest. You will get a lot of beauty and nourishment, and if you are open to it, you might just have a spiritual sun soak in the presence of what our ecosystem can offer.

 

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