Dan Lipow raises the ante from farm-to-table to forest-to-table. He’s a forager.
The Maplewood dad’s business, The Foraged Feast, has become New Jersey’s top source of the wild bounty from our fields and woodlands. Like many people who revel in their vocations, Lipow’s career has had a major twist.
“Forager” is an unusual job description. How did your career path lead you into the woods?
Dan Lipow: I was a photographer in New York City for 20-plus years; I’m 55 now. I took photos for advertising, corporations and travel. And when I traveled, I was always chasing the food.
So there is a connection.
My appetite goes way back. I grew up in Connecticut with a passion for food. My mom was a great cook, and I loved being in the kitchen. I’d cook when my friends came over. I kept cooking and was always interested in how certain ingredients could just light up the flavor of a dish.
In 2005, when my older daughter, who’s now 19, was a year old, we moved to Maplewood. The South Mountain Reservation became our backyard. I’ve always felt at home in the woods.
Did you become a forager yourself at this point?
Not quite. I was still doing the photography in the city and immersed myself in learning about foraging and mycology, the science of mushrooms. I scoured mushroom books, took foraging classes and became a master gardener, which taught me about how plants grow.
I was volunteering at the Millburn Farmers Market as part of my master gardener training. The market manager encouraged me to start foraging and start a small business with both foraged and cultivated mushrooms. I still grow mushrooms like shiitake and oyster outdoors on logs.
I started my foraging business in 2014 and renamed it The Foraged Feast in 2016, the year I left professional photography. I hired my first employee, forager Drew Lovering, in 2017. We now have Drew and forager Noah Joseph full-time plus three part-time foragers. I also have a 1,200-square-foot, climate-controlled warehouse.
How did foraging influence your cooking?
As a flavor chaser, mushrooms captured my imagination. Back in 1999, one day a friend who foraged came over with a three-pound [edible] puffball mushroom. We cooked it for a whole bunch of our friends. That puffball was a revelation to me.
Mushrooms proved an amazing source of umami. That’s hard to define, but it’s that rich, salty, earthy flavor that improves almost any dish, from pasta or meat to soups, salads, and stews. Mushrooms are just spectacularly versatile. And as I got to know the various species and particular flavors, I could work with those unique tastes. Mushrooms’ abundance and variety drove my cooking creativity. I’m proud that farm-to-table eating is so popular in the Garden State. Chefs and consumers alike are committed to fresh, local, natural ingredients. And that’s what mushrooms are.
As a chef, what are your favorite mushrooms?
There are so many. Spring’s morels are a seasonal wakeup call to the palate. Chanterelles are full of love. Oyster mushrooms are purity and simplicity. Beefsteak mushrooms and shrimp of the woods are meaty without the meat, which so many people prefer nowadays.
Did your photography background help you forage?
Definitely. I have a very strong visual consciousness plus an excellent sense of direction. I can scan my surroundings and see what most people don’t. I can also pattern-match, connecting a new patch of field or woods with a similar one I remember along with what I found there.
Plus, I’ve never stopped studying. I still devour mushroom book after mushroom book and look at endless photos of varieties. Now, a lot of that’s online and digital, so the info is always available. I never stop learning. My business depends on it.
What wild things do you look for?
Everything edible and delicious that grows wild. We forage an enormous range of edible mushrooms. Chanterelles, morels, boletes, black trumpets, porcini, shiitake, maitake, milky caps, comb tooth, chaga, turkeytail, hedgehog, ringless honey, chicken of the woods, lobster, horse, puffball and more. Greens like wild garlic and mustard, ramps, chicory, dandelion greens. Berries such as blueberries, blackberries, elderberries, autumn olive-tree berries. Hickory nuts, which are wild pecans, black walnuts and chestnuts. Seeds from wild garlic and mustard plants.
Are there mushroom trends?
Definitely. Portobello and button mushrooms got so popular they’re now farmed indoors by the ton. Wild porcini and chanterelles are classics. People now ask for chicken of the woods as a meat substitute. Lots of customers want lion’s mane mushrooms, which are believed to have great medicinal value either fresh or fried.
When you’re out foraging, how do you steer clear of wild animals and ticks?
The animals aren’t interested in me. I present no threat and I smell like mushrooms. As far as ticks, I wear over-the-knee gaiters, cover my skin, and use DEET and picaridin liberally. Plus, after foraging, I take a high-water-pressure shower.
Can anyone forage?
There are a lot of don’ts. It takes serious time and study to tell edible mushrooms from their poisonous lookalikes. Foragers say this is a lifelong learning experience. It’s OK to pick mushrooms, but do not eat anything until you’ve checked it out in at least three different sources. As we say, “If in doubt, throw it out.” It’s safer to buy mushrooms from a forager with an impeccable track record.
Where do you sell your products?
You can buy directly from The Foraged Feast; email [email protected]. We sell at farmers markets: Denville, Montclair, Ramsey, Sparta, Summit and the Morris Winter Market. My daughters love working the markets.
A big part of The Foraged Feast is providing to top restaurants, many in New Jersey, including Bistro d’Azur in South Orange, The Circle in Newton, Common Lot in Millburn, Faubourg in Montclair, Lorena’s in Maplewood, Razza pizza in Jersey City, and Summit House in Summit.
Where do you cook professionally now?
I cook for and with my tribe of foragers and farm-to-table chefs at events and get-togethers. We foragers call ourselves hunter-gatherers, which we are, and proud of it. I’m cooking this Thursday, September 14, at the Fall Extravaganza Benefit Dinner. It’s for the Whittemore Community, Culture, and Conservation preserve in Oldwick, Tewksbury Township. The gala is held at the Whittemore estate and will feature live jazz, an art show and auction, and locavore cooking by chefs like myself and Ben Walmer of the Highlands Dining Club. Our motto is “Food Makes Friends.”
One last question. How does it feel to be amidst nature for a living?
I grew up loving the outdoors, hiking, camping, kayaking, fishing. Foraging has kept that childlike sense of wonder alive for me. My specialty is the science of foraging and my office is the woods. I am never bored at work. Every day is different in weather, scenery, foliage, even birdsong, with constant new discoveries. I’m in a perpetual state of awe at the beauty, variety, and excitement of the natural world.
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