Lawyers in New York all seem to be food aficionados, and some fancy themselves as home chefs. They'll go to the farmers market in Union Square or gourmet grocers to hunt for obscure greens like purslane, chicory, and puntarella that are hard to find in the supermarket.
They'll go the distance to buy an exotic ingredient, but how many would search their backyards for wild weeds to make dishes like bee balm spring rolls, dead nettle velouté, or chickweed crostini?
Meet Tama Matsuoka Wong, former counsel of Merrill's international private client group, who is now the official forager for Daniel, a much-celebrated restaurant in New York with three Michelin stars. She is also the author of Foraged Flavor, a book about edible weeds (with lots of intriguing recipes), which she wrote with Eddy Leroux, the chef de cuisine at Daniel. (Wong and Leroux are pictured above.)
I caught up with Wong at the James Beard Foundation in New York's Greenwich Village, where she was lecturing (complete with tasting) about common weeds that make uncommon delicacies. Afterward, we dashed out for a glass of Prosecco and a few nibbles of proscuitto to discuss her unusual hobby, which has morphed into a second career.
I don't know many lawyers who are official foragers at a top restaurant. Actually, I don't know any foragers at all. Did you always want to be a forager?
I didn't know what "foraging" was! It's a foodie term.
So you were a forage virgin when you started. How did you get into it?
When we moved back [to the United States after 12 years in Asia] in 2002, I had never had a vegetable garden. I was just fascinated by what was growing in my garden when we moved to New Jersey. I didn't think of the wild plants as weeds. I looked at them, and I wanted to learn about them. I knew they were native plants, and I started looking up recipes on how to cook them.
You got quite obsessed by weeds. In your book, you write that you could only identify two kinds in the beginning, but that you now know every plant in your "meadow, creek bed, and forest—a complete botanical smorgasbord of more than 200 wild plants." Did you tackle it like a lawyer conducting due diligence?
I couldn't do what I'm doing now if I didn't have a lawyering background. I couldn't do the cookbook without it. It wasn't easy. It takes discipline to get things in season, test the recipes, write about them, and juggle all the different people involved.
Your coauthor is a chef at Daniel. You are a securities lawyer based in rural New Jersey. How did your worlds intersect?
I was eating at Daniel, and I brought over some anise hysop. People kept telling me that I should bring in plants from the meadow to the restaurant, so I did. After dinner, Eddy told me to bring in everything from my meadow, and I started to bring bags of weeds to the restaurant. He documented everything I brought in. I realized he was totally fanatical—and I appreciated that!
Foraging for Daniel and collaborating with a chef sounds more fun than lawyering. Are you now out of the lawyering woods?
I'm still working as a lawyer. Ive been working on a project basis for 10 years. Financial securities is a small world, and people contact me for projects. But I've resisted the pressure to go back to lawyering full-time.
You don't want to work as a full-time lawyer, but would you do so as a forager?
Yes! I can see it, but I don't know if that will happen. . . . I don't think [gathering] fresh greens from the wild is a business plan. It's painstaking work, and I'm picking it myself. And shelf life is an issue.
So foraging is more of a passion than a way to make a living?
It is intellectually and conceptually interesting to me. I'm building something. I want to do something I believe in.
Do you think lawyers should try foraging?
It's great for lawyers! You can categorize things; it's a good activity for risk-averse people. Unstructured time in nature is good for you.
Hat tip: New York Times.
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