Chadds Ford Chef Combs Forests and Fields for Culinary Treasures
MacGregor Mann makes elaborate feasts out of locally foraged ingredients.
Photography by Carlos Alejandro
MacGregor Mann is not happy.
For the past 15 minutes, the lanky, bearded chef has been walking slowly, deliberately along a wooded hillside path, his backpack slung low like a schoolboy’s, and sometimes mumbling to himself. Mann, owner of Junto restaurant near Chadds Ford, loves to forage for wild foods almost as much as he loves to cook, and today his heart is set on finding the first chanterelles of the season. His eyes dart toward every rotting log and rock pile for the telltale yellow-orange of the mushroom.
“Here’s some nice-looking wild ginger,” he says, pointing to a clump of circular leaves along the path. “We’ll get that on the way back out.”
As the trail drops toward the creek, Mann pauses to gaze at a greenery-covered gravel bar in the stream. “That looks like nettle,” he says, but instead of wading out to check, he walks across a fallen oak log that has bridged the creek.
A few minutes later, Mann retraces his steps across the log, a batch of nettles and some water cress tucked into a Ziploc bag. “If the weather is wet, I’ll put a paper towel in each bag to absorb moisture, and a wet paper towel if it’s hot and dry,” he says. “Of course, you want a paper bag if you find mushrooms.”
As Mann continues his search, he points to locations where, earlier in the season, he had foraged fiddlehead ferns and morels, and he talks about a nearby spot that he and a fellow forager have named Ramp Hollow.
Mann eventually gives up on the chanterelles, but on the way back he collects some chickweed and sorrel—“always good when you want to add some acid to a dish”—and strips off fragrant sassafras leaves. “They’re great as a thickener, filé,” he says. At the patch of ginger, he takes out a pocket knife, then digs out the white, slender roots just under the surface, making sure to leave enough to propagate.
Back at the roadside where he has parked his black Jeep Laredo 4x4, Mann gives an invitation. “Why don’t you come back for dinner tonight, and we’ll see what we can fix with what we’ve collected?” he says.
Farm-to-table menus in local restaurants are no longer the big news they were a dozen years ago, when such innovative chef-owners as Nick Farrell at Sovana Bistro in Unionville and Phil Pyle and Brian Shaw, then at Fair Hill Inn in Maryland, not only patronized local fresh-food producers, but also encouraged a new generation of small farmers to undertake artisan food production of everything from microgreens to farm cheeses.
"It's funny that people think of something as being exotic when it grows right here," says Mann.
Foraging is another matter entirely, a reemerging practice that has its roots in a time when America was largely rural and each farm boy scavenged for anything that could be claimed as food—mushrooms, tree nuts, tree leaves, tree barks, tree roots, berries, flowers and salad greens. The bounty didn’t always end up as a main course. It was often served as side dishes or something to spice up a sometimes bland farm diet. Neither did whatever was foraged need to be eaten immediately. It could be dried or preserved in any number of ways to be consumed later.
“The catalyst for me to get into foraging was serving an apprenticeship at Noma in Denmark,” Mann had explained a few days earlier. Noma—considered the best restaurant in the world by many food critics—is famous for reinventing Nordic cuisine by cooking with anything edible that chef René Redzepi could find in the local countryside. Chefs from around the world have flocked to Copenhagen as interns, as did the affable, always-curious Mann, who spent four months there as a stagiaire in 2012.
“What struck me at Noma was the restaurant’s connection to place,” Mann says. “I decided to someday have this restaurant that did the same thing—not to copy the menu of Noma, but to have that same connection to place.”
Mann’s culinary career reflects a combination of wanderlust and found opportunities. He started as a fry cook at a Friendly’s in his native York, Pa., then moved into the hyper restaurant scene of Philadelphia. From there he hopped to Denmark, then the wilds of Idaho to U.S. 202—the same byway that is home to Junto.
In the “who-have-you-cooked-with” school of culinary cred, the name of the restaurant is often less important than that of the mentoring chef, especially in Philadelphia. After completing culinary school at Drexel University, Mann worked with Roberta Adamo at Penne and Marcus Samuelsson, Mike Isabella and Kevin Sbraga at Washington Square before catching on as a member of Jose Garces’ multi-restaurant team. He worked his way up to sous chef at Amada, then moved to Chicago for a similar post at Garces’ Mercat a la Planxa.
“Roberta Adamo taught me about putting in time to make great food, like eight hours to hand-make pasta,” Mann says. “But it was Jose who kept telling me, ‘Learn the business first, then you can always learn about food.’”
Mann discovers a chanterelle.
Noma was a totally different experience. “I learned the importance of raw ingredients and the importance of selection, such things as you get better milk from the cow in the evening than in the morning,” he says. “I also learned that the secret of being a [Michelin] starred restaurant is that you have to outwork the competition.” He leans back and laughs. “That was easier to do at Noma because you had 40 cooks for 40 guests.”
After his sojourn in Denmark, Mann returned to Philadelphia. After finding that a promised job had disappeared, he spent a year as executive chef at Henry’s Fork Lodge, a fly-fishing destination in Idaho, where he took up the sport in his time off. But he also spent time searching books, websites and magazines to learn about foraging, especially foraging in Pennsylvania.
In May 2014 he opened Junto—a BYOB whose namesake was a club founded by Benjamin Franklin—in the space at Old Ridge Village Shoppes where Kevin Diskin had previously operated Big Fork. Mann’s concept, he says, was to have “modern farmhouse cooking.” He immediately plunged into foraging, though even the most adventurous foodies who flocked in at first looked askance at some of the ingredients. “Nine out of 10 times, any objections they had disappeared once they tasted something,” Mann says. “It’s funny that people think of something as being exotic when it grows right here.”
Mann is not the only area chef out foraging. Hari Cameron, chef-owner at (a)MUSE in Rehoboth Beach, combs the beaches for ingredients to use in his restaurant. At Broadkill, “homeowners let me forage for succulents such as sea rocket and seaweed like bladderwrack,” Cameron says. He also searches Sussex woods and fields (“nettles are available all summer long”) and even in urban areas, which he says are good places for finding purslane, day lilies and lamb’s quarters. He is such a lifelong fan of foraging, he admits to taking some time to search the woods during his honeymoon in Canada. “Foraging gets me out of the kitchen,” Cameron says, “and keeps me always thinking about the seasons.”
Members of Mann’s small staff at Junto have become converts. Sumac found along the highway can be used in apple slaw. Spruce tips can be folded into house butter for steaks. Mann estimates that more than half of all dishes he serves have one or more foraged components.
His approach is similar to that of places that use the whole hog in butchery. “We work from the top of the plant down, using the flowers in salads, the stems for sautés and the roots for pickles,” he says. Pickling and probiotics are recurring themes at Junto. “The limitations of foraging in winter make you creative.”
In January, Mann decided to branch out, accepting the post of on-site caterer at the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art. The job provided a new source of customers, but it had another payoff. “I’ve learned a lot already about wild plants from the conservancy’s horticulturists,” he says. (Mann jokes that he did his best to wipe out one invasive species that is also a food.)
That evening, back at Junto, chef Mann has prepared a three-course dinner using ingredients gathered that morning, as well as other foraged items. After the homemade cornbread and apple butter, Mann comes out in his whites, still wearing the baseball cap he wore that morning.
Using a beaker-like pitcher, Mann pours steaming hot nettles soup into a bowl rimmed with New Jersey scallops. He explains the sources of the spices and froths before retreating to the kitchen. The soup is rich and delicious, lightly spicy, with great texture.
“I decided to make a gnudi”—a ricotta ravioli without a pasta shell—Mann says when he reappears. His has an intriguing texture and is spiced—either in it or on—with ramp capers, goosefoot, more nettles, garlic seed, the wood sorrel and plantain (the kind that grows in your yard, not in the Caribbean).
Mann incorporates the sassafras leaves in a jus that accompanies strips of medium-rare aged beef with a birch-bark glaze, spruce-tip butter, black garlic and assorted root vegetables. In all the dishes, it is apparent that the foraged items have not been thrown together at random, but that each addition helps complete the predominant tastes or the dish’s textures.
Has Mann ever found a nontoxic foraged food he didn’t like? He folds his arms and laughs.
“When I was at Noma, we ate a lot of moss, which wasn’t my favorite,” he says. “Sometimes, we would deep fry it. I suppose that if you deep fry just about anything, you can eat it.”