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Foraging Their Way Through Missouri, Bulrush Chefs Rob Connoley and Justin Bell Say Goodbye Grocery



Rob Connoley and Justin Bell see the landscape differently than you do. You, Connoley and Bell all inhabit the same St. Louis. But you live in a city with trees. They live in a forest with buildings.

That forest isn't just scenery. It's the source of the food Connoley intends to serve at his new restaurant. Other chefs boast about obtaining organic produce from local purveyors. Connelly picks his own produce from the most local purveyor there is: the forest floor.

In April Connoley and his sous chef, Bell, both Missouri natives, will open Bulrush, an Ozark-inspired restaurant in Grand Center for which the two chefs intend to forage their own ingredients, then craft ever-changing tasting menus. For many, that sounds certifiably insane, a locavore gimmick taken to its logical extreme. For Connoley and Bell, it's the only way they can know what they're serving.

They make good partners. Connoley, 50, is the James Beard-nominated former chef of New Mexico's acclaimed Curious Kumquat, which also relied on locally foraged ingredients. Two years ago he published Acorns & Cattails, a foraging cookbook and guide. His sous chef, 30-year-old Bell, has no James Beard nominations, but Connoley would be lost in the woods without Bell's St. Clair-bred foraging expertise. A sleeve tattoo covers Bell's left forearm, featuring bright red sumac berries, garlic mustard, lavender bergamot, sassafras, milkweed, chanterelle mushrooms and an elderberry climbing up his triceps. "I remember eating wood sorrel a lot as a kid, not knowing what it was, just knowing I liked the way it tasted," he says.

In December, Connoley came upon a persimmon tree in a park in south city, naked of leaves and pregnant with round, orange fruit. It's a rare find; persimmons ripen in September, but this one had escaped foragers both human and animal.

Foraging is a game of speed and opportunism. Connoley raced home and returned with several bags, picking and plopping whatever he could reach from the ground. I need to buy a telescoping pole and a hook, he thought, gazing up the 30-foot trunk. Still, he squeezed 20 gallons from the fruit he reached.

A few days later, he's driving out to the Missouri River, a 24-foot telescoping pole and paint-rolling hook poking both ends of his hatchback. Bell sits shotgun. In the backseat rides a blue IKEA sack filled with 100 pounds of persimmon mush and an orange rubber raft that Connoley bought to reach islands that might harbor morels.

At this time of winter, there might be oyster mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, chickweed, garlic mustard, spicebush. As they reach the site, it's 25 degrees and Connoley is wearing shorts. The area they wanted to forage is flooded, a distribution problem unique to their restaurant. They settle for a 100-foot-wide strip of seemingly barren, frozen riverbank woodland.

Rob Connoley, left, and Justin Bell plan to find much of their restaurant’s food instead of buy it. - VIRGINIA HAROLD
  • Rob Connoley, left, and Justin Bell plan to find much of their restaurant’s food instead of buy it.

"That's the area I like working the most, is that strip," he says, pointing across the water. "That's confidential, by the way." Once, Bell and Connoley found the perfect chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms off trail somewhere. They carefully covered the fungus with branches, waiting for them to grow even larger. When they returned a week later, the mushrooms were gone, replaced by a laminated card taunting them: "That was a beautiful chicken of the woods we were both watching. I'm going to really enjoy them tonight."

Automatically, Connoley and Bell split off into two parties, seining the woodland for oyster mushrooms. In less than a minute, Bell stops and stoops.

Velvet shank, he says. "The wild version of Enoki mushrooms, but you have to be very, very sure, because deadly Galerina looks almost exactly like this. The gills are a little darker and it has a partial veil, which these don't have."

"And we're standing in chickweed," Connoley adds, looking down.

Chickweed is a green that tastes like uncooked peas, Bell says. "It's kind of nice to give someone a fresh green salad in the winter that didn't come from a hot house or something."

Cold weather doesn't keep the pair from the hunt. - VIRGINIA HAROLD
  • Cold weather doesn't keep the pair from the hunt.

Bell and Connoley don't know anything you can't learn yourself. Urban foraging is on the rise in metro areas across the country. Falling Fruit, for example, is an open-source app with more than a million data points marking plants — mostly trees — with fleshy goods. Open it up to St. Louis and you'll find 50 plants listed in Forest Park and Tower Grove alone, from bur oaks to blackberries, maypops to pawpaws.

Connoley bristles, however, at the idea of foraging as a restaurant trend. He thinly acknowledges it as a former fad. "[Chefs] do it for a few years, and then they realize how hard it is and how unreliable it is. That's when you get to the level of authenticity, where you're doing it because you think it's important."

Kara Nielsen, a food trends expert at CCD Innovation, nests foraging — and by extension, Connoley — in the trend of hyper-localism. In 2004, a group of Scandinavian chefs published a manifesto for a new Nordic cuisine, which ignited a global obsession with local ingredients in fine dining. "It was a reaction to continental fine dining and the epitome of the highest-level ingredient being a fancy truffle or caviar, ingredients that were traditional to a French or European mindset," Nielsen says. "Chefs said, 'Look, we can make amazing, creative, delicious food by looking in our own backyards.'" Bell himself cites the Danish René Redzepi, one of the manifesto's signees, as a primary influence.

Still, Nielsen acknowledges there's a difference between chefs buying foraged ingredients and a chef with locust thorns ringing his toque blanche. There's a sort of genuine martyrdom chez Connoley that makes a certain guarantee of authenticity to his customers. When Connoley and Bell go out and handpick the vegetables they serve, there are zero degrees of potential fraud in the distribution chain; they are the distribution chain.

"I've worked with plenty of foragers I would never buy anything from because their ethics are not what I need them to be," Connoley says. "And I'm sure there are people who look at us and say the same thing."

That foraging has no formalized etiquette leaves each gatherer to impose their own. Connoley, for one, has a strict personal code. "For me the number one rule is, if I can see a road, I don't serve it," he says.

Before 2008, when he opened the Curious Kumquat in Silver City, New Mexico, Connoley had never worked in a restaurant. Born and raised in north St. Louis County, he earned a doctorate at Purdue in social psychology of sport and exercise, then moved to Colorado for nonprofit work. By 2003 he ended up in southwest New Mexico at the doorstep of the vast Gila Wilderness. Less than a year later, he opened a grocery called the Curious Kumquat. Eventually, that grocery evolved into a soup-and-salad restaurant, then a celebrated tasting-menu restaurant that earned him a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef — Southwest.

In a Silver City sweat lodge, Connoley met Doug Simon, a bushy-bearded, scraggly-haired mountain man with a burlap shirt and shoes made of tree bark. Simon had been living in a burrow and surviving off the bounty of the forest for two years, so Connoley asked Simon to take him foraging. Simon became a foraging mentor to Connoley, conversing with the plants as they wandered the Gila. Before long Connoley was introducing foraged foods into his tasting dinners.

Eventually he became a master of the diverse set of ecosystems in the topographically rich New Mexico backcountry. Connoley even taught his dog to hunt morel mushrooms by overturning five bowls on the ground, one of them hiding the rare mushroom. When the dog sniffed the bowl with morels, Connoley rewarded her, until one day the dog led him to morels in the nearby Black Range.

Two years ago, Connoley and his partner decided to move back to St. Louis to return to family. For Connoley, it feels like a test of his mettle. "If you put me, this guy who never worked a day in his life in a restaurant and put me in a big market, what would happen? Could I hold my own, or was it all just fluff and air back in New Mexico?"

The world of Eastern Deciduous foraging Bell has introduced him to is a world of plenty. He can be pickier, no longer relying on his encyclopedic knowledge of where and when desert plants will fruit. "Here it's actually a matter of 'Where can we get the best or the most stuff,' versus just 'Am I going to find anything today?'"

The woods only look barren in the winter. Bell and Connoley uncover fungi (not edible), a mushroom and cattails on the edge of a frozen marsh. - VIRGINIA HAROLD
  • The woods only look barren in the winter. Bell and Connoley uncover fungi (not edible), a mushroom and cattails on the edge of a frozen marsh.

The frozen riverbank they're combing today isn't good enough. There's too much trash on the forest floor. Bell finds some oyster mushrooms. "Next to a can of toxic waste," Connoley says. (It's just a rusty barrel.) He tells a story of two foragers who, on assignment for an acclaimed Chicago restaurant, strolled down the block and snipped cuttings from the flower garden at a bank. The chef bought them, no questions asked. That's why Connoley is personally in the woods, even if that means Bulrush will be closed three days a week.

"Sometimes people say, 'Well, you're serving food that could be tainted.' I'm like, 'OK, I'm taking something from the woods with minimal toxins versus a factory farm animal that we know has been sprayed and given antibiotics and all this other stuff.' I'll take my chances."

Connoley and Bell have to weigh their impact beyond themselves and their customers. When Connoley posted online about finding the tree full of persimmons, someone pushed back. "This woman was saying, 'You're taking the food source for squirrels and other animals.' I think about that all the time, to the point of ridiculousness. I have to debate, 'Can I climb the tree, or could that harm the tree?'"

Connoley's tone here is defensive, almost preemptive. It might be indicative of the fact that his methodology is culturally and sometimes legally liminal. The subject of whose land he's foraging on wrinkles his eyes. Generally, he and Bell forage on private land with express permission from owners, or land owned by nonprofits for which they've been given exclusive access. As for public land, he stresses that he maintains relationships with government land managers to make sure he doesn't overstep. "We actually had an incident last year where we had rights to forage on private land," he says. "I posted some pictures from that land, and another forager said, 'Oh yeah, I saw those and I left those there.' I'm like, 'What the fuck were you doing on this private land?'

"This is a weird strip of land right here, by the way, as far as ownership," he adds, sweeping his arm over the thin strip of woodland of unclear proprietorship.

Missouri Department of Conservation land abuts the strip, and from it you can take a dump truck full of mushrooms, pawpaws, persimmons or anything else, as long as it's for you and not a customer, says MDC Protection Regional Supervisor Chris Morrow. On MDC's website, you can search any conservation area and find its wild-plant-gathering policies. Under state laws, Morrow says, a restaurant "wouldn't be able to take vegetation off of conservation areas." But a hobbyist can.

Rob Connoley leaps over a stream during a recent foraging trip to Forest Park. - VIRGINIA HAROLD
  • Rob Connoley leaps over a stream during a recent foraging trip to Forest Park.

Connoley finds puffball mushrooms. Bell finds garlic mustard. An untrained eye would find only wood and leaves. Their eyes have become attuned to a specific set of visual stimuli. "It's like listening to a British movie," Connoley says. "You don't understand what they're saying for the first ten minutes." For novices, it might be more like listening to a Mandarin movie.

Scanning a tall shagbark hickory for oyster mushrooms, Connoley's attention shifts to its aptly named, peeling bark strips.

"There's a Finnish technique for taking pine-tree bark, the inner bark, and they scrape it dry and turn it into a powder," he says. "It was a wartime food extender, so they would make breads with it. It would cut into their existing rye flour. It's supposed to be pretty nasty as a pine bark, but I've been wondering about the shagbark. There's a sweetness to it. We'll try that before the restaurant opens."

Connoley's head is in a near-constant state of experimentation. Even though he is staring at tree bark — certifiably not food — he imagines how it can be put into a human mouth and enjoyed. Shagbark can also be tapped like a sugar maple for a uniquely Southern syrup, and he later floats the idea of turning shagbark into a spice. "Why not tap any tree you can and see what that flavor is and what you can do with that?" Bell asks.

Still, you can only get so creative. Anyone imagining a restaurant where all cultivated products have been banished can search on. Connoley estimates that, by volume, around 20 to 30 percent of Bulrush's food will be foraged. You can't forage for cheese. And after all, this is a tasting-menu restaurant: The dish comes first.

Connoley says the tasting menu will cost $100 flat, with tax and tip included. It's a lot of zeros for ingredients that nature has been growing for free for millennia. Of course, fine dining is about more than that, and Bell and Connoley are OK with bourgeoisifying found ingredients and local traditions.

"That's every cuisine," Connoley says. "All cuisines are based in poverty food."

"Good cuisines," Bell adds.

Justin Bell spotted these wild mushrooms on a foraging trip. - VIRGINIA HAROLD
  • Justin Bell spotted these wild mushrooms on a foraging trip.

Even as Connoley and Bell spend three days a week foraging, Connoley claims Bulrush will be cheaper than Vicia and Elaia, two of St. Louis' top tasting-menu locales. "Because I was raised by a single mother who squeaked by my entire life, I've always been sensitive that I don't want to be one of those restaurants that's so elite that you can't get into it."

And while foraged ingredients may be free, the process of finding them, harvesting them and turning them into top-notch cuisine isn't. This hike is only the first step in a process. Bell and Connoley aren't simply identifying plants, snipping them and dumping them onto your plate. In addition to culinary and artistic development, there's an R&D phase. Any time Connoley wants to use a new foraged ingredient, he researches its health effects and then cross-references it in a Native American medicinal dictionary, so he can see how indigenous healers used the plant. This is learned behavior from early failures, he says.

"The funniest one is, for a while I was serving Mormon tea, which is also known as witch's broom," he says. "The Latin root word is Ephedra. But I didn't know that when I started. I just knew traditionally people served it. So if traditionally people served it, it's OK for me to serve. I started researching it and realized, 'Oh, this is ephedra. This is not something I should be serving.' (Mormon tea, although belonging to the genus Ephedra, does not contain the FDA-banned chemical ephedrine, which is used for weight loss and as a performance-enhancing drug. If you're consuming Mormon tea, carry on. But Connoley takes no chances.)

"There's another plant, it may have been the chuchupate. But it would initiate the woman's menstrual cycle. So again, this is early-on stuff before I knew how to do this professionally. Nowadays, any plant, I go straight to that book and say, 'Oh, well the Cherokees used this to clot wounds or whatever.' It's just one of many checks that we do."

"If you don't know 100 percent, don't eat it," Bell says in summary.

"And if your mushrooms are frozen, maybe stay home until it warms up," Connoley finishes, the skin on his legs stippling. A brief pause. "But see, I'm like, what if we kept them frozen and grated them? That would be interesting."

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