Whatever he finds, he goes home to cook. It determines what food the menu collects, not the other way around.
He said, “Looking for food is the opposite of grocery shopping.”
Ross is an educator and artisan cook, specializing in foods that can be collected in woodlands, yards, vegetable gardens and even grown in cracks between sidewalks. From June 17-18, he’ll be offering pub classes in St Albans, showing how to get the most out of the food found in nature.
Foraging requires that you “go in with an open mind and know what you can create from what you find,” he said in a recent phone call.
This will be the third time he has offered a weekend course here. Among other things, up to 16 adventurous people will be taken into the woods on the property of the hotel to select some ingredients for the chef’s dinner. Some of the other ingredients will come from the hotel’s vegetable garden.
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In the woods, they will hunt for anything from wild greens to wild garlic, and from edible herbs like chickenweed to something familiar and widespread like the petals of a redbud tree.
“The flowers are very edible. They are from the pea family, they are legumes. If you eat them, they taste like peas. They are really sweet, really tasty,” he said.
Ross, 53, lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Now he helps out with his wife Rachel’s gardening (“We take care of people’s gardens. We do some local herbs, vegetables, and plants. It’s specialty gardening—”beautiful gardening” is the way my wife puts it,” he said).
Until recently, he worked on Blackberry Farms, a resort in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. He stayed there for 16 years, the first 11 of which he spent in charge of the organic garden. Then he began to lead hiking trips for guests, cooking what they found over an open fire.
“It grew so quickly, and I found myself doing cooking shows on a daily basis, and it grew to three people doing it because it was a guest request,” he said.
Ross grew up in a family of gardeners, and his interest was always in plants. Even when he studied history in school, his focus soon turned to the way people historically researched and used plants for food, cooking, and medicine.
Part of the reason for his interest is the area in which he grew up; East Tennessee is so biodiverse and so full of plants—it has about 5,000 species, he said—that he calls the area “the center of chlorophyll.”
He said, Missouri is pretty much the same. “You can put a broomstick in the ground in Missouri and it will grow like weed,” he said.
Foragers, of course, should always be careful. The wrong plants can make you sick and kill you – and sometimes these dangerous plants can even look like edible ones. Hunting for chanterelle mushrooms is common, but a similar anxiety mushroom called false chanterelle can make you sick if you eat it.
“The easiest thing to do is to start at home and learn about the plants that grow around your property. You can check online if they are edible or not. There are probably half a dozen plants that you don’t eat,” he said. “The further you go in the woods, the more you have to Be more careful.”
Ross is not obsessed with foraging; “I love to collect chanterelles in the woods,” he said, “but I also love the fact that I can drive to the store and buy a lemon if I want to.” For him, the journey is more important than the culinary destination.
“I would never go into the woods specifically to look for food. I would be equally happy if I didn’t find anything that I could find. If you go with your head down for something specific, you will miss a million different things,” he said.
“Hunters say the same thing: As long as you are there, it doesn’t matter whether you hunt something or not. You are still in the woods. You will always learn something.”
A food show with Jeff Ross will take place at the Inn in St. Albans, 3500 St. Albans Road, St. Albans, MO, June 17-18. For more information, call 636-458-0131 or visit innsatstalbans.com/events/.