“When I’m an old man and can no longer go foraging,” Strusinski says, “if you hold a chanterelle under my nose, the smell will make me weep.”
He finds things, he explains, by not quite looking for them: “I’m just scanning. If you put up an image of the thing in your mind, you’re looking through a filter. You’re not going to find it, because it’s not going to match your image. It’s more a color or a pattern. I’ll scan very generally, and then my eye will catch it and I’ll swing back and sort of tease it out from the area.”
The rest of the world may be content to get 80 percent of its agricultural tonnage from a dozen dull, reliable plants—corn, wheat, rice, and the like. But Strusinski lives to find strange and tasty (or sometimes just strange) new things for dinner. Standing on a stony beach on Penobscot Bay, with a lobster boat rumbling past and a foghorn lowing, he spots a plant growing just in front of the tree line and cries, “Oh! Look at this! It’s called sea rocket.” He and a visitor nibble but do not spit because it tastes too good. It has the peppery bitterness of arugula but in crisp, succulent leaves packed with sweet and salty moisture, as if the ocean has suddenly become a plant. “We are standing in a gold mine!” he says. None of his clients in New York has ever seen sea rocket before, and he means to get it to them overnight, in pristine condition, even if he has to drive it there himself. “I want them to flip. I want to get to even the most conservative of them.” He takes out his scissors, conjures up his best Thor voice, and yells, “OK, let’s start pillaging! Let the thunder begin.” Later, he mentions that, before today, he had never tasted sea rocket. But he had read about it and seen a photograph. “I knew it grew on the coast, I knew it had that mustardy look. One little nibble and that was easy.”
His chefs also crave novelty, but sometimes they balk: “‘Hemlock shoots… Didn’t Socrates die from that?’” Strusinski explains that Socrates actually died from a feathery herbaceous weed that also happens to be called hemlock but is not related. “The only way a hemlock tree can hurt you,” he says, “is if it falls on you.” When someone asks if milkweed shoots need to be boiled three times to leach out the bitterness, he replies, “A lot of that started with Euell Gibbons writing incorrectly because he was eating dogbane, which is similar in appearance.”
The combination of extraordinary wild foods backed up with encyclopedic knowledge is one reason chefs have come to rely on Strusinski. Story is a popular buzzword in the food world, and Strusinski’s eccentric business practices, though sometimes frustrating, also make him more appealing, more authentic, to certain restaurants. The stuff he sends “is not some fabricated thing that comes out of a plastic bag,” says Matt Rudofker, a sous-chef at Ssäm Bar. “You have to pick out the leaves and clean off the dirt,” and that’s part of the charm. It might be easier if Strusinski concentrated on a short list of menu-friendly foods. But his latest novelties force chefs to think about food in new ways.
“There’s a fascination with information about plants that we as cooks are not intimately familiar with,” says Michael Anthony, executive chef at Gramercy Tavern. He recently served a dessert of marinated strawberries, for instance, and the addition of grated wild ginger from Strusinski “really married well with the strawberries and the lemon, in a way that was surprising and kind of confounding for people.
“More than that,” Anthony adds, “it’s like somebody who forages is connecting us to a separate universe that is right in front of our noses, part of our natural world that we don’t even really see. We’ve grown disconnected, and this isn’t really part of our living culture. And it’s strange because not all that long ago, people not only recognized and celebrated these things, they depended on them.”
So what are the chances of getting that back, of having ideas from Gramercy Tavern filter down to the diners of the world? Strusinski isn’t a businessman at heart, nor a proselytizer for big ideas. “I don’t want to be Willy Loman opening my briefcase,” he says. But his heart soars for a moment when the chef at a café on a Maine island says he is planning a Wild Foods Friday. Then it turns out he just means mussels, wild mushrooms, and “gazpacho from my garden.” Hold the sea rocket.
AT TWO ON A THURSDAY afternoon, Strusinski is behind the wheel again, humming the theme from Mission: Impossible, intent on getting a shipment of goose-tongue grass and rose hips to a FedEx office an hour south. First, though, there’s a beach where he thinks the sea beans might just be up, and when that turns out to be a bust he switches to a stand of wood sorrel instead. Everywhere, he stops to peer into yards and woods that are known to have produced morels or chanterelles in previous years. “These spots that I have, they’re like my children,” he explains. “I have to check in on them. I feel their pull.”