Fare Play: Chef James Oakley
Foraging may be a hot—and some say tired—trend in the restaurant world, but for this Wales-based chef, it’s a true passion.
Foraging is a passion for me; something I discovered right here in the forests of Pembrokeshire, Wales.
I arrived last year to help out for a few weeks in the kitchen of Llys Meddyg, a restaurant with rooms in Newport, before heading off to a new job in Japan. But after crunching along the forest floor to forage wild mushrooms with owner Ed Sykes, inhaling the heady aroma of pine and feeling the crackle of leaves under my feet, I was captivated.
I canceled my flight and stayed on as head chef. These days, you’ll often find me in the hedgerows a few meters from the restaurant with my kitchen team plucking sea spinach, pennywort and hedge sorrel for dinner.
It’s truly amazing to see what’s available once you have the knowledge. I’ve always been passionate about sourcing the best ingredients, and what could be fresher than food gathered a few hours earlier?
There’s an abundance of wild produce along the Pembrokeshire coast—right now we have nettles, wild garlic and some intriguing types of seaweed—and I think it would be a crime not to utilize our natural environment.
But freshness is only part of the story. You have the ultimate respect for produce you pick yourself, and using those ingredients to create a remarkable new dish is a way of continuing that relationship.
My favorite discoveries are ingredients that grow right under our noses but are rarely used in cooking, like pine, which makes a fantastic stock. Foraged ingredients also keep chefs on their toes, since we
never know what we’ll have in our larder.
Plants come in and out of season quickly—we get wild garlic for a short time in spring and the best mushrooms in autumn—or I might find a kilo of cèpes one day and have none a week later, so I have to use all my kitchen skills and imagination to give the menu some consistency.
I’ve also used classic French techniques to create molecular-style effects, like spherification, because I never use chemicals. That’s the cheater’s way.
Of course, foraging must be done with caution. Some flora that looks luscious may be poisonous, and even plants that taste marvelous can be harmful in large quantities.
It’s essential to study a book on edible plants in your local area and take your first trips with an experienced guide, as I did.
At this point, I’m still astounded by the difference between foraged ingredients and their cultivated cousins. I find mass-produced greens taste pale and forced by comparison.
The whole reason plants flourish in these spots is that they’ve found their ideal environment, and the result is exactly as nature intended, in taste and in appearance. Cultivation modifies the way things grow, mainly for cosmetic reasons, which can compromise flavor. In my opinion, you can’t improve upon thousands of years of evolution.
1. Take your first foraging trips with an experienced guide. When out on your own, bring a field guide or phone app for reference (like Wild Edibles, $2.99, for iPhones).
2. Since foraged ingredients can have an acrid quality, balance the flavor by adding sugar and an acid, such as a squeeze of lemon.
3. Organic and biodynamic wines work well with foraged foods. And since foraged ingredients tend to be bitter, wines with full fruit and high acidity create a good balance. Minerality also helps carry the raw flavors.
James Oakley, 27, began his career as kitchen assistant at restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London and received most of his formal training with Michelin-starred chef Jeremy Medley at the De Vere Arms in Essex. After a stint at Tassili in the Channel Islands Hotel Grand Jersey, he was recruited as head chef at Llys Meddyg in Newport, Wales.