Perking up feasts

Two Durango chefs create new business based on foraged foods

For dinner on Sunday, chefs Marcos Wisner and Owen Clark will take to the alleys, side streets and backyards of Durango to collect many of their ingredients.

From a tree, Wisner might pluck a handful of sumac, the red spice that tastes like lemon. Its bright berries, often used in many parts of the Middle East and southeastern Europe, give dishes a tart zing and brighten their presentation. (The sumac berry is not the poison sumac tree leaf). From the next plant, Wisner shuffles through dark green coarse leaves to pull a cherry-size fruit that is a rose hip. Left after the rose bloom dies, rose hips are fruity and spicy. They add another dash of red to bland plates.

This scenario goes on, sometimes days at a time, until Wisner and Clark have enough ingredients to put together an eclectic menu that is meant to feature the duo’s new business adventure: Found Foods. They want diners to learn how many ingredients exist in the wildest of places, ready for nature’s offerings to be foraged and incorporated into delectable dishes.

The rose hips? They end up as part of a spruce sorbet.

A mallow plant? It’s capers and are paired with crème fraîche to be part of a smoked brook trout (from the Chaco area in New Mexico) appetizer.

Fate in New York City

Wisner and Clark grew up in Durango, spending their youths among wild plants in the San Juan Mountains, which include, beyond sumac and rose hips, mallow, yarrow and dandelion. Clark’s unfortunate experience with eating wild, foraged foods as a kid came when he took a liking to shooting a small gun on his parents’ many acres in Bayfield. Once he had a gun in hand, he set out immediately and began shooting small things that moved. Proud of his bounty, his father quickly schooled him in hunting ethics: you shoot it, you eat it. Clark’s few dinners under this edict consisted of blue jay, magpie, songbirds and squirrels. None was remarkably delicious, not to mention barely edible.

It wasn’t until both worked as cooks in the upscale New York City dining scene that they learned the value and uses of wild food.

Wisner, 23, worked his way into New York after apprenticing at Durango’s East by Southwest. When he was 17, he attended the California Sushi Academy. He went on to work in some of the top sushi restaurants in the country. He landed what he calls his dream job at Masa in New York City. San Pellegrino, a restaurant rating group, currently lists Masa as the top-rated sushi restaurant in the world. Wisner became a top-tier sushi chef. With an eye toward expanding his cooking skills, he went to work at two of New York’s most famous French restaurants, Jean-Georges and Eleven Madison Park.

Meanwhile, Clark’s career track moved forward as he studied at the Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder. The now 27-year-old earned an apprenticeship at the Michelin two-star restaurant L’Oustau d’Baumanière in Provence, France. His stint there segued into an apprenticeship at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, which Restaurant Magazine labels as the best in the world. Back in the States, Clark spent two years learning about flavor pairings and different cuisine styles while working at WD-50 in New York City.

It was at New York City’s Blue Hill – in trendy Greenwich Village – that the fate and foraging melded for Wisner and Clark. Clark was often in Central Park foraging for wild ingredients like purslane and miner’s lettuce for the restaurant to use, igniting his interest in the relationship between food and environment. Wisner left Eleven Madison Park in search of experience as a sous chef. He ended up at Blue Hill, hoping to get his foot in the door.

Blue Hill’s chef, Dan Barber, learned Wisner was from Durango and made the connection that Clark was as well. Once Wisner was given the opportunity to do a stage at the restaurant, the two young cooks became culinary friends. (Stage, pronounced stahzje, is a French word used to describe a short stint a cook does briefly in a restaurant to learn new techniques and cuisines.)

Wisner’s intense three-week stage at Blue Hill left him little time for anything but work; same for Clark. It was constant schooling that often leads to burn-out or shattered dreams. They worked together for a short time and went different ways. Realizing that becoming an established sous chef would take two or three years, Wisner opted for something different. He left New York City and returned to Durango. A couple of months later, Clark returned to Bayfield to spend time with his family.

Soon after, the two were at Starlight Lounge on Main Avenue when they ran into each other. It took a few minutes for them each to place the other one. When they did, their common experiences and interests quickly parlayed into a desire to bring something different to Durango’s dining scene. They agreed that foraging for and using wild ingredients was the best way to take the cooking techniques they learned in New York City and apply them to the food in the Four Corners. The more they talked, the more they discovered a common passion that New York City wasn’t going to feed. Professional kitchens aren’t exactly known for being sentimental places. Making it a business venture was the best way to do it.

Raising the bar

“Found food is so transcendent,” Clark says. “We can take advantage of it because the cool thing is that it spirals so far into infinity.”

As much as learning what wild ingredients they can cook with is experiencing the food. That comes with presenting the food in its natural state.

“It’s about eating with your hands and not disguising the food,” Wisner said.

They took their idea to Durango restaurant chefs, hoping to brighten the menus in a scene that offers top-shelf cuisines. The intent wasn’t to foist their New York City-trained agendas on talented chefs whose successes are appreciated. Instead, it was to freshen the cuisines with new ingredients.

“We wanted to raise the bar,” Wisner said.

Their ideas were met with tepid responses. Without an outlet, they decided to be part of the local dining scene while offering found foods – and do it as a supper club. Last month they had their trial dinner for a select group of guests. On Dec. 3, they held their first dinner for the public. Their intent is to hold a dinner once or twice a month at a different venue, whether private or public, and make the menu about foraged foods and locally produced products.

Combing the two allows them to create courses that are hearty enough to blend tastes with a focus on foraged food.

“If there is no reference point for the flavor, it’s more entertaining,” Clark said. “I think it’s better for diners to know the source of the food. We want them to relate to an ingredient.”

They will draw on their work in New York City and Europe to make it happen, feeling proud that, even though neither is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, their grand cuisine can press the restart button on Durango’s dining scene.

The cooks turn to private property for some ingredients. They also buy from local farmers, Sunnyside Meats and Turtle Lake Refuge. They are teaching themselves about what is available here in the wild, while also relying on foodies like Katrina Blair, Turtle Lake’s founder. Because nature’s seasons dictate what they can serve, Wisner and Clark will change their menu accordingly.

Despite being Durango natives, the duo has more to learn about the area’s wild ingredients. Curiosity is one of their greatest teachers.

Two weeks ago, Clark was chain-sawing trees that fell during a violent windstorm at Vallecito Reservoir. Spruce trees permeated the air. Smell led to taste. Clark pulled some spruce needles from the tree and chomped them. This is what he and Wisner call “research and development.” The taste appealed to him; the spruce ended up in the Rose Hip and Spruce Sorbet they served at their first Found Foods dinner at Brickhouse Cafe.

They also are learning about diners’ tastes and knowledge. While researching ingredients for their dinner at Brickhouse, Wisner and Clark learned that Sunnyside Farms Market sells beef bones each week and they are a hot commodity. People line up to buy them and they sell out quickly. Where are they going with them? Home to feed the bones to their dogs. The two cooks were surprised. They know bone marrow is a high-price menu item in New York City restaurants. In Durango, it was going to the dogs.

Taking their cuisine further, each course on their dinner menus is paired with a wine or beer selection, hand-picked by Jolin Fleshood of Star Liquor.

This generation of ambitious chefs is finding inspiration in Durango’s wildlands. They know the found food concept isn’t their creation, yet they do know their Found Foods business isn’t just about green salads. Their sources are wild and uncultivated.