Over the Meadows and Through the Woods

Hunting for Edible Plants and Weeds at Monticello’s Tufton Farm

Jonathan Till, Executive Chef
Evening Star

On a misty, early spring morning late last month, Tufton Farm welcomed Jonathan Till, Executive Chef of the wildly popular Evening Star restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia for an inaugural forage through the property. Till, a self-taught forager who embraces innovative (and delicious) culinary creations, spoke to us about his background and shared his passion for finding wild edibles, working with farmers and an all-around love of learning.

Welcome, Chef Jonathan Till.

You’ve established quite a reputation for your foraging skills. How did you get started, and how much of what you find are you able to incorporate into your menus at the restaurant?

I’ve always been an outdoorsy type of person. I grew up fishing and being in the woods, especially in rural Louisiana where there’s not much else to do.  When I went to culinary school, and got more familiar with the produce that was coming from nature it piqued my interest and just kind of made sense for me to learn about what I’ve been walking through my entire life.

How much of what you find these days are you able to use in your menus at Evening Star?

What I find is peppered throughout the menu – I have maybe 5 dishes that currently have some foraging stuff incorporated. A lot of it is being able to take the time I need to get out and actually go pick. I like to be able to bring at least one cook or sous chef out with me on every hunt so I can teach them and pass on the knowledge that I’ve learned to others.

What are you looking for when you forage?

It really depends on the time of the year.  Right now I’m mostly looking for invasive greens. I was out this morning picking mustard greens, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and field garlic – all of these are invasive species.  The knotweed is everywhere.

What’s the best (or most exciting) thing you’ve found on a foraging trip?

I wasn’t even foraging. I was out deer hunting one morning, and we came back to our base camp pretty disappointed because we didn’t get anything. We were eating breakfast and I looked over and there was a giant field of ramps (wild leeks) right next to our tent. I don’t know how I didn’t smell them when I was sleeping. I was really excited, and as I got into them, I noticed wild ginseng growing throughout the ramps. That was a really cool find for me – I’ve never found ginseng anywhere else.  I left it there, though – there are certain harvesting rules that I’m not 100% familiar with, so I didn’t want to do anything that would damage a native population.

And what’s the best recipe you were able to create using something you’ve found?

Last year was an exceptional year for mushrooms. I would have to say that one of the most unique and fun things I’ve ever made is a “soy sauce” out of a patch of chanterelles that I found.  When I found them they were too far gone to cook with, but they were perfect for fermenting. I used a little Koji rice – a fermenting rice used often for soy sauces and sparkling rice wines – and I made this awesome soy sauce. I have a little bit of it left that I’m saving for a private event at the end of the month. I’ll make Asian-braised short-rib potstickers with fermented chanterelle soy sauce.

How do you get inspiration for a recipe from something you’ve foraged?  So the soy sauce, for example.

Like I said, I love to learn.  If there’s someone who can teach me, or if there’s a book that I can pick something up from I’ll do it.  I’ll talk to seasoned foragers and they’ll say something that will stick in my mind and I’ll build on that.  Like a pasta dish that I created when I first started at the Evening Star. I was picking maitake mushrooms off an oak tree and I was seeing that there were a ton of acorns. I was trying to think of a new dish – I was reading a book called Acorns and Cattails, so while I was foraging I thought, “You know what, I bet acorn pasta would be great.”

It starts off as something small that I see. The whole soy sauce idea came from talking to a forager in Boston that used to deliver mushrooms to the restaurant. He had a bunch of older mushrooms that he said he’d give to me, and I asked him what I could do with them. He said “Why don’t you try to ferment these?”

Let’s talk about your trip to Tufton a little while ago.  You met with Farm and Nursery Manager Keith Nevison and Monticello Curator of Plants Peggy Cornett for a first walk through the property.  Tell us a little about this – what you harvested and what you learned during the outing.

I had a great time. I really enjoy when I have the chance to be around people that have a lot of knowledge to share. I do a lot of teaching in the kitchen, so whenever I’m able to absorb information it’s a really good day for me.

That day we found a bunch of wild watercress that was absolutely beautiful. It definitely got utilized at the restaurant – it went into my duck dish. Keith pointed out how invasive garlic mustard is, so I went out and found a bunch of that – it’s on my menu now too.  We made up a nice pesto that goes over our artichoke and butter-poached leeks served with our steak dish.  Knowing that you’re able to take something that’s hazardous for what’s going on in your area, and utilize it for something that everyone can enjoy was pretty cool.  It was Keith who pointed this out to me – I don’t know if I would have caught that. I had an amazing experience while I was there – learning about all the flowers too. Not only edible plants but just plants in general.

You’ve said that you’ll return to Tufton seasonally to forage.  Based on your first hunt, what do you anticipate finding on future visits?

The area at Tufton – with the woods and the oaks – all have the right conditions for mushrooms. The acreage is huge and there’s so much to look for out there.

Judging from what I saw out there, I’d be surprised if a few types of chanterelle mushrooms didn’t come out.  Those usually appear late June, early July. I will probably be looking for several varieties– the common chanterelle, yellow foot, the cinnabar and the black trumpet. The environment and soil conditions look right for all of these. Fall will bring out the maitakes, oysters, lion’s mane and comb tooth fungus.  The area at Tufton – with the woods and the oaks – all have the right conditions for mushrooms. The acreage is huge and there’s so much to look for out there. We may find chicken-of-the-woods, old-man-of-the-woods, blewit, milk caps, and hedgehog mushrooms. And maybe some cauliflower fungus here and there.

Granted we get enough rain, mushrooms are going to start coming up pretty heavy in your area probably mid-June. Some mushrooms will grow even past the first snowfall – until December. I was still finding oyster mushrooms at our Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture through February.

Finding watercress at Tufton Farm

Let’s shift gears to something that’s dear to our hearts at Monticello. We understand that you’re committed to working effectively with small farm communities, and farmers in general.  Can you talk to us about this?

An ugly tomato tastes just as good as a beautiful tomato when it goes into a sauce.

Sure. There’s always that surplus that farmers have at the end of the year, or those seconds that aren’t quite nice enough to put out at the farmer’s market – these either typically go to waste or end up getting donated.  That’s all stuff we can use. An ugly tomato tastes just as good as a beautiful tomato when it goes into a sauce.  That’s the way I’m able to support the local farmers best – by buying any product that they don’t feel is good enough to go out to the public for presentation purposes.  That’s roughly, I would say, maybe a third of their crop. They’re able to make a little more money, I’m able to get a product that I can utilize, and it’s a win-win for everyone.  We need chefs to just get out there and take the time to establish connections with the farmers – that’s where the disconnect is.

We hear that you’re trying to do something that will bring small farms together to have more of a single voice. 

Yes. The owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and I are trying to – it’s still very, very early in the process – but we’re trying to get together a program that will introduce farmers to chefs and chefs to farmers. Make it a more productive and seamless scene from how the farmers get their food from their fields to the chef’s table.  Like I said, it’s very early – we don’t even have a real name for the initiative yet, but it’s definitely in our 5-year goals.  We hope to have within the DC, Virginia and Maryland districts an organized way to order produce from farmers so things are run more efficiently. That way there’s less waste and farmers are getting more guaranteed money so they’re more willing to plant crops and it works better for everyone.

Chef Till with Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants at Monticello

Tell us about Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG) and Arcadia.

NRG was founded by Michael Babin and Stephanie Babin in 1987 – both are still very active and a part of the team.  It’s basically a collection of independent businesses devoted to the culinary arts in Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland.  Each property is run as an individual entity driven by the executive chef.  So the concept that I’m running at the Evening Star is going to be completely different than what they’re doing at another restaurant – say Vermillion, for example.  You’ve got two different chefs cooking two completely different ways.  All the chefs in the group are extremely talented – I was out with one of the chefs this morning teaching him a little bit about foraging.  The common elements are amazing food and service –each chef brings their own uniqueness to the table. NRG has won a lot of awards because of the way they operate and let their chefs operate, as if it’s their own restaurant. I believe that’s why they’ve been so successful. They don’t try to force a circle into a square – they let each chef do what they’re good at.

And what is Arcadia?

Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture is NRG’s nonprofit organization, dedicated to creating a more equitable and sustainable local food system in our area. It was a true selling point for me, when I learned about how much they do for the community.  Not only are they bringing fresh farm food to inner cities – where people may never see what a garden is in their entire life – they’re also hiring returning veterans and teaching them how to grow this food. I’ve actually just hired one of the veterans that graduated from their program as my personal gardener for the restaurant.  Vets are hard workers and just all-around good people.

Arcadia also does school field trips to their program areas. A lot of people I know from the area tell me that their kids have been on a school field trip there to learn about vegetable plantings and how great that experience was for them.

Pam Hess is the Executive Director of Arcadia. She’s involved with their farmer-chef summit every year, which brings local farmers and chefs together to share what they need and where to source it. I’m helping motivate my chef colleagues to show up at the summit and be a voice for what they need.

Tell us one last thing.

Homesteading and canning are a big part of my background. I grew up with 4 generations of us canning and making apple butter. Canning pickles from the garden – that’s just something that I’ve done my entire life. It’s just normal to me. I know a lot of people don’t get that experience anymore and I love it. I look back and I hated peeling all of those apples, but now it’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world. My wife is Slovakian and they still do a lot of that traditional stuff in the village she’s from. Everyone knows how to forage mushrooms, can mushrooms or ferment mushrooms. I love going to her village because I always pick up a new little trick when I’m there.

We look forward to ‘growing’ our new friendship with Jonathan and to welcoming him back to Monticello many times. For further information on the Evening Star: https://eveningstarcafe.net/