WILLMAR, Minn. -- Alan Bergo started as a paperboy delivering copies of the West Central Tribune to the doorsteps of subscribers in his hometown of Willmar.
Today, he wanders the woods and wild lands of Minnesota and neighboring states carrying knives and other sharp implements.
The two are connected, but it’s important to explain the latter first.
Bergo is the Forager Chef, celebrated for the dishes he creates from the native plants and mushrooms found in the Midwest. His cooking skills were proven in the kitchens of some of the best-known restaurants in the Twin Cities: The Bachelor Farmer, St. Lucia’s, the Salt Cellar, and the 7-time James Beard nominee restaurant Heartland.
These days, he’s found in the outdoors in search of the foods for the dishes he creates in a test kitchen he keeps in St. Paul. “Now, I get to literally hunt plants and mushrooms for a living,” said Bergo. “I am more free than I ever was before; it’s wonderful,” he said of his transition from kitchen chef to forager.
He refers to himself as a hunter of plants and mushrooms rather than as a forager, and it’s true. He enters the wild with the mindful focus of a hunter. He’s just finished taking advantage of a one-day window to collect a half gallon of tree pollen to make a dessert for a wild harvest festival in Prairie du Chien, Wis.
He’s examining records to narrow in on the best locations to begin a hunt for the St. George mushroom in Minnesota. He came across a document from the 1920s that has led him to believe the mushroom can be found here, although none has been reported in 100 years.
But first, there’s a trip to the Standing Rock reservation in North and South Dakota to join a friend and Native American ethnobotanist to dig prairie turnips, once a staple crop for the people of the plains.
His outdoor adventures will likely be interrupted in the days ahead. He has just released his new book: “The Forager Chef’s Book of Flora," by Chelsea Green Publishing. Its 291 pages offer everything from “the exotic and the familiar -- from Ramp Leaf Dumplings to Spruce Tip Panna Cotta to Tie Sunflower Artichokes…’’ It comes complete with his easy to understand instructions and his unbridled passion for this path of culinary discovery.
Many are familiar with his ability to introduce us to the natural foods found outside our doors. He created his website, the Forager Chef, nine years ago as an electronic business card. It’s now a labor of love with as many as 5 million visits a year from all over the world.
It all began for him in Willmar, where as a youngster he found himself grounded for misdeeds. A sympathetic grandmother dropped off a copy of Lidia Bastianich’s cookbook of Italian recipes. The fire was lit. At his first job in a fast food restaurant in Willmar, he was treating his boss to pasta dishes.
A 2003 graduate of the Willmar High School, Bergo enjoyed his first professional opportunity at Melvin’s on the Lake in Spicer. It eventually led him to Rome and a 10-year experience working with chefs from Italy.
Making a career as a chef required a long climb. Bergo talked about living in basement apartments as the guest of friends.
It was as a chef at Heartland that he began preparing dishes from the natural foods of the Midwest, and really learned about them. It set him apart in the highly competitive world of the restaurant kitchens. “Having something other chefs don’t have access to is a bit like catnip. There’s that element to it,” he said, laughing.
Every day at the Heartland, foragers brought in wild products for the chefs who developed their own menus each day. “Before I even went outside I had already touched, tasted, cooked, smelled, and handled most of the valuable wild mushrooms in our area,” he said.
He also learned the value of wild plants. The restaurant was paying $12 a pound for nettles that grow in abundance throughout the state. One day playing disc golf he stumbled across chicken-of-the woods mushrooms. “That’s when the light bulb went off,” he said. These natural treasures are all about: Just go out and find them.
His hunting grounds are the entire Midwest. Some of his best are close to home. A family farm near Grove City in Meeker County offers some of his bounty. It does not match the abundance of wild plants found on his girlfriend’s family farm near Menominee, Wis.
No matter where, it’s the thrill of the hunt. “Every year I discover something new. That is what makes it exciting,” he explained.
He’s become a student of botany, and understands the families of plants and how their flavors relate.
His real skill is in the kitchen. He is quick to demur when asked about his skills for the hunt. Much of what he has learned, he said, has come from the help of friend Sam Thayer, arguably the greatest forager in the world.
Friends like Hank Shaw, well-known for “Hunt to Eat” and foraging and preparing wild foods, is among those praising Bergo’s newly released book.
The outdoor life is a solitary one compared to the bustle and camaraderie of the kitchens he once knew. While foraging and cooking wild plants and meats may not yet be considered mainstream, he said interest in it is growing rapidly.
It's his passion, and it requires a lot of hard work.
That’s where his start as a newspaper boy fits in. “You know what? It helped build a strong work ethic, I will tell you that,” he said, adding: “I will never forget the weight of the Thanksgiving paper.”