When it comes to Northwest food, Jeremy Faber also can be a bomb-thrower.
If you’ve had wild mushrooms at a Seattle restaurant this fall, chances are your life has already intersected with Jeremy Faber’s life, in a small way. Faber runs Foraged & Found edibles out of his basement in Phinney Ridge, supplying mushrooms and much, much more to 100-plus local spots.
Faber grew up on the East Coast. As a kid, he’d look for sassafras and gather black walnuts from a huge tree in his front yard.
“Anything the squirrels were collecting, I was interested in,” he says.
Faber started a forestry degree at the University of Vermont, dropped out in 1993 in part because of an epic ski season, then felt like he might have found his calling with culinary school.
When he moved to Seattle, he had a restaurant career that he terms “tumultuous.” He worked for chef Roy Yamaguchi at the Westin, where he was disconcerted by the confluence of Hawaii, barbecued chicken and pizza; he “didn’t last long.”
Then he worked at Ray’s Boathouse, where he was told to go get some salmon. It was in season, but he couldn’t find it in the kitchen. Turned out the pre-eminent Seattle seafood restaurant was stocking it frozen.
“Salmon in the freezer, in May,” he says, still in disbelief. “I was blown away.” On May 23, 1997, Ray’s caught on fire and subsequently closed for kitchen repair. Faber wasn’t unhappy to move on.
He was among the opening crew at Brasa, and then finally landed at The Herbfarm, during chef Jerry Traunfeld’s now-storied tenure. Presciently, Traunfeld was sourcing nearly everything locally.
“The ingredients were amazing,” Faber says. “Jerry was just like, ‘I want this.’ And me and Matt Dillon” — who was starting his own local-food career — “literally on our days off, we would just go to the woods and pick stuff and bring it in.”
For Faber, forestry and food finally came together, with, literally, love. He was dating Christina Choi at the time, and they started Foraged & Found together.
“She was like, ‘Let’s start doing the farmers markets,’” Faber remembers. They sold whatever they could gather to an unsuspecting public. Then Faber and Choi took a trip to Italy. When they returned, Faber says, “It just happened to be a really good morel year, and that was kind of a catalyst.”
“The first time I had extra morels, I walked in to Tom Douglas, and he was like, ‘I’ll take ’em all,’ at the Dahlia Lounge. I said, OK, sweet, this is doable.”
Faber can’t talk more about foraging without talking more about Christina Choi. The couple eventually split, and Choi went on to start her own restaurant — the tiny and adorable Nettletown, in Sitka & Spruce’s original space in Eastlake — serving the likes of elk meatball sandwiches.
In 2011, she started feeling unaccountably tired, and shut Nettletown down. When her life was cut short by an aneurysm later that year, it left a hole in the hearts of those who knew her, and in the firmament of local food.
“Christina was like a food beacon,” Faber says with reverence. “It’s so hard to explain. Every single living pore of that girl’s body was food. Everything she thought about … She was like the best cook you’ll ever meet. Not restaurant cook — she could just take anything and make it taste good. And it’d always be interesting and something different, and pushing an envelope.”
He credits her adventuresome taste and cooking ability with helping develop his extensive product list. “I’d always be like, ‘Well, this is kind of edible,’ and she’d say, ‘Well, pick a bunch! … Bring me some, and I’ll make something out of it.’
“She’s pretty much the one that made me realize that most of this stuff is edible,” he reflects. It’s stuff that no one at all was selling at the time: wild ginger, licorice fern, wood violet, wood sorrel, devil’s club shoots, spruce tips, saskatoon berries.
Faber says that certain beautiful stretches of forest still remind him of her — that he can feel her spirit there.
Today, Foraged & Found goes beyond the Northwest. Faber has a warehouse in New York and one in Boston. He has employees, bookkeeping, bills to pay, airport runs to make.
He spends a lot of time driving to pick up foraged foods: round trips to south of Rainier, out to the coast, back to Seattle. Part of him feels like he’s “pushing this too far,” he admits with some anguish, “driving, selling, shipping.”
He still stops somewhere and strides into the woods to forage, for an hour at least, every day; otherwise, he says, he’ll go crazy.
When it comes to Northwest food, Faber is an evangelist and a bomb-thrower. He calls out Seattle chefs who own multiple restaurants, who aren’t cooking anymore, “So all it is, is numbers now. I think we’re waiting for that next level of cooks — restaurateurs that are actually in their kitchens. I think it’ll really help.”
All these years after working at Ray’s, he still doesn’t think Seattle has a great seafood restaurant, which he finds “bewildering.”
He considers nettles and spot prawns the world’s greatest foods: “phenomenal.” Huckleberries: “the fruit of the gods.” Overall, Faber says, “The food in this state is unparalleled in this country.”
He can also sound like a zealot. Of this past summer’s wildfires, he says, “Humans are pushing too far into where they don’t belong. These homes should burn.”
The policies of the Forest Service incense him. Logging is rampant, and ranchers pay “next to nothing” to graze their cattle on public land, but permits for foraging are few and far between.
And foraging done properly, he’s quick to point out, has zero environmental impact. “It’s completely sustainable,” he says.
“We’re pushing it too hard,” Faber says. “Wild food could probably save the world. It really could.
“You don’t need to eat a strawberry in January. It’s ridiculous,” he contends. “And we don’t need to ship salmon to Florida. They have plenty of fish.”