After a killer 2016, chef and forager Elijah Holland shares his insights about wild ingredients, how they’ve shaped his approach to cooking and the future of foraging. By Madeline Woolway.
Elijah Holland is recognised by many as the chef responsible for unearthing the native Australian ingredients showcased at Noma Australia in early 2016. It’s a well-known anecdote that Holland impressed Rene Redzepi by turning up to their first meeting with more than 300 samples of wild-picked produce, but this number, while mind-blowing, is nothing out of the ordinary for a chef who’s spent his entire life in awe of nature and enamoured with cooking.
Although Nature’s Pick – the foraging business he started with mate Bojan Grdanovic in 2014 – has been a success, Holland’s passion is in combining foraging with cooking; he’s more chef turned supplier than the other way around. So, after starting 2016 as chef de partie at Noma, he spent the rest of the year collaborating with other chefs from Sydney and Brisbane to New Zealand and Singapore. Now at the helm of The Locksmith, a multi-level venue in China’s Guangdong province, Holland is continuing his trademark approach of combing his two passions to create menus that show off everything around us that we never noticed.
The son of botanists, Holland’s interest in the study of plants was piqued early before he began his education in earnest during the early years of his apprenticeship.
“I learned a lot from my parents and grandparents when I was young,” he told Hospitality. “Then when I was working at Jonah’s [at Whale Beach], we’d go spearfishing or surfing and I would see a lot of produce we were ordering in at the restaurant growing wild on the beach. That sparked even more interest, so over the last few years I’ve done a lot of research.
“I’m a chef and I want to know everything about my trade, I just want to know what everything is. Every time I go past different plants, whether it’s bark, or leaves, roots or flowers, I want to know about it.
“There are quite a few books around. Some of them might not tell me whether or not something is edible, but they help me find the exact species and the characteristics, then I can go and do further research, either on the internet or by asking my parents and other friends who are botanists.
“Once I find out it’s edible, I’ll grab a few different parts of the plant and do a bunch of tests to find out what I can do with it. It might be better raw, it might be better pickled or it could be better cooked.
“I made a dish using banana blossoms when I was in Singapore. I knew they were a bit stringent and can have quite an acrid taste, but once I brined and fermented them for a couple of weeks, they broke down a bit and some of the bitterness was removed, then they were really delicious.”
Cooking and foraging
Foraging isn’t just a means to an end for Holland, or something he does to stay on trend. The produce he uses, how he gathers it and how he manipulates it, has become an essential component of his menus.
“Chefs always want to do something different, something someone else hasn’t already done and I’m the same,” he said.
“But if you’re going to forage, you have to learn about it. You can’t start just because it’s a trend or you think it’s cool. I do it because I genuinely love the environment; I love being out in it and I want to see it prosper. I don’t think anyone should start foraging just for the sake of it.”
Foraging grants access to ingredients that – despite being an intrinsic part of Australia’s ecology and indigenous culture – are still considered unconventional when found on a restaurant plate. As the profile of foraged foods rises, Holland wants to see them integrated wholly into Modern Australian cuisine rather than as a decorative afterthought.
“Some people think foraging is about going out and picking a free garnish. Everything I use is an actual component of a dish; it’s not there for decoration. I might use rocket flowers for a peppery hit rather than using another spice, but those flavours are purposeful. Everything has a place,” he said.
“A lot of our native produce is really unique, and people have been using it, but if more chefs had really tapped into it a lot longer ago we’d have a more distinct food culture; I definitely think that should be a part of our training because, look, we are so multicultural and we have so many cultures showing in our food and that’s amazing, but there’s a lot more to our country than the European food that we started growing in the last couple of centuries.”
Nor is it a case of haphazardly picking produce – Holland is as methodical as any chef when it comes to menu design.
“When I’m designing a menu or a dish, I know I can go out into the wild and pretty much be looking at my shopping list. I won’t specifically go out there looking for something in particular. I’ll go and assess the whole area, compile a big list of everything that’s there and from there start.
“Some things are edible but not palatable. There are loads of things out there that I don’t bother touching because it’s not worth it. I’m not going to put something on the menu for the sake of saying it’s foraged or wild.”
While there are plants that require too much work to make them palatable, and some that won’t taste nice no matter what’s done to them, for the most part Holland has managed to find bounties of edible produce wherever he goes. Having foraged around Sydney for several years, Holland applied the same ethos on trips to New Zealand and Singapore, and now stationed in China, he’ll continue to forage for items to put on The Locksmith’s menu.
“I’ve been doing a lot of foraging and finding a lot of things, right out in the mountains,” he said. “Some of the stuff you can get here is incredible and really amazing quality. So many people told me I would never find anything in China, but I’ve been finding so much.”
Can’t see the food for the trees
In Australia, the idea that bush foods are just that, foods found only in remote bush land, is a fallacy.
“Because it’s labelled bush foods everyone thinks you have to go right into the middle of the bush. I live on the Northern Beaches and I can just go down the road and there’s stuff everywhere,” said Holland.
The relatively common misconception that foraging for food requires travel to far-flung locations is felt across the world. In fact, Holland managed to pick a list 40 species long in one of the world’s most urban countries – Singapore.
“I did a lot of research before I went to Singapore. I went to about three or four little areas and didn’t even have to venture that far away from the restaurant or where I was staying to find lots of stuff.”
While there are plants waiting to be foraged on almost every corner, it’s not a matter of taking indiscriminately.
“If you’re going to do it you really need to be careful and mindful that what you’re doing isn’t damaging the ecosystem in anyway. There are plenty of things that I’ve found, like some seaweeds, that there just isn’t enough of for me to take, so I don’t,” said Holland.
Nature’s Pick allowed Holland to increase accessibility to native Australian foods, working as a chef offers an opportunity to see diners appreciate them. For that reason, Holland has taken a step back from the business-side of foraging to head up The Locksmith, where edible gardens will grace each of the three levels and the kitchen team will manage a 100-plus bed garden on the rooftop. In an events space on the top floor, local cooking schools among others will participate in classes, talks, demonstrations and tours.
“I realised that, with a lot of the restaurants I was supplying through Nature’s Pick, chefs would ask us what they should do with it or say they just wanted to use it as a garnish. Then these plants were going onto plates and customers were eating native Australian food without realising,” said Holland.
“When I started running the full-time foraging business, I ended up supplying a lot of restaurants and I was making a fair amount of money but then I thought, hang on a second, I’m a chef and I love cooking.
“I love the theatre of doing service in kitchens and actually cooking restaurant-quality food for people. Going out and explaining the dishes to guests – every part of it, how it was created and why – that’s what I really enjoy doing.”