On a recent spring morning, Bowman Brown grabs his backpack filled with storage bags, plastic tins and a pair of scissors and heads for the hills.
Where others might simply see pretty flowers and indistinguishable leaves on this walk up a City Creek Canyon trail, the 30-year-old chef at Forage finds food at his feet. Not just any grub, but the makings of what Food & Wine magazine called “ingenious modernist food” , when it named Brown and his partner Viet Pham among the country’s Best New Chefs in 2011.
“The food at Forage,” says Brown, after gathering enough greens and garnishes for two nights worth of meals, “is connected to the land around us.”
That may have never been more true.
As the Salt Lake City restaurant approaches its fourth anniversary in July, it has lost half of its kitchen team —but perhaps gained a stronger style.
While still a co-owner, Pham left last year to start working on a Park City restaurant that will emphasize the sea.
That leaves Brown to pursue his culinary passion— the land.
Growing passion • Brown was raised on a cattle ranch in St. Johns, Ariz., a town of about 4,000. He says his mother — who was born in a Mormon colony in Chihuahua, Mexico — grew up churning butter and making cheese. Meals in the summer were based on what their large garden could grow.
It wasn’t something Brown appreciated then but he sees the obvious influence now.
“There was always this idea that it was more important to grow your own food and eat what was grown than it was to go to the grocery store,” he says. “My mom just had this pioneer spirit where you preserve whatever you can.”
While climbing a steep incline for miner’s lettuce up City Creek, Brown recalls a family story about how the prayers of hungry pioneers were answered when wild pigweed began to grow in central Utah.
“It informs who I am as a person — what I do,” he says of his Mormon roots.
Of course, he’s taken wild Utah ingredients to a new level. The Indian parsley he pointed out on the walk is good as a garnish and its seeds can be soaked in salt and vinegar and eaten like capers.
The tender wild garlic he pulled will be grilled over coals and turned into a soup, to be poured over wild onions and a creamy pillow of local sheep’s milk cheese. The easily found mountain pepper grass — long stalks topped with a crown of white flowers — tastes like spicy broccoli. It will decorate a ball of chicken liver mousse sitting in shredded and fried potatoes composed to look like a bird’s nest.
Those annoying papery-thin Siberian elm seed pods that blow into your yard? Brown toasts them to flavor Forage’s ice cream.
He and his staff, who also go foraging, sometimes stray far from the foothills for their ingredients. Brown has sent a chef to Delta for wild asparagus. They collect crunchy, salty sea beans — a succulent also called pickleweed — along the Great Salt Lake and serve it with trout from Strawberry Reservoir.
“It’s a genuine desire to want to serve the best ingredients,” Brown says. “It’s the difference between a pretty good ingredient you can grow and a slightly better one, but that difference can be the difference between a pretty good restaurant and an even better restaurant. … We’re trying to move up that ladder every day.”
Brown says he started cooking while on an LDS mission in Ukraine. He was there about a decade after the end of Soviet Union rule and was again surrounded by people who grew and preserved their own food. “It was like, we gotta eat and I gotta cook some potatoes, so I might as well learn how to cook a delicious potato,” he said.
An education • When he returned home, he started reading cookbooks while attending Brigham Young University, including Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook.
“I had never been to a fancy restaurant. It was just amazing what people do all in the pursuit of a meal. All of these small details add up to a great experience,” he says.
He dropped out of BYU to attend the Atlantic Culinary Academy in New Hampshire. He begged his way into working at The Dunaway Restaurant, where chef Mary Dumont had won Food & Wine’s Best New Chef of 2006 and her award — a saute pan — hung on the wall. Then he interned at Gary Danko in San Francisco, where he would spent 10 hours a day doing one task, like making chai bundles or peeling mushroom stems. “It was the worst,” he says.
That led him back to BYU where he studied food science. “The whole time I would be thinking about how I really want to open a restaurant,” he says.
He dropped out again and became a sous chef at Spark Restaurant in Provo, where he met Pham. The ambitious duo left on the same day and turned their attention to creating Forage.
Both agree they didn’t know what they were doing when they opened in the summer of 2009. They wanted to wow Salt Lake with the best dishes they could think of. They served four meat courses and luxury ingredients like foie gras, truffles and caviar. While the restaurant’s name evoked carefully sourced ingredients— it was suggested by a friend who knew they used wild mint and crab apples at Spark — they didn’t initially care where the food came from as long as it was high quality.
“I don’t feel like there was a really great, single idea behind the restaurant,” Brown says.
But it worked, despite the high price. While there was a $40, three-course menu, the chefs menu of 17 or so courses ran $79. Now, the fixed menu of 16 courses costs $87.
There was little competition for their style of dining of visually stunning food with surprising new textures — such as a semi-frozen cylinder of rhubarb juice that tastes similar to a marshmallow.
“Nobody had tried to offer dining out as an experience,” Brown says. “It takes three hours to eat here. … People were willing to pay for that.”
The chefs were lavished with praise. Ironically, it was the biggest award — being named among the country’s best new chefs — that led the duo on separate paths.
“If anything, it gave me a push in the direction of, you’re not a celebrity,” says Brown, who uses his saute pan award to cook on at home. “You’re just scratching the surface of your potential.”
Nature-based • Over time, Brown realized his style was “nature-based” — the desire to highlight the flavors of Utah using fresh (or preserved) produce, mostly local goods, and food from the wild. Parts of the menu change every day, depending on what the Forage staff find in the wild, or what is growing on a Draper farm with which they contract.
Brown estimates there are 10 ingredients his kitchen uses that aren’t from Utah or the region, including lemons and grapeseed oil.
“With there being one chef in the kitchen now, it’s so much more focused,” Brown says. “Things are really … more thematically in line with the forage idea.”
Even the presentation harkens to nature. A crispy carrot skin brushed with fermented maple syrup is served on a piece of cherrywood bark. A darkened lump of smoked cheddar battered in beer and black malt is placed on a plate over smoky coals. Lemon curds wrapped in a black sesame crust are disguised in a small box of shiny rocks.
A lot of guests come from out of town because they’ve seen Pham on television. While some diners may be disappointed not to the see the star in the kitchen, Brown says he doesn’t feel pressure to keep things the same.
After Pham left the restaurant, Brown eliminated what Forage has been known for: The slowly cooked egg yolks and cream with maple syrup served in an egg shell. It’s a French amuse-bouche, not a taste of Forage.
Guests aren’t complaining, even if they have to book early weekend slots about a month in advance. Recent reviews posted on Yelp and Facebook still rave, like the woman from Los Angeles who declared it “one of the best food experiences” she’s had in a long time.Eventually, Brown wants to create a world-class restaurant that will make him and his family a living for at least the next decade. He’s got three more years on the lease at Forage’s current spot, one trek in the foothills at a time.