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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bowman Brown, co-owner of Forage Restaurant, checks out a large patch of Mountain Peppergrass during a hike foraging for edible plants in City Creek Canyon. The white flowers are used for a garnish and stems for a broccoli-like side dish.
Forage lives up to its name with nature-based menu

Dining » With partner gone, Bowman Brown makes Salt Lake restaurant his own.

By Heather May

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published May 29 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:32 pm

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.

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"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."

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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.

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