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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.
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