Swapped Stories: Alan Bergo - The Forager Chef
Imagine starting out cooking at McDonald's and working your way up to training with Celebrity Chefs, building a following that spans the globe. That is only the beginning of the story for chef Alan Bergo. We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Alan, also known as the Forager Chef, about his remarkable journey.
Bergo's introduction to cooking started in his teenage years. Some of his first jobs were in the fast-food industry but his interest peaked when his grandmother bought him an Italian cookbook by Lidia Bastianich. After high school, he went to college for business and worked in the campus cafeteria. After getting bored with the cafeteria, he accepted a job at a local steakhouse which gave him his first true taste of real scratch cooking.
Bergo decided to pursue culinary rather than business after recognizing his true passion. While working as a line cook at a hotel, Alan got a call offering him a position at Heartland from Lenny Russo. Heartland was unique in that it only used ingredients within roughly 200 miles of the restaurant's location in the Twin Cities. With no olive oil, pasta, citrus, or parmesan, this meant he was cut off from his passion for Italian food. It wasn't all bad though, the menu changed every day, and even as a line cook, and then sous chef Bergo was encouraged to come up with his own unique dishes from locally sourced ingredients.
"As the new guy on the block I wanted to prove myself and I wanted to be better than every other person in the restaurant."
Bergo says that he was blown away by being able to work with some of the best and freshest ingredients possible. He remembers that one of the first ingredients he worked with was chicken of the woods. He became so familiar with some of these natural ingredients that he could recognize them without question in the wild, and then bring them back to the restaurant to cook with. "This was a way for me to do things in the restaurant that none of the other line cooks could do that would get me into the boss's good graces," says, Bergo.
Chef Alan’s fascination with foraging came slightly after. When he would walk through the woods searching for mushrooms, he would sometimes come out without finding anything. Any hunter or forager knows how disappointing this feeling can be. This made Bergo want to figure out how to never come out empty-handed which led him to learn about plants.
Eventually, he left Heartland and opened his first restaurant called The Salt Cellar. Alan loved the foraging theme and lifestyle he had picked up and wanted to continue learning and cooking with these ingredients. His girlfriend's mother is a herbalist who owns a farm that functioned as an intentional community in the '60s and 70’s, now the land offers a bountiful array of plants for chef Alan to work with.
After learning as much as he could from her, Bergo met Sam Thayer. Thayer is considered by many to be the best forager in North America, if not the entire world. Bergo had the opportunity to work with Thayer and learn about greens, fruits, and mushrooms from one of the greatest foragers of our time.
Figuring out what is safe to eat and what is unsafe to eat is one thing but discovering an entirely new way to use a plant is another. For example, Bergo spent 6 years reading botanical studies and experimenting with different ingredients like Angelica to figure out how to make them safe to eat and taste delicious. He takes fascination in discovering new ways to cook different plants including things some chefs have never even considered before.
Using plants in all points of their growth cycle is another thing that Bergo takes pride in. We often see vegetables in supermarkets that are harvested at one specific point in their lives. He has done the research to see what you can do with that plant at all points in its life.
“Are you going to wait until that plant is ripe or are you going to adapt that plant to eat it now like people have been doing for hundreds of years?”
Foraging looks glamorous when you talk about it this way, but it can be discouraging. Bergo says that you can know every plant, berry, and mushroom out there but you can still come out with nothing. Mother Nature isn't always on your side while foraging and doesn't care if you find something or not. In our interview, he referenced this year when we had a very late frost in March that stunted the growth of black walnuts that he hunts around this time, and how there were hardly any of them to be seen growing. He did say that the moment you find something and get that "ah-ha" feeling is what makes you want to get back out and keep looking.
Alan may have thousands of followers on social media visiting his website for his most recent recipes, but that was never his goal. He started his website to differentiate himself from his competition, in our interview he called it his digital business card. Now that his platform has grown, he sees it as an opportunity to connect with people and chefs around the world to share recipes and learn about ingredients.
When asked about his message, Bergo says he has tons! The main thing he wants to accomplish is that he wants to bring those who use nature together. “People who know plants, people who know mushrooms, people who hunt, we’re all the same. Enjoy where you are, enjoy what you eat, and enjoy where you are”.
Bergo loves foraging no matter what it is. When asked what his favorite ingredient is, he responded "Whatever I'm looking for at the time". We talked about how he'll be looking for meadowsweet here in Duluth for the next couple of months. Meadowsweet is an obscure plant to cook with, the plant is in the rose family and has an almond flavoring if prepared in the right way. Chef Alan uses this plant to make creams and accent sweet dishes.
Bergo does his research when it comes to historical techniques and finding out how different cultures cook specific ingredients. He refers to how this region of the US has many ties to the Anglo-Saxon culture which historically is not adept at using mushrooms to cook with. He will then look for inspiration elsewhere; Italy, Russia, Mediterranean, and Eastern European cultures have much more to offer with techniques for cooking mushrooms. This region is home to a lot of one-of-a-kind flavors, so he sometimes needs to get creative when hunting for that perfect recipe.
We asked chef Alan "Why stick around the Midwest? Why not branch out and go somewhere else?" He said that there are two main reasons he stays here are. One is because he grew up here and this is where he calls home, the other reason is that studying this region gives him a competitive advantage.
"I'm going to showcase where I'm from and make Minnesota shine."
When asked what he does in the wintertime for foraging, Bergo responded "I don't, wintertime is cooking time". He says that the winter season gives the perfect opportunity to develop different cooking techniques. From achieving nutcracking skills, fermenting, pickling, or cooking with preserves, the wintertime makes experimenting easier because he is outdoors looking for ingredients in the warmer seasons.
We asked Alan if this is what he wants to be doing for the rest of his career, his response: "This is a way of life by living close to the land. This is a hobby turned profession. I thought I would be an accountant in an office somewhere, but today my office was along the North Shore picking flowers. It can be a lot of work but when you work for yourself it's a bit different."
For all you forager enthusiasts out there looking to get your foot in the door, chef Alan has some great advice! The first step is to get foraging guides. He says while it is not the best way to learn, it is a great tool in your kit. Bergo recommends Sam Thayer’s guides saying they are the best there is. Social media is also a great resource. There are forager groups all over the world where people share their experiences with harvesting and cooking with ingredients they find. Bergo also says using pictures can be useful in some situations. While not always successful, pictures can be very helpful in identifying the genus of a plant. Lastly, start small. "Learn a couple of berries, learn a couple of mushrooms, learn a couple of greens, and enjoy being outside."
Check out Alan on Instagram @foragerchef and visit foragerchef.com if you want to learn more about Alan Bergo, Midwest ingredients, or different foraging and cooking techniques. Chef Alan is in the process of writing FLORA, his first book set to come out in Spring 2021. This will be a great guide for anyone entering the world of foraging and cooking.
Like us, Alan is happy to call Minnesota his home and works to unite outdoor enthusiasts into one larger group. He believes in mastering Minnesota's diverse ecosystems and is always learning to use new ingredients in new ways. His love for the Midwest and the state of Minnesota reminds us of the pride we all have and why we love to call it home.
Happy swapped stories, friends!
All photos are provided and approved to use by Alan Bergo.