Chez Panisse, the famed, ultra high-end Berkeley restaurant that has built its reputation on clean, local, organic food, could hardly feel further away from West Oakland, where fresh produce can be hard to find and the median household income is just under $36,000 per year. That’s something that the UC Berkeley statistics professor Philip Stark, who heads the Open Source Food project, readily acknowledges.
“There’s not a direct connection,” he says, between encouraging fine dining restaurants like Chez Panisse to prepare and serve weeds—yes, weeds—and convincing the residents of high-poverty neighborhoods like West Oakland to do the same.
Yet both are major goals of the Open Source Food project, which is run by four UC Berkeley professors and promotes food equity and sustainability by encouraging people to forage for, cook and eat the hardy weeds that spring up naturally in urban backyards and between concrete sidewalk slabs.
These include thyme, chickweed, dandelion, sow thistle and the appetizing-sounding nipplewort, which can be cooked like spinach. Other favorite weed treatments include salads, pesto-like sauces, and even seasoning for your favorite red meat. (“Do not consume any part of any plant ... unless you are quite sure you know what you are doing,” the project’s website warns.)
The project’s first Wild Food Week, a collaboration between Open Source Food and the chefs of some of the Bay Area’s most well-regarded restaurants, kicks off next week. On Wednesday, diners will be able to order a $50 prix fixe meal from the folks behind Mission Chinese Food (“There's always a line around dinner time,” cautions Yelp) and the Perennial, which hasn't opened yet but which promises to view all its business decisions “through the lens of environmental impact.” On Thursday, Chez Panisse will offer a “set menu with wild plants woven into the Chez Panisse experience,” for which reservations alone cost $25, payable by credit card. Friday is Mission Heirloom’s turn, with a $40 dining experience from a restaurant that promises organic and non-GMO foods with “head to tail goodness.” (“This means nothing goes to waste,” the Berkeley restaurant explains).
It’s an intriguing move for a group that is mostly known for its work in three Bay Area neighborhoods that are classified by the USDA as “food deserts”: West Oakland, southern Richmond and central Berkeley. By leading tours and talks that encourage the hungry to look to the ground, the Open Food Project has attempted to put a dent in the sprawling supply chain that ships food from one end of the world to the other, spewing carbon emissions all the way. “If you’re foraging yourself, it’s the ultimate in ecological correctness,” Stark says.
So why an upscale Wild Food Week, and why now? In part, Stark says, approaching culinary experts grows out of the pushback he and his weed-noshing colleagues have faced on the ground. “There are people for whom the idea of digging in the dirt is just not something they want to do,” says Stark. “They say, ‘I might be poor, but I’m not so poor that I want to eat weeds off the sidewalk.’” But what if weeds off the sidewalk had cachet—“... If they’re serving this stuff at a high-end restaurant”—would poorer residents hop on the bandwagon?
Even Stark isn’t entirely convinced that a trickle-down concept will work—that those for whom vegetables are a financial stretch will be convinced by, let alone see, the weedy culinary stylings of the Bay Area’s cooking stars. Rather, he sees Wild Food Week as more of a campaign targeted at the supply side of the weedy food chain. Getting people to eat weeds is one thing, he reasons, but getting farms to sell them is another. Stark hopes that when chefs put weeds on the menu, farmers will notice the bounty of ignored digestibles along the margins of their conventional crops and realize there’s money to be made.
“By working with these restaurants, we’re hoping to get a number of local farms and farm distributors to get [weeds] on their buy-sheets,” says Stark. “That’s what I see as a big success.”
According to Stark, the Perennial has already said it will put edible weeds that can be found in the urban environment on their permanent menu. Mission Heirloom may buy into weeds permanently, too.
So what is on the menu? Stark says it will be a surprise. What won’t be is hearing Open Source Food’s most frequently-asked question. “The first reactions of a lot of people are, ‘What about dog pee?’” Stark says, exasperated. “Where does that come from? Do our parents program us to not eat stuff off the ground because of dog pee?”
In reality, says Stark, many of the farm-grown foods we already eat grow in a soft bed of poop, or manure. All vegetables need to be washed, and so far, tests have shown that many Bay Area soils are toxin-free enough to grow safe food. So why not eat the hardy, resilient plants that grow right outside your door?