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Meadowood's Dedicated Forager Talks Drought, Culinary Inspiration, and His Top Spots

Photo: Bonjwing Lee

A meal at The Restaurant at Meadowood has become one of those foodie bucket list items reserved for truly life changing meals. Adding to the magic of Meadowood cuisine? Cameron Rahtz. Rahtz, 28, is Meadowood’s dedicated forager — he moved to Northern California five years ago and has been a fixture in Chef Christopher Kostow’s kitchen ever since. We caught up with Rahtz about his preferred foraging techniques and spots, how his findings are integrated into meals at Meadowood, and how this year’s drought has expanded his portfolio even more. 

How did you get into foraging? When did it become a part of your work at Meadowood?

I grew up in Lake Tahoe and my mother (a professional skier and naturalist) liked to spend a lot of time out in the woods — we’d go hiking, harvest berries, fish for trout. It started at Meadowood with Chef’s encouragement. I did it as a hobby on my days off, harvesting mushrooms and mise-en-place to make my prep a little easier. And we kind of decided it could be a full-time thing for me. By December 2012, I was  mostly foraging and preserving, while still doing some cooking, too. 

What does an average day in the field, or woods, look like?

I get up before sun-up and go out and harvest what’s available. It might include a trip to the coast to clam, or sometimes we’ll go into the hills and harvest mushrooms. Or, I’ll head head out into the woods with a good basket and a good pair of scissors, and maybe some soap to wash the poison oak off. 

Ugh, the worst!

I got it on my face once!

That’s horrible. Talk about dedication! Where are some of your top spots to forage?

Everyone around the Bay Area loves to harvest Salt Point, which is good for the recreational picker. Sea Ranch is a great spot, too. Here in St. Helena we have a little honey hole for mushrooms that’s a pretty quiet spot — a lot of people think you need to be out near the coast for moisture, but  this spot is abundant. 

Photo: Leanna Creel

What are you particularly excited about finding these days?

I’m really excited about the black walnuts. We’ll harvest those for our bar program — Sam Levy (Meadowood’s bar manager) makes an incredible nocino. We’re harvesting huckleberries that we’ll pickle and use to make syrups, and I’ll make a cider out of it. Sierra plums are coming in which we’ll use for umeboshi, a Japanese-style salted pickled plum.

Let’s talk about the drought. How has this affected your work, and what have you done to compensate?

It’s definitely affected it — 40 percent of California is in extreme drought. The lack of moisture alone has definitely thrown some curveballs. We had a light mushroom harvest this year compared to years passed. Our tender greens were having a much shorter season because of the heat. So, we’ve just expanded the program. We’ve always been harvesting these wild goods, but we wanted to do more, which is how we started doing the umeboshi, and the ciders, and vinegars. Instead of just focusing on harvesting wild, fresh, food, we’re thinking, “How can we capture that fresh food and save it for later in the year?” 

That’s kind of a nice silver lining. 

Definitely. Now, not only do I get to harvest these things, but I get to find a use for them. The other day I harvested 25 pounds of pine needles, which is way too much! But now we’re making a vinegar from them. So, I get to learn new things, too. 

Where in the Bay Area do you go for culinary inspiration?

I’m a real big fan of Ari [Weiswasser] over at Glen Ellen Star. I really love his food and he has a really great attitude. He’ll come out in the woods and pick mushrooms with me sometimes. We have a good, close relationship with James [Syhabout] over at Commis in Oakland; plus, I really love his food. 

Any dream forage locations you haven't gotten to hit yet?

Alba, Italy! (laughs) I want to go get the white truffles! I’d love to get up into the Pacific Northwest, into Washington. I’ve been in Oregon, but I’d love to get up there for some fishing, some berry harvesting, maybe some mushroom foraging. I’d also love to explore the hills of Mexico — there are some good matsutake spots down there too. 

Photo: Leanna Creel

Guilty food pleasures?

I love candy. French fries, potato chips (laughs), bad snack food. You’ll usually find me with a Snickers bar in my bag when I’m out in the woods. 

Time for the rapid-fire portion of this interview! 

Favorite place for a casual meal in the Bay Area?

Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley. 

Favorite special occasion meal?

Ciccio. They have this black pepper pasta that’s just ridiculous.

Can't-live-without local ingredient?

Wild mushrooms. I need those. Those keep me going. It’s addicting once you start picking those things. 

Favorite spot for a weekend get-away?

Mendocino. Jackson Demonstration Forest is probably my favorite spot.

Favorite day trip?

Bothe State Park. It’s a beautiful state park here in St. Helena, and they have an old working mill. You can go there anyday and they’re milling spelt and polenta. 

Favorite "locals only" place in Napa?

How can I say it without giving away! You can put Lost Pesados Forest. It’s 6-7 miles up the hill from St. Helena. It’s a really cool area with a lot of Redwoods. 

Favroite thing about the Bay Area?

Being around some of the best ingredients in the world. It’s a bountiful land, but at the same time, it’s really a mecca for forward-thinking chefs. It’s great being around these ingredients, but equally amazing being around people who are passionate about those ingredients. The network here is really tight and really cool. 

Follow Lauren @laurensloss.