Walking through the verdant woodlands near the banks of the Potomac River in Great Falls, Virginia, with forager Iulian Fortu is like a stroll through a wild supermarket.
He periodically stops to point out a plant and offer up a tidbit of information. He spots sweet cicely (“it has a slight licorice taste”), wood sorrel (“the one over there that looks like clover”), and chicken of the woods mushrooms (“not ready yet; I might come back in a few days”). At a big patch of garlic mustard – “it works well in pesto” – he stops to cut down a bunch of the plants.
What the 25-year-old gathers on this spring morning will end up on the plates at some of D.C.’s most renowned restaurants, including Jônt, which recently earned two Michelin stars, as well as Bresca, Rose’s Luxury, and the Dabney, which each have a Michelin star.
His company, Arcadia Venture, harvests and sources wild ingredients year-round. During treks through Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania in the springtime, Fortu scores ramps, morel mushrooms, and spruce shoots. Summer brings shiso, a rainbow of berries, and chanterelle and black trumpet mushrooms. As autumn unfolds, he collects persimmons, black walnuts, and pawpaws. Even in the winter he’s able to still find some mushrooms and juniper.
These wild ingredients have an irreplaceable allure for Fortu. “It’s being able to get something that’s fresh and with flavors that are different than those you can grow,” he says.
Take blueberries, as an example: “If you go to the store and buy blueberries, the blueberries have almost zero flavor and they’re usually very tart,” he says. “There’s a reason for that. They’re picked slightly underripe, so they have a better chance of survival during transport. But that’s not the maximum flavor blueberries can have. That’s not the way it should be. If you go to a farm or you go out in the wild and you pick really ripe blueberries, they’re amazing. There’s so much flavor. They’re sweet. They color your hands.”
Chefs are drawn to Fortu’s work with equally visceral passion. “The benefit of a forager is time and place,” says Ryan Ratino, chef-owner of Jônt and Bresca, who buys from Arcadia Venture. “They bring you what’s in the moment, what’s specifically available in your region and peaking.”
Over time, an education unfolds between the forager and the culinary teams. “The most exciting moments are not when we say, ‘Hey we’re looking for this,’” says Ratino. “It’s when he says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this. Do you want to try it out?’”
Recently, Fortu brought in bamboo shoots he gathered in Maryland and Virginia. Ratino was stunned. He didn’t know they could be harvested in this region.
Fortu tells me that the young, tender shoots are poisonous when raw, but the toxins can be leached out by boiling them several times in fresh water. Once they’re detoxified, bamboo shoots have multiple uses, including being shaved into a salad, tossed into a stir fry, or pickled.
As one might guess, the path to learning this kind of obscure knowledge is an unconventional one. Fortu was born in Romania, but grew up in Fairfax. Both his parents worked long, often odd, hours – his father as an electrician, his mother as a childcare worker – so there wasn’t a consistent meal schedule at home. As soon as he was able, Fortu began cooking for himself.
As he grew older, cooking became not just a necessity, but an interest. While attending high school at Robinson Secondary School, Fortu simultaneously began his formal culinary training at its sister school, Chantilly Academy. During the same time period, he picked up a part-time job working in the kitchen at fine dining favorite Trummer’s On Main (now called Trummer’s) in Clifton, Virginia. Those experiences further fired up his interest in a culinary career.
He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. In the summer after his first year, he obtained an internship at chef René Redzepi’s world renowned, boundary-pushing Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. Fortu’s time there was intense and transformational. He would wake up at 5 a.m. to be at the restaurant by 6:30, and would work until midnight or later. “It exposed me to many new techniques, new ingredients, different methodologies,” he says. “It was about waiting for something to ferment for two years before you even touch it and use it as an ingredient. Doing all these steps beforehand to get an ingredient.”
While in Denmark, he sometimes had a chance to forage, including for ramson, wild garlic similar to the ramps that grow in the mid-Atlantic region. After graduating in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in business management and a specialty in Italian cuisine, he moved back to Fairfax and began going out into the woods to see what edible wild foods he could find in his proverbial backyard. “There are so many things growing around here all the time, and before working at Noma I didn’t even realize it,” he says, “But I never thought of foraging as a profession.”
No one taught him; he read a lot and studied online. There was trial and error out in the field. He had one close call. He picked a plant on the Eastern Shore that looked and smelled like dill. He took a nibble. It turned out to be Eupatorium capillifolium, commonly called dog fennel. He was lucky he only ate a small amount, because the plant contains a liver-damaging alkaloid toxin, pyrrolizidine, which can be poisonous if consumed in a large quantity.
While Fortu was learning wildcraft, he was working as a sous chef at District Winery in Navy Yard. Part of his job was to oversee purchasing ingredients for the kitchen. He noticed most wild products were coming from the West Coast or were imported. There was a smattering of locally foraged products, mostly mushrooms, coming from an informal patchwork of suppliers. “I saw there was huge potential to sell local mushrooms and many other different items that grow around here,” he says. “High-end restaurants are always looking for very specific wild goods or just new stuff that they don’t know grows around here.”
The burgeoning forager founded Arcadia Venture at the end of 2018 and officially launched early the following year. It’s mostly a solo endeavor, though he gets some help from his childhood friend and former Chantilly Academy classmate Gabriel Concordia. The name comes from the region in Greece on the southern peninsula, which myth claims was the home of the Greek god of nature, Pan. “I wanted to emphasize the idea of wild,” Fortu says.
He was his own first client, selling his goods to District Winery. Word of mouth got the venture of the ground. Soon chef Johnny Spero at Reverie was using his finds and posting about them on social media. That started off a chain reaction. Now he provides foraged goods to a number of D.C. area restaurants, as well as to home cooks through Anxo’s market. Occasionally, he cooks dinners highlighting hyper-seasonal, local ingredients. He even co-hosted a cicada cooking class with an entomologist for WAMU. (Disclaimer: Neither this writer nor any member of the DCist editorial team was involved in the planning of the event.)
Fortu hopes to get his foraged products into some local, independent markets in the coming months, and to sell to more restaurants. However, he’s taking his expansion slowly. “I’m very careful about growing organically rather than all at once,” he says. “I can’t have a hundred different restaurants in D.C. ordering from me. After all, it’s just me out there.”
(As published on dcist, photo courtesy of David Bokuchava through Shutterstock)