Author Hank Shaw on foraging, cooking and his upcoming appearance at Boulder's Black Cat
Unless you count pork fat for sausages, Hank Shaw -- author of the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and recently published book Hunt, Gather, Cook -- hasn't bought a single scrap of meat since 2005.
To gather food, he forages, angles for his fish, hunts game for his meat and gathers plants for produce. "I spend less than $25 a week on groceries," he boasts. "And that's including beer."
It's a path he's been on since 2002 when, while working as a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he told co-worker Chris Niskanen about the year he'd spent living only off of fish he caught himself on Long Island. "Chris said, 'Oh, yeah, you could do that on land, too. But you'd have to hunt,'" recalls Shaw, who, at the age of 32, took on that very challenge. "I grew up in suburban New Jersey. I never met a hunter until I was 24, but I've been a forager since I was a little boy and an angler since I was a little boy. If you want to complete the wild food triad, you need game."
And Shaw wanted to complete the triad partially for the connection to nature and where food is raised and partially because he wanted to explore new flavor combinations in his own cooking. "If you cook for a certain amount of time, you get a sense that everything's already been done," he says. "If you're looking to do something new and interesting, wild food is your best bet. It's also inherently seasonal. For me as a cook, it made perfect sense for me to combine something I'd been doing for my entire life with my cooking passion."
Nearly a decade later, Shaw has relocated to northern California, and he's been documenting his activities collecting and cooking food on a blog since 2007, covering everything from plants to fish to game. But sometime along the way, he realized that readers seeking to mimic him needed a little guidance. "I get hundreds of emails from readers that are looking for help," he says. "They have this thirst for knowledge of wild food that dovetails with a widespread rejection of factory farming. We're the only animal on the planet that can't feed ourselves without the help of the supermarket, and there's something molecularly wrong with that. People are starting to become aware of it. People want something real. They want to know where their food comes from. They want to be able to go and get it themselves."
In order to give back, Shaw decided to write a book. "It's a food-based primer on foraging, hunting and fishing," he explains. "It answers questions that I've been answering for four years now."
His goal, he says, was to help every willing person integrate wild foods into their lives. And that meant starting at the beginning. "If you didn't start hunting as a kid, hunting seems like an opaque, weird practice that people do who aren't you," he says. "I came at it really from a blank slate. I'm about adding foraging, fishing and hunting into an otherwise normal life. I want to help people grab a slice of the wild."
And figure out to do with their newly gathered ingredients after they have them. "This is as much a cookbook as it is a guidebook," he explains. "Wild food books are fantastic at getting you the product, but the quality of cooking in them is terrible. I wanted to give people both."
To promote his work, Shaw has been traveling the country on a book tour since May, though he hasn't been merely posting up at tables and signing autographs. Rather, he's collaborated with chefs from restaurants all over the country to create fresh, local, seasonal and wild meals that illustrate his points. "Dinners are my way of putting into practice what are the possibilities in any given region," he says. "I've been heavily influenced by the cookbook from Noma [Rene Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant that, for the past two years, has been the best restaurant in the world, according to S. Pellegrino] and its hyper-local, hyper-seasonal approach. I challenge chefs to create menus that are unrepeatable in other places -- and will be unrepeatable even in the same restaurant in three weeks."
In Boulder, the author is working with Erik Skokan at Black Cat, which he chose for the chef's focus as well as the accessibility of the prices. "Foraging is not necessarily an elite, high-end experience," he says. "I've done some dinners at Michelin-starred restaurants on this tour. But it's equally important to me to do events at places that do more rustic cooking -- places I could afford as a diner."
Shaw emphasizes, though, that he won't actually be in the kitchen cooking -- and that it's ultimately up to the chef to create the menu. "I'm a good cook, and I can hold my own in a restaurant kitchen," he says. "But I've never run a kitchen. It's more important for me to convey what I do versus being the guy who's serving the food. I want the chef to shine -- every menu is a collaboration between what I do and the chef. Dinner not just about me -- it's about the food."
And the possibilities in Colorado excite him, he says, because of the abundance of game, the unique climate of the Rockies and a number of plants only found here: "Colorado's got some unbelievable ingredients," he notes.
After his tour ends, Shaw hopes foraging continues to spread in restaurants. "I'm seeing people using foraged goods around the edges," he says. "I'm starting to see places seek out local, wild fish that are not the glamor fish. It's not uncommon to see something that is inherently Michigan in Michigan, for instance. But if you want to do what Noma does, you the cook has to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the plants of your area. The level of expertise with some of these marginal ingredients is incredible."
But chefs, he thinks, will continue to jump on board. "First of all, it's trendy," he says. "But beyond that, using wild ingredients is the only way to make a dish that is truly new and unique. That's every chef's dream. And this is the only uncharted territory left."
The four-course dinner at Black Cat takes place on Tuesday, November 1 and costs $65 per person (plus $25 for an optional wine flight). To make reservations, call the restaurant at 303-444-5500.
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