Iso Rabins, founder of forageSF believes in enjoying food the old fashioned way.
The avid forager regularly combs the streets, coastlines and countryside in and around San Francisco searching for fresh, flavorful and wild foods. However, as a cook, entrepreneur and food advocate, Rabins is also something of a pioneer. In just six short years he has developed the city’s first foraged food delivery service, started a highly popular roving underground supper club, and his formerly under-the-radar Batch Made Market events are now the talk of the town.
In the midst of it all, Rabins is well on his way to opening Forage Kitchen, an innovative shared kitchen and incubator space for fellow food entrepreneurs.
Tell us about your first experience with foraging. What made you fall in love with this approach to food?
“I first became interested in foraging when I moved to California. I met some friends of my sister who were professional mushroom foragers, and was amazed that someone actually did that for a living. I started going out with them, then became interested in all means of wild edibles.
It really opens your eyes to your environment when you realize that most of the plants you’re looking at are edible.”
Some might be hesitant to feast on produce that hasn’t been grown in typical gardens or greenhouses. How would you sell someone on the benefits of foraging?
“I would say that foraging and eating foraged foods really gives you a different relationship with the food you’re eating, and the place you live. When eating mushrooms, or fish, or wild boar that you actually went out and got yourself, the experience is worlds away from going to the supermarket and buying some saran-wrapped steak from who knows where.
“It becomes more than just sustenance, but a deeper experience.”
Most people don’t think of cities and dense urban areas as teeming with wild edibles. What sorts of plants do you regularly harvest within city limits?
“Mostly greens and wild flowers in the city. I’ve also collected snails, eucalyptus leaves and bay leaves. There’s a lot you can eat in urban parks.”
ForageSF now includes several offshoot projects like the Batch Made Market and the Wild Kitchen. What is the core mission of your organization?
“The mission of our organization is to connect people with their environment and each other through food. Whether that’s knowing the parks and mountains around where you live better, eating with your neighbors, or knowing the cook who made your brownies, it’s all connected.”
Your movement was largely underground before local authorities stepped in and required permits and licenses. Have you found a way to accomplish your goals within the system, or do you feel it hinders you as a forager and local food advocate?
“I’m of a split mind on this. I obviously don’t like the added oversight, the cost of pulling permits, etc., and it has hindered my creativity, especially with events. It’s hard to organize something interesting when the city wants so much money up front.
“With that said, everyone has to grow up sometime. I feel that this new chapter is just forcing me to think of projects in a new way, and create larger, more lasting institutions rather than one-off events.”
In addition to operating within legal limits, what are some of the other barriers food entrepreneurs typically face?
“I think the lack of organized support is a large hindrance for food makers. Everyone is out there alone re-creating the wheel, and there is no place where folks can work together to help everyone get better. That is why I am creating Forage Kitchen, to create a home for folks starting food businesses, a nucleus that people can come to for help and support.”
What is your vision for the Forage Kitchen? How far are you from making this cooperative cooking space a reality?
“Forage Kitchen will be a co-working space for food, and a home for food makers. It will have shared kitchen space, office space, classes, beer brewing, basically a space for people starting food businesses, but also anyone interested in making/collaborating around food.
“We are getting very close to locking down a space in Oakland. It has been a long road trying to find the right location, but I think we’re close now.”
As foraging becomes more and more popular, especially in the Bay Area, do you feel overharvesting might become an issue?
“I haven’t personally seen it. I think that the number of people who actually go out and forage is much lower than the number of people interested in coming to dinners or taking classes. On top of that, folks who do take the time to get the knowledge and get out there are generally very aware of respecting the environment and foraging sustainably.”
Foragers can be famously secretive about their favorite spots. Are there some you keep just to yourself?
“Yeah, I have spots I don’t talk about, but I generally share more than the average forager. There’s enough to go around.”
Any tips for those interested in foraging who aren’t able to attend one of your classes?
“I’d say either find someone you know with knowledge, or get a good book. Take the book out and just try to identify as many things as you can. You’ll learn what’s good and what’s not.”
How can people get involved with forageSF’s?
“Sign up on our email list at forageSF.com, we send out info about all our events and goings on there. If you’d like to volunteer you can sign up there, too. We’re always looking for folks to help out.”