Foraging chef Phil Manganaro digs deeper for wild ingredients
The Merchantville, N.J., chef goes on foraging mission to find ingredients for the unconventional takeout menus at Park Place Cafe.
Phil Manganaro doesn’t brave the markets for much of the produce on his menus these days. Ingredient shortages? Something’s always blooming. High prices? His precious haul is always free. Social distance shopping? You could say the chef has taken that to the extreme, with only a big lodge of beavers nearby currently in sight.
“Now that’s the sign of a healthy ecosystem!” says Manganaro, 40, pointing to a mound of sticks and mud near the water’s edge as he strolls the sandy path of a Pine Barrens nature preserve in Evesham Township with his 8-year-old son, Dean.
The two are on one of their regular foraging missions to fuel the unconventional menus at Park Place in Merchantville, the intimate fine-dining BYOB-turned-drive-through, which, unless you’ve been eating fistfuls of greenbrier tips on your sandwiches or rigatoni in a “spring sauce” of pureed mugwort, is unlike any takeout you’ve sampled during this pandemic.
The forays have become a treasured routine for father and son to bond after Dean’s morning home-schooling. For hours they roam the outdoors reenacting scenes from Dean’s favorite Godzilla movies. The wild edibles they hunt along the way grace almost every item of the restaurant’s ever-changing, now sandwich-centric menu, from the tiny black locust flowers that cascade over the duck confit sandwich drizzled with black locust honey to the wild violet greens and grated mustard root cream that spark fried chicken thighs on a house-baked sesame bun. In all, 27 wild ingredients were included on one of Manganaro’s most recent menus, from the beach plum jam-glazed suckling pig sandwich to the ice cream infused with blue spruce tips.
“Foraging is fun,” says Dean, draped over his father’s shoulder so they can both peer at me through FaceTime as I tag along for their walk. “He’s gotten good at this,” says his dad with a wink.
Anyone who’s followed Park Place over the past few years knows Manganaro has long been an avid forager who takes pride in incorporating wild ingredients into his cooking, a range of natural wonders he’s learned through study, mentors and firsthand experience: “I have never served anything I haven’t eaten multiple times myself,” he said.
That includes various mushrooms, berries and greens but also less common things. Like ocean water from the Jersey Shore he evaporates into flaky sea salt, or the Long Beach Island seaweed he crumbles over crudos, sometimes with pickled local tupelo berries. He also boils down red maple sap each spring into a syrup that gets drizzled over warm crêpes stuffed with foie gras and shaved truffles. Or at least he used to cook such luxuries until his 30-seat dining room was shut down along with the rest of the region’s restaurants in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like many chefs, Manganaro’s first instinct was to cook simple comfort foods like burgers, lasagna and fried fish sandwiches to keep the customers coming. But he found it unsatisfying, and quickly returned toward the more adventurous offerings he’s known for (“tongues of fun” was a lard-seared nod to his love of offal; venison burgers with pickled chanterelles). And he doubled down on incorporating even more wild food elements to his menus, which have a new takeout-friendly sandwich focus that hovers around $17 a weekly pasta option, sometimes with Calabrian-braised short ribs, at $23.
His loyal customers have responded, phoning their orders into the hotline to claim one of the 72 time slots for pick up Thursday through Saturday shortly after he posts the menus on Instagram each Sunday night. There is no credit card option (of course), so customers show up with envelopes of cash or checks waiting in the tailgate for easy exchange when masked manager Josh Dombrowki promptly brings the food out to deposit in their cars.
With the cost of his proteins and other non-foraged staples skyrocketing due to market forces (“it cost me $65 to buy 15 dozen eggs the other day; in early March it was $17”) the foraging push also made financial sense.
“Last week I picked about 100 pounds between the greens and ramps,” says Manganaro. “I’m saving myself about $500 by doing this every week, which adds-up to $2,000 a month. There’s economic value in doing this now.”
Manganaro also happens to be an iconoclast who thrives on the challenge of self-reliance. A veteran of several large Starr restaurants, he has cooked solo for years now at Park Place, where he makes everything from the breads and pasta and buttermilk in a kitchen whose walls are covered with recipes (“I got tired of recipe books.”). Foraging only deepens that personal touch.
“It’s hard for me not to push myself as a person,” says the self-professed perfectionist. “But I also find that I have a greater connection with my ingredients when I find them myself, watch them grow, and process them in my kitchen.”
He says this as he stops beneath an American persimmon tree, which is still in leaf stage. He’ll be back in November when the sweet orange fruit is ripe. The tiny flowering huckleberries he sees will be on the menu in July when he’s ready to make jam for frogs’ legs. But today’s walk has already been productive. We’ve gone barely a quarter mile into the preserve and there has been so much bounty to gather, it’s as if we’re strolling through a market of wonders that define the terroir of this unique South Jersey landscape.
There’s the sassafras root he blends with dandelion greens, fresh juniper and chaga, a gnarly black mushroom used for color, to create a deliciously herbal natural root beer. He reaches high into some branches for clusters of winged sumac whose granules, once processed, look like crimson sugar but deliver an acidic tang. There’s a carpet of wintergreen poking green out from beneath some oak leaves that are to be steeped for their minty essence.
He shows me the sweet ferns whose earthy, lemony oregano scent he favors for marinating meats. There are also the fox grapes to be fermented into tangy verjus in his annex pantry at Camp Creek Run, the Marlton camp nearby owned by his friend Keara Gionotti, where he sorts and cleans his harvest and keeps a “stinky” larder fridge packed with a year’s worth of pickled ramps, cherry blossoms, mustard flowers, and black walnuts.
Also, this being the Pine Barrens, there’s a wealth of pitch pine needles he turns to ash to help cure “forest fire” salmon for a sandwich topped with triple crème cheese and lightly dressed spring beauty greens that crunch like hearty sunflower sprouts.
We come across the mugwort that goes into the “spring sauce,” a vibrant green puree blended with strawberry greens, stinging nettles, ramps and oil infused with juniper and white pine that coats his rigatoni with seared shrimp. The mugwort, whose flavor Manganaro describes as a cross between mint, oregano, and fennel, is something he also favors for marinating game. It’s an invasive species that he says is good to rip out, “because they kill the native plants.”
Unfortunately, there were no mushrooms on today’s path since the morels disappeared recently, though he sometimes also finds chanterelles, black trumpets, and chicken of the woods here, too.
“Foraging is almost like playing the stock market. You can find 50 pounds of mushrooms one day and nothing the next. But it’s also like being a wild farmer if you pay close attention. ...There’s asparagus around here, too, though it’s more ‘escaped’ on the wind from peoples’ gardens and farms than it is wild."
But one crop he knew would be plentiful was the greenbrier, a woody smilax vine with glossy green leaves whose tender new sprouts taste like lemony asparagus, which Manganaro sometimes pickles, but this week he would serve raw as a salad bundled over a breaded veal cutlet sandwich glossed with fresh mayonnaise.
He snaps them off one by one from a hedgerow that stretches for hundreds of feet as an impenetrable edge alongside the forest knowing this native plant will regenerate new sprouts in a few weeks. Of course, the rest of these vines sprout fierce spikes along their stems that would keep most normal visitors to this nature walk at a distance. It’s a lesson Manganaro learned the hard way as a local kid, when he used to ride his bike through these woods and get all cut up in the brambles. He was just about Dean’s age then, in fact.
“It’s fascinating to come back as an adult and see the forest differently,” he says, now enlightened to the greenbrier’s true potential.
With the late morning sunshine gilding their shoulders, Manganaro takes his son’s hand, and the two walk on.