Outdoor Table Talk

A Modern Carnivore’s Quest to Preserve Sustainable Eating

Chef Lukas Leaf is an acting chef at Modern Carnivore, and formerly the executive chef at Al Vento in Minneapolis. Growing up in Aitkin, Minnesota, his father instilled in him a deep respect for nature. Today, he’s an avid outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman and forager who loves using local, seasonal, sustainable and wild ingredients wherever possible.

Nexgrill caught up with Chef Lukas to chat about his passion for sustainable eating practices, mushroom foraging, and of course, grilling.

NG: Thanks for taking some time for us today, Chef. Tell us, how did you get into foraging?

LL: Before I got into the outdoor non-profit work that I do now, I was a chef for a long time. I always spent a lot of time outdoors fishing and stuff with my dad, but the foraging thing really came into play while I was at this restaurant.

It was called Al Vento—kind of like a cross between fine dining and bistro-style Mediterranean-Italian. I ended up working as the chef there for quite some time, getting to experiment with whatever ingredients I wanted to.

That’s when I began thinking about incorporating obscure ingredients into my dishes, and ultimately going out and finding them for myself.

NG: Take us back to your first time foraging. What was it like?

LL: I started going out in my mid-twenties. Just kind of here and there. Learning. Buying books. Educating myself.

I really got hard into it in the last 4 or 5 years, when I was actually spending hours out there, taking days off, walking around in the woods by myself to get stuff to use at the restaurant, or to store and keep for myself, or to introduce friends and family to.

It’s a hobby more than anything else now.

"It’s just like with hunting or fishing or a good meal. The look on someone’s face when they find something, they’re like—‘Oh, okay! Now I get it.’"

NG: Do you generally go out foraging alone or do you bring people along?

LL: I mean, I definitely do both.

Being able to go out by yourself is always a great thing to do. It’s a relief from the regular stresses of life. You kind of get to reboot your batteries, I suppose. You connect and just kind of walk and think. I think that’s one of my favorite parts.

Bringing people out I think is equally beneficial and satisfying because you’re getting to show people something new. It’s just like with hunting or fishing or a good meal. The look on someone’s face when they find something: they’re like, “Oh, okay! Now I get it.” You can kind of see the passion spark in their eye.

NG: You’re currently one of the acting chefs at Modern Carnivore. What do you guys do over there?

LL: The idea is to introduce people to healthy, sustainable meat and how to go about sourcing it. We don’t just take people out hunting and fishing, we also educate them on sourcing food from the wild, and show them how to bridge the gap that makes self-sustainability so daunting.

At its core, we take people out and show them how to properly prepare a wild game meal.

NG: Most people get their food from the supermarket. How do you convince someone that it’s better to search for food in the outdoors?

LL: My argument would be that if you’re doing it properly, you’re sourcing a very healthy, sustainable, lean source of food—especially with mushrooms and meat—that you actually can’t get at the supermarket.

On top of that, being self-sustainable is a really good skill to know. It’s something that’s lost on society these days. It hasn’t been that long since this was a regular way of life. Hunting, fishing, foraging, growing your food. They all go hand in hand.

NG: Have you ever eaten a bad mushroom?

LL: [Laughs] Fortunately, no, I haven’t had a bad experience with a mushroom.

NG: Does that make you lucky? Or are the poisonous ones easy to avoid?

LL: I’ve studied up enough to where I focus on 5-10 different species depending on the time of the year. The majority of them don’t have crazy-deadly lookalikes.

NG: How does someone interested in foraging get started? Any tips or resources you’d recommend for beginners?

LL: Yeah, for sure! I’d recommend looking into your local mycological society. A lot of colleges do stuff like that. You can sometimes find groups that take people out on these seasonal forays, as they’re called… educational tours where they’ll bring people out and show them mushrooms—what they are—how to identify them. That’s a really good tool, for sure.

Looking things up on the internet is always good, too. Finding visuals is the biggest thing.

Your best bet is probably finding someone you know that forages regularly. You can just pick their brain and ask them to take you out.

NG: Shameless plug time. You’re the proud owner of a Nexgrill Fortress. Will it be coming with on any adventures you have planned?

LL: [Laughs] I mean, you really can’t beat the portability, clean-up is easy, and it’s affordable, which is always good. It’s a great little grill. It’ll absolutely be coming along.

When you’re doing the longer, slower grill preparations, it gives you more time to build camaraderie and hang out.

NG: How about grilling? What are your favorite foods to cook up on your Nexgrill?

LL: That’s a tough one to answer.

I think it changes based on the season and what the group is in the mood for. I think slow-cooking and smoking are probably my favorite things to do when it comes to grilling. Everyone can go out and do the steak and burger thing but… A good way for me to put it is the tougher preparations—the obscure stuff—that’s what I enjoy doing the most.

Plus, when someone’s doing steaks or chicken wings or burgers, you end up having to stand there and man the grill. When you’re doing the longer, slower grill preparations, it gives you more time to build camaraderie and hang out.

NG: When you’re not foraging or grilling, how do you spend your free time?

LL: It really depends. In the past 6 months, I’ve been bringing family up to the Boundary Waters area in Northern Minnesota on fishing and hunting trips. I guess it’s been seven or so times in the past six months. Pretty large trips, too.

I also help guide media and journalist trips. We’re essentially bringing people in to educate them on the space we’re trying to protect.

NG: What’s the last trip you went on?

LL: I brought my wife up to the Boundary Waters. We stayed at a friend’s lodge and outfitter up north of Grand Marais, Minnesota and did some hiking. Got her in a canoe for some fishing for a little bit, which was unsuccessful, but it was still a lot of fun. We were up there for a few days.

Now it’s hunting season. I’ll be heading out with a buddy this weekend. Once that’s done, it’s on to ice fishing.

NG: Any new adventures planned or in the works?

LL: Gosh, there’s always an adventure.

My dad and I pulled a permanent fish house out on to Mille Lacs Lake, which is one of the largest lakes we have here in Minnesota, so that’ll be this winter. But I always plan a couple ice fishing trips up in the Boundary Waters with one of my good buddies that lives up there, and we go in and winter camp for a couple of nights. Those are probably the two main adventures coming up.

And of course I’ll be out hunting here and there for the next few months, but nothing crazy.

Visit sportsmenfortheboundarywaters.org to learn how you can help preserve the lakes and forests of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.

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