Wild Man Iso Rabins: A New Food Entrepreneur

by Sarah Henry on May 21, 2010 · 53 comments

in civil eats,farmers' markets,food businesses,food events,food foraging,food organizations

Have been mulling over just what to say about forageSF founder Iso Rabins ever since I attended one of his underground dinners back in February.

The meal was a big hit and, as billed, featured plenty of wild foods plucked from local woods, parks, and seas to keep a trend-spotting foodista happy.

Plus my galpal and I felt vaguely au courant showing up for supper at an unknown Folsom Street location.

We shared a communal table with a gay couple who sung the praises of their forageSF CSA box, Asian-American friends from the outer SF neighborhoods in search of something a little edgier to celebrate Chinese New Year, and canners and jammers from Pacific Heights, of all places. Go figure.

And, as previously noted, the wild mushroom ice cream, rocked. Seriously.

In a relatively short amount of time, Rabins has developed a devoted culinary cult following for his off-the-grid, gourmet venture, which includes a CSA box (correction: Rabins calls it a “CSF” as in Community Supported Forage) filled with gleaned goodies such as miner’s lettuce, ramps, and nettles, secret seasonal feasts like the one I attended, and local wild food walks. Rabins says he hopes his foraging forays help city folks get in touch with the wider, wilder world. A worthy goal, for sure.

Rabins is also the driving force behind another clandestine city culinary event, the Underground Farmers Market, a monthly meet held in San Francisco’s Mission District that exudes more of a party vibe than a venue for earnest produce lovers  — with long lines snaking around the block filled with inner-city, health-conscious hipsters in search of pork belly buns (Rabins specialty), baked goods, homebrews, pickles, and preserves, all for sale by DIY home cooks.

Stephanie Rosenbaum did a nice job conveying the scene in a post for Bay Area Bites. (This writer did swing by a recent farmers’ market but didn’t queue to get in. I gather since the market moved to a bigger space, the crowd control issues are a thing of the past.)

Vendors happily flog their foodstuffs sans city approval or permits — which can prove prohibitive for urban-homesteading types trying their hand selling on a small scale. (Rabins does his own, informal quality control, tasting every item for sale.)

The frequently plaid-clad Iso Rabins is a king of inner-city cool and in high demand in culinary circles. He writes an occasional column for CHOW, speaks at food panels like a recent Kitchen Table Talks, and gathers lots of press for his projects.

His events typically sell out, and when he’s not foraging, cooking, or penning posts for cyberspace, he’s contemplating the contents of a book project about bringing wild food recipes to urban home cooks.

What most impresses me about Rabins is his quiet intention to make a living out of doing what he loves. He’s the sole proprietor of forageSF and while he’s hardly bringing in the big bucks — he tells me he’s now able to pay the rent without stress each month for the first time in a while — he’s doing what all those corporate big shots suggest: Building his brand, diversifying his portfolio, and expanding his franchise (an underground market is set to open in the East Bay in June).

His advice? “Just go for it, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to move back in with your parents,” says the 28-year-old aspiring chef, who has done time toiling in brick-and-mortar restaurants. “Beyond that, think of something that you wouldn’t mind doing seven days a week for a year, and craft your business around that. If you enjoy doing it, you’ll keep doing it, even if money doesn’t come in immediately. Sooner or later it will support you.”

Hmmm. That’s the kind of advice we writers — the ones caught between the demise of the dead-tree-media and the advent of the don’t-pay-media — may do well to follow.

Rabins is one of the budding new food entrepreneurs buzzing around the Bay Area, reinventing how to build a culinary career in these post-recession, social-media savvy times. I’ve profiled two high-end confectionery makers who found their sweet spot in the marketplace while holding onto demanding day jobs. I’ve also showcased a successful non-profit cooking program for kids run by a recent graduate. Future posts will highlight other Bay Area edible entrepreneurs finding creative ways to pursue culinary work in a crowded and competitive field.

If you’re local, don’t just take my word for it, you can get a taste of Rabins’ foraging finds by attending a Wild Kitchen feast (tonight’s secret supper is sold out) but check out previous underground eats and sign up for email invites for future events.

Or take a wild walk (an amble, really) in San Francisco or the East Bay. I attended a recent such meet-up in a modest park in Oakland led by a gregarious guide who goes by the moniker FeralKevin. The guy knows how to glean goodies like nobody’s business and was full of handy tips about how to incorporate wild weeds into home cooking.

Find out when the next SF underground market is slated by becoming a member. (To date, the city’s health department has given forageSF room to grow by making market goers sign up for his “club,” though Rabins suspects it’s a matter of time before he gets cited.)

What say you, readers? Share your thoughts about taking a walk on the wild side below.

This post also appears on Civil Eats.

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa May 21, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Wow-
Thanks for bringing the foraging scene to my attention. I have been in love with the idea of foraging since Euell Gibbons was stalking the wild asparagus. I remember eating wild mild weed pods and making violet jelly back in the day.

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Lisa May 21, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Oops – I meant milkweed pods.

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Sarah Henry May 21, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Hey Lisa, Great to see you here — and to read your reflections about gleaning days gone by and the wild mild weed pods…(milkweed pods).

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Alexandra May 22, 2010 at 3:44 am

We have a New England forager, as well. Only he has an environmental job and only does foraging work and events on weekends. It’s his passion, too. Thanks for writing about Iso Rabins. I did not know foraging was quite so organized on the West Coast.

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Sarah Henry May 22, 2010 at 9:45 am

Good to know that gleaning thrives on both coasts, Alexandra. Okay, land-locked lovers, tell us about your wild ways.

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MarthaAndMe May 22, 2010 at 4:47 am

My parents were big Euell Gibbons fans – I was fed seaweed while in Maine with them. I didn’t know about this foraging scene, but it sounds fascinating!

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Sarah Henry May 22, 2010 at 9:48 am

Why I love my readers: They’re better read than me. Thanks to both Lisa and Martha I now know about Euell Gibbons, a wild food icon from the 1970s who promoted the nutritious benefits of many neglected plants.

The asparagus stalker sounds like a character, too, quite the wild party man.

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Susan May 22, 2010 at 7:23 am

Wow – sounds like you have a very cool food & foraging scene in San Fran! It’s interesting that Alexandra has noticed this phenomenon on the East Coast as well. It’s great that Iso is pursuing his passion and paying his rent, too. I can relate because going full-time freelance took a leap of faith on my part, but it was totally worth it!

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Sarah Henry May 22, 2010 at 9:50 am

Good for you, Susan. Here’s to freelancing and foraging — as well as pursuing your passion and paying the rent.

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey May 22, 2010 at 10:07 am

Talk about an original. An interesting read.
~Meredith

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Sarah Henry May 22, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Exactly, M.

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Iso Rabins May 22, 2010 at 10:49 am

Thanks Sarah, great piece!
Iso

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Sarah Henry May 22, 2010 at 12:37 pm

My pleasure, Iso. And thank you for sharing your passion for wild foods with folks both near and far.

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Alisa Bowman May 22, 2010 at 11:53 am

“Just go for it, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to move back in with your parents,” says the 28-year-old aspiring chef, who has done time toiling in brick-and-mortar restaurants. “Beyond that, think of something that you wouldn’t mind doing seven days a week for a year, and craft your business around that. If you enjoy doing it, you’ll keep doing it, even if money doesn’t come in immediately. Sooner or later it will support you.”

I loved that quote so much that I read it three times.

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Sarah Henry May 22, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I know, Alisa, me too. I think it speaks to a lot of people at different stages of life.

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Katherine May 22, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Oooh, wild mushroom ice cream? I want to see more about that — anything that combines salty and sweet is alright by me.

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Sarah Henry May 22, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Hi Katherine,

The candy cap mushroom ice cream had a maple-syrup like taste and perfume.
Sweet and delicate, yet woodsy and wild. And, um, yum.

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Frugal Kiwi May 23, 2010 at 10:33 am

I love stories about wild foods! Of course, to our ancestors, that stuff was just food.

There is a big Wild Food Festival every year in NZ down in Hokitika in the South Island. I haven’t been able to make it, but it is a great place to try all sorts of odd foods. Think huhu grubs, wasp larvae ice cream, pukeko bird and tamer items like wild boar, snails and whitebait. http://www.wildfoods.co.nz/

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Sarah Henry May 23, 2010 at 11:27 am

Foraging in NZ sounds fabulous, Felted Kiwi. Love the idea of a wild food fest, too. Great insider travel tip!

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Sheryl May 24, 2010 at 7:06 am

I must admit that this is all new to me. Sounds fascinating. You got me with the wild mushroom ice cream – would never imagine it could be good, but I’ll bet it is.

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Sarah Henry May 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Trust me, Sheryl, it truly is.

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Kirsty May 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Thanks Sarah. I’d like to know more about the sustainability side of foraging (if there is indeed one). Taking from nature is one thing, giving back is another.

Did you happen to talk to Iso about this? I’m curious to learn more about sustainable foraging.
Cheers -
Kirsty

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Sarah Henry May 25, 2010 at 10:46 am

Hi Kirsty, Nice to see you here. I’m going to check in with the experts and let them weigh in on the sustainability question.

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FeralKevin May 25, 2010 at 10:13 am

Sustainability and Foraging? To me they are one and the same as foraging has never been what I can take from nature, a free lunch, or any other exploitive relationship.

A great book to read is Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson. It is understood that the majority of traditional and indigenous foraging cultures, wild food eating hunter/gatherer/ horticulturalists, heavily managed the ecosystems in which they inhabited. Management need not imply an exploitive relationship, as it does often in modern culture.

Foraging itself can be, and often is, ecologically regenerative, which is beyond mere sustainability. However, foraging with a different worldview and lack of appropriate knowledge can be completely unsustainable and ecologically devastating.

I will be posting an article on my website further exploring this topic soon . . .

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Sarah Henry May 25, 2010 at 10:49 am

Hi Kevin, Thanks so much for weighing in on the sustainability front. Your comments make good sense to me and I think should satisfy Kirsty’s query.

Folks who want to read more on this matter should stop by Kevin’s site: http://feralkevin.com/ which offers a wealth of info on his wild edible adventures.

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Kris Bordessa May 25, 2010 at 10:41 am

Wow. Interesting to hear that someone is turning foraging into a business, albeit an underground type of business. I’ve been fascinated by using our edible surrounds for a long time. I’ve done a bit of herbal wildcrafting (harvesting goldenrod and mullein, for example), but not much in the way of edible foods. Dandelions, anyone?

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Sarah Henry May 25, 2010 at 10:51 am

Your herbal wildcrafting/harvesting sounds cool, Kris. I’m a fan of dandelion greens, too — and nettles in pasta, frittata, and on top of pizza.

Curious to hear how you use goldenrod and mullein.

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Sue VanHattum May 26, 2010 at 5:31 am

I came to this blog after reading your article on Civil Eats. I was also concerned about the sustainability issue. I love miner’s lettuce, and the moment I saw that mentioned, I worried that someone who needs to make the rent, and has a whole CSA going from foraging might be tempted to take it all. Feral Kevin weighed in about the ethics. I’d like to hear from Iso, and I’d love to hear more about the on the ground details in regards to sustainability.

I first learned about miner’s lettuce from someone who did a wild edibles walk in Corona Heights, many years ago (before ’95).

Thanks for the fascinating story.

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Sarah Henry May 26, 2010 at 11:38 am

Hi Sue,

Thanks for swinging by after reading this story on Civil Eats.

I’ve asked Iso to chime in but my understanding is that the sustainability concern is sort of a moot point, as Kevin indicates above. As far as neglected native plants are concerned, these weeds do regenerate and it’s not like the landscape is being pillaged of plants in such high volume that it’s dramatically changing the ecosystems of foraged areas.

But if I’m wrong on that score, I’m sure my readers will set me straight.

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Chez Us May 26, 2010 at 11:26 am

I have been wondering about these wild wild dinners. I put them on my list & then I take them off & then put them back on. Guess what? Back on my to-do list. Your post talked me into it. Mushroom ice cream, well, that has to be tried at least once (I have a feeling).

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Sarah Henry May 26, 2010 at 11:40 am

Hi Denise,

Glad to be of service. Enjoy your foraged dinner, whenever you set a date, I don’t think you’ll be sorry. But be forewarned: mushie ice cream isn’t always on the menu.

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FeralKevin May 26, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Don’t get me wrong, Sarah, there are total F*%&heads out there over foraging. One obvious area is seafood, which is mostly foraged. In the oceans, we’re over-foraging so bad that we might destroy the planet.

Another commonly abused one is commercial mushroom foraging. Actually, you can almost guarantee that any time there’s a rural situation or remote wilderness town, combined with a relatively high commercial value of the foragable, you’re going to see some abuse of the land.

So when we foraging instructors say that everyone should know what they are doing, we’re not just talking about accidentally eating a poison plant.

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Sarah Henry May 26, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Good points, Kevin. As with all aspects of life, if there’s a chance for economic gain, someone somewhere is bound to do the wrong thing — in this case by pillaging land and sea rather than acting as stewards of our natural environment.

So I guess one way of reframing this discussion is to ask: Can you be an ethically-sound and environmentally-conscious forager? And, of course: Are there any standards to measure yourself against and who sets them?

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Cheryl May 28, 2010 at 9:03 am

So far as I know, we don’t have underground markets or dinners, or wild food walks, down here in Silicon Valley. I never regretted the lack of such events in this part of the bay since they never occurred to me, but now that I’m enlightened to their existence, I feel a little bummed.

You’ll have to represent me on your next wild excursion.

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Sarah Henry May 28, 2010 at 9:58 am

Will do…or maybe you could start a club down where you are? Lots of mushroom picking potential down your way…bet there’s someone already foraging in them there woods.

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Stephanie - The Culinary Life May 29, 2010 at 12:11 am

Yes! There’s lots of foraging down your way, Cheryl. I’m a member of the Mycological Society of SF, and there’s lots of mushroom folk in your area.

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Stephanie - The Culinary Life May 29, 2010 at 12:10 am

Iso’s a great guy. I’ve met him a few times at events. Question – did his popularity flourish because of forageSF?

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Sarah Henry May 29, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I think the short answer, Steph is: Yes. Iso’s platform, to use a social networking term, has risen as forageSF — essentially his one-man operation — has taken off.

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Suzanne Camarillo May 29, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Wow…Happened upon this thru the Food Democracy Now website…Brings back memories of my foraging days when my children were little…They have children of their own now…They remember brown rice with Lamb’s Quarters (wild spinach) when the budget was tight…And picking mulberries at the local park in No. Hollywood, CA…I once gave a little ‘how-to’ seminar for a church group & prepared a Violet Greens Soup & Rose Petal Jam…I used to collect Jerusalem Artichokes along the roadsides when we moved to Sun Valley, CA…My house in Sun Valley burned down a few years ago, but I still have Lamb’s Quarters, Mustard, Mallow, Mullein, Camomile & Pepper Grass on the lot… I can still gather Jerusalem Artichokes along the roadsides even though I’m back in my hometown of Hollywood, CA now….They’re good with soy sauce & fried like hash browned potatoes…Right now I have wild lettuce in my front yard…I’m sure my neighbors wish I’d pull it out or cut it down.

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Sarah Henry May 29, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Hi Suzanne, Nice to see you here. Love the sound of the bounty on your lot. You could whip up a fabulous foraged feast with all that grows wild on your property.

And it seems you do! Thanks for all the ideas about how to enjoy these often neglected edibles.

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kristen June 4, 2010 at 5:07 pm

I don’t see anything about the East Bay underground foraged food market on his website…. Anyone have more info?

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Sarah Henry June 4, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Hi Kristen, Try following Iso on Twitter — his handle is forageSF — for updates on the underground market both in SF and soon-to-be in the E Bay.

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